Andy McKee's Creative Spirit

When GP first interviewed Andy McKee (April ’09), he was riding the wave of an unprecedented YouTube explosion, due, in large part, to his visually intriguing, two-handed percussive approach to playing solo acoustic.
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When GP first interviewed Andy McKee (April ’09), he was riding the wave of an unprecedented YouTube explosion, due, in large part, to his visually intriguing, two-handed percussive approach to playing solo acoustic. He has since solidified his stature as one of the premier acoustic players on the planet.

His Guitar Masters tour is essentially an acoustic take on Joe Satriani’s G3 concept, and at the sold-out Guitar Player Presents show with McKee, Antoine Dufour, and harp-guitar maestro Stephen Bennett at San Francisco’s Great American Music Hall in 2012, something truly remarkable took place: The three finished, the house lights came on, and everybody stayed. The historic ballroom was packed with zealous players eager to meet their acoustic heroes—especially mastermind McKee.

Even Prince got caught up in McKee-mania. He invited McKee to Paisley Park to jam, and then tour with him for nine shows in Australia (where McKee was integrated into Prince’s band for a mini set). The Prince shows followed McKee’s stint opening for Dream Theater in Japan. The kid from Kansas had become a bona fide international guitar ambassador.

After laying low last year, McKee has reemerged with his first new studio cuts since 2010’s Joyland—an EP entitled Mythmaker. It’s the first release on his new label of the same name, which he plans to use for other artists as well. On Mythmaker’s four songs, McKee delivers solo-acoustic performances on a baritone and a jumbo, as well as a solo piano ballad, and his first-ever electric guitar solo on record.

Was there a significant change in your approach to creating music on Mythmaker?

My attitude has changed. I still enjoy coming up with new stuff when I can—or when the music requires it—but I don’t try too hard to come up with difficult new techniques just to do it. With this EP, I wanted to bring the music back to melodic ideas and emotional experiences. That became my focus, because now there are new players coming up to push the technical frontier. Over the past year, I stopped touring so much to turn my attention on having another kid, and to work on new music. I tried not to force things, and I just let it happen more naturally.

How did you record the new EP?

I recorded in my home studio using a couple of condenser microphones—a Mojave Audio MA-200 and a Lauten Audio ST-221 Torch—into Apple Logic Pro on a desktop Mac. I set the Torch small-diaphragm condenser right by the fretboard near the neck joint, and I placed the large-diaphragm MA-200 away from the guitar in the room to capture ambience. I used some of Logic’s built-in plug-ins for equalization and to add a bit of reverb. Pretty simple.

Your new EP starts with a traditional-sounding solo-acoustic song, “The Reason.” What inspired it?

That tune is dedicated to my two sons. I always felt like music was my reason for being on the planet, but having kids gave me a whole new reason. I love being a dad. The song has two parts. The sweet melody at the beginning represents having a new baby, and when the song becomes more playful, that’s like later when you start having pillow fights.

What guitar did you use?

It’s a Greenfield G4.2—a cutaway jumbo with a spruce top and Macassar ebony back and sides. It’s tonally similar to rosewood. I actually have two of those now. They both have the Novax Fanned Fret fretboard, but I used the one with a reduced degree of fretboard fan on the recording, because Michael [Greenfield] felt it would improve intonation. Also, it doesn’t have a sound port on the top side. I had him remove that, because sometimes it was a source of feedback onstage.

What’s the tuning on “The Reason?”

Low to high, it’s E, B, D#, F#, B, D#. I used it before on a song I wrote back around 2004 called “Nakagawa-san”—which was dedicated to Isato Nakagawa. It’s an Emaj9. I love altered tunings, because I’ve always been fascinated with chords. This tuning has the 9 on the third string, and two major 7s that make it very beautiful and perfect for a song about my kids.

Can you sum up your plucking-hand action?

My technique on “The Reason” is more inspired by players like Leo Kottke and Lindsey Buckingham than, say, Michael Hedges, Preston Reed, or Don Ross. It’s more traditional— especially the Travis picking on the second part. I use my thumb for the alternating bass, and pluck out the melody with my fingers.

I saw a video of you playing that song, and your thumbnail appeared too good to be real.

Actually, I am using a false nail on my right thumb. I used to just grow out my thumbnail, but it seems to be getting weaker. It breaks, so these days, I put a false plastic nail on with some nail glue out of a kit.

What does “Mythmaker” mean to you?

“Mythmaker” was inspired by the human creative spirit, and it is an homage to anyone who is creative with their time. Creativity is crucial, and it opens the mind to new possibilities— no matter what field. That theme became the focus of the EP, really.

Did you record “Mythmaker” on a baritone acoustic?

Yes. Michael Greenfield built me that G4B.2 about a year ago. It has an interesting finish of color-shifting paint that goes from purple to green as the light hits it from different angles. My previous one was Greenfield’s standard baritone, which had more of a dreadnought shape. I’ve always preferred the jumbo shape, so he essentially made me a baritone version of my main acoustic. The baritone has a heavier angle on the fanned frets because of the increased scale length.

How did the baritone facilitate the tune?

I played that song on baritone from the beginning, and in this case, it was the tuning that facilitated the song. That happens a lot, actually. I’ll experiment with a tuning, and pretty soon, a couple of different melodic ideas lead to a song. The “Mythmaker” tuning is another major 9th chord, but this time it’s Amaj9. I messed around with this tuning on a standard guitar, and then transposed it down a fourth to make it work on baritone. It goes: A, E, A, B, E, G#.

What’s your plucking approach for “Mythmaker?”

I use more modern techniques. I flap my thumb against the bottom two strings, which creates a snare drum sort of sound when they hit the frets. I use that a lot, but for “Mythmaker,” I incorporated it more. At one point, I do two of those in a row, and at another point, I do four in a row with a sixteenth- note rhythm. In the past, I’d simply do the thumb flap on every other beat to create a backbeat.

Otherwise “Mythmaker” is mostly fingerpicking. I do some slap harmonics at the end though, and with my left hand I play explosive pull-offs. Michael Hedges is the first player I heard do something like that. It’s almost like strumming with the left hand. You hold a chord, and then pull the entire chord towards the ground using a strum-like motion.

“Lumine” is a lovely baritone-guitar ballad, and it includes an electric guitar solo. Are you sure you’re allowed to do that?

Actually, hearing Eric Johnson’s “Cliffs of Dover” for the first time made me want to start playing guitar in the first place. I decided to add some electric guitar to “Lumine” at the last minute, and I figured a solo would be cool. I grabbed an Ernie Ball/Music Man Luke III and—this is going to sound funny—I dialed up preset #9 on a little Fender G-DEC. It’s called “Phil Collen II, British Steel,” so I presume that’s a Def Leppard sound.

Your electric-guitar style sounds more conventional than your acoustic signature.

Right. I haven’t been able to translate my acoustic techniques to electric guitar very well. I play mostly with a pick—a little Dunlop Jazz III, like Eric Johnson. He and Joe Satriani are huge influences. I even added a bit of whammy bar vibration to the “Lumine” solo.

Do you foresee an “Andy McKee Goes Electric” moment in the future?

I don’t want to limit myself too much, but I definitely see solo-acoustic guitar being a part of what I do pretty much forever. There might be instances where I include a solo-piano piece, and pieces where I play multiple instruments. And I definitely want to do some collaborations with Eric Johnson, John Petrucci, and other players. We’ll see where it all goes.