Andy McKee Reveals How He Rules a Solo Stage

“Tonight, i want to pay tribute to a few guitar heroes,” says Andy McKee during a show presented by GP at Yoshi’s, Oakland, on April 5, “and then I’ll perform some of the YouTube hits that I’ve finally compiled together on Live Book [CGP Sounds].”
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“Tonight, i want to pay tribute to a few guitar heroes,” says Andy McKee during a show presented by GP at Yoshi’s, Oakland, on April 5, “and then I’ll perform some of the YouTube hits that I’ve finally compiled together on Live Book [CGP Sounds].”

It’s interesting to consider that YouTube began replacing radio exposure with social-media hits in 2005, and one of its breakout guitar stars has had enough enduring success to release what is essentially a “live greatest hits” CD. McKee’s studio records have always made for fine listening, but the listener isn’t necessarily aware that he is managing multiple parts simultaneously with no overdubs—or even a looper—so the live record was long overdue. That said, McKee truly must be seen to be fully appreciated. His YouTube hits aren’t staged videos—they are simply shot, real-world performances of a cat from Kansas doing otherworldly things on an acoustic guitar.

McKee’s style is an amalgamation of pre-Internet acoustic icons, including Michael Hedges, Preston Reed, and Billy McLaughlin. While McKee tunes by ear between numbers, he fills the time by providing background information on the songs, and the particular techniques he picked up from each influence. He also touches on aspects of his primary instruments, including his big gun—the harp guitar. In that sense, every McKee show is somewhat of a guitar clinic.

Can you please detail your instruments?

All three are Greenfield guitars—a jumbo, a baritone, and a harp guitar—and they all have Novax Fanned Fret fingerboards. The jumbo is a Greenfield G4.2 cutaway with a spruce top and Macassar ebony back and sides—which sounds similar to rosewood. The G4B.2 is essentially a baritone version of the jumbo made of different back-and-sides woods that I can’t recall, and with a top-paint finish that shifts from purple to green depending on how the light hits it. The baritone has a heavier angle on the fanned frets because of its increased scale length. The harp guitar has a standard 6-string neck with fanned frets, and six sub strings. It’s based on a design by the Dyer Brothers. Michael Greenfield did some customization such as the beveled upper bout, the multi-scale neck, and sharpening levers. They’re cool, because you can raise a string’s pitch a half step with the flick of a switch—just like on a traditional harp. I’m working on a new composition where I incorporate those into the piece to change keys at one point.

What are your signal sources?

There are two K&K Pure Mini pickups in the harp guitar: one for the harp side and one for the standard side. They feed through a single jack in stereo, and then I split the signal into a D-TAR Solstice preamp. Channel 1 is the guitar side, and Channel 2 is the harp guitar side. I EQ them a bit differently, and add some reverb to the guitar side, but not the harp side. I use another D-TAR Solstice preamp for the other guitars. The jumbo goes to Channel 1, and the baritone goes to Channel 2. They both have K&K Pure Mini pickups in them, as well. I formerly used the system that also included a microphone, but I had more feedback issues, and I found that the Pure Mini pickup has a great sound all by itself. I stick with that on the road, and I don’t usually need a feedback buster in the soundhole.

So you do simple equalization in the D-TAR, and let the house engineer worry about dialing out specific feedback frequencies during soundcheck?

Right. I prefer not to have a hole cut into my guitar for preamp controls, and I like to keep things simple. I just boost the bass and treble a little bit on both channels of the top D-TAR box because the jumbo and the baritone are actually quite sonically similar. I bump the treble, and reduce the mids and bass a bit on the D-TAR with the harp guitar. I set the D-TARs the same way every night, and then at soundcheck, I’ll work with the house engineer to find notes that cause feedback in that particular room. I have a chart on my phone corresponding notes to frequencies, so I can communicate in the engineer’s language to dial them out. I also ask the house for a hall reverb with about two seconds of decay.

Speaking of effects, you’re a known user of the ToneWoodAmp acoustic guitar processor. Have you ever tried it onstage?

I’m too afraid to add another component onstage, but I love using it acoustically when I’m backstage, in a hotel, or at home. I typically use the hall reverb with that level set at about 18.

What kind of capos do you use?

I use Shubb’s standard acoustic guitar capo, as well as their banjo capo for partial capoing on tunes such as “Rylnn,” “Shanghai,” and “Away” on the harp guitar.

How about strings?

I use a medium set of Ernie Ball Aluminum Bronze strings on the jumbo. I use almost the same thing for the baritone, except I ditch the highest string—the .013—shift all the others up one slot, and then add a .070-gauge string in the sixth slot. I use a custom Ernie Ball set on the harp guitar. It has such a long scale length that the first ones they sent me wouldn’t even reach the headstock, so they made me some extra-long strings. I use a .070-gauge—just like on the baritone—for the lowest string, and I usually tune it to G. From there, the gauges go up approximately .004 per string, with the highest being .050. I usually tune that one to G, as well, so it’s the same note as playing the third fret of the sixth string on an acoustic in standard tuning. My tuning on the harp guitar changes, but I started out with Stephen Bennett’s harp-guitar tuning, and I still use it as a starting point. Low to high, it goes G, A, B, C, D, G. I use standard tuning on the guitar neck.

What’s your overall set-list strategy?

I try to keep the show as interesting as possible by moving from instrument to instrument, and from tuning to tuning. I’ll start on the baritone, move to the jumbo, and then get out the harp guitar—which I use for specific tunes, because it’s such a unique instrument. I have to consider the tunings in context of the general energy flow from song to song. You don’t want to make drastic tuning changes. You want to make little changes that don’t take too much time.

Also, over the past year or so, I’ve been paying tribute to my guitar inspirations. I’ve had success on the Internet, and a lot of young people have gotten into fingerstyle guitar by seeing me play. They might not have ever heard of Preston Reed, Don Ross, Billy McLaughlin, or even Michael Hedges, so I’m letting people know about them. Preston Reed was the first guy who made me think the acoustic guitar was pretty radical. I’m playing a tune of his called “Tribes” that incorporates a lot of overhand playing on the fingerboard with both hands, as well as tapping percussively all over the body of the instrument. Billy McLaughlin developed the two-hand method of playing melodically with the left hand while playing bass notes on the fingerboard with the right hand. He wound up getting focal dystonia, and losing his ability to play for a while. He is back to playing again now that he’s relearned to do everything the other way around as a left-handed player. Imagine that!

I actually discovered Michael Hedges and the harp guitar in 1997, when I was going through issues of Guitar Player from the ’80s. Hedges was on a cover, and there was a floppy disc inside of him playing “Because It’s There.” I’ll do that one, and probably “Aerial Boundaries” tonight to honor him for popularizing the harp guitar. I’ll do a few of my own tunes as well, such as “Away” from Joyland, perhaps “The Friend I Never Met” from Dreamcatcher, and “Into the Ocean,” which is the first tune I ever wrote on the harp guitar.

You mentioned tuning the harp guitar neck to standard for the start of the show. What are your starting tunings on the jumbo and baritone?

I’ll start with the jumbo in dropped D. I’ve got the baritone tuned up for “Art of Motion,” which I originally wrote on a traditional acoustic, but I’m enjoying playing it on the baritone these days. It’s a C#min11 tuning. Low to high it goes C#, E, G#, D#, F#, B.

Is that the same tuning you use for “Blue Liquid?”

No, that’s also in a C#min11 tuning, but it’s a different voicing that goes C#, E, F#, B, D#, G#. That one has an interesting backstory. I was flying to Portugal, and I’d heard it was a good idea to detune your guitar to take pressure off the neck, so that’s what I did. When I grabbed my guitar in the hotel that night, I happened to strum it openly and it made a beautiful sound. Upon examination, I realized it was a C#min11 chord, and I wrote “Blue Liquid.”

You have an Ernie Ball clip-on tuner attached to the jumbo. Do you tune mostly by ear, and then check your work with the tuner?

I put that on at soundcheck to make sure I was where I needed to be, but during the show I won’t rely on it so much. I’ll tune by ear to relative pitch. I’m sure I’ll be off from A440 about halfway through the night, but that’s one of the benefits of playing solo—it really doesn’t matter.