In November 2006, a guitar teacher by the name of Andy McKee from the quiet plains of Kansas posted a simple video of him playing guitar on YouTube. Twenty million hits later, McKee was a nationally known guitarist as word of his unmatchable guitar skills began to spread like wildfire, generating a fan base nearly overnight. Viewers became mesmerized as he created a one-man band using nothing but his guitar in a method called “fingerstyle guitar.” After catching America’s attention, McKee is now touring, performing live the remarkable skills he presents in his videos.
The Badger Herald: Let’s start with your roots — reading into you, I found you were a bit of a metal head in your youth. What triggered your transition to acoustic freestyle?
Andy McKee: I saw an acoustic guitarist named Preston Reed when I was 16. He was playing in altered tunings and using crazy techniques that I had never encountered before, and I was really impressed by his ability to create rhythmic, melodic and harmonic ideas at once on the guitar. That was pretty much when I decided to really get into the acoustic guitar.
BH: Watching you play it in your videos, it seemed apparent that playing acoustic freestyle guitar is a unique and difficult talent to behold. How does learning acoustic freestyle differ from the typical method used with a pick?
AM: What I do is typically called “fingerstyle guitar.” It’s just sort of a broad term that means playing without a pick. The first tune I learned in this style was the song “Dust In the Wind” by Kansas. I learned a few more tunes by Led Zeppelin and even a few classical pieces before getting into the more modern fingerstyle stuff by guys like Preston, Michael Hedges, Don Ross and Billy McLaughlin. I learned most of those tunes by ear, as it was very difficult to find any tablature for that kind of music.
BH: YouTube served as your platform to share your talent with over 20 million viewers. What was it like becoming an online sensation and how has it propelled your career?
AM: Well, it’s been great! I had been teaching guitar for about 10 years back home in Kansas and was taking the occasional gig opportunity when they would come up. I got to do some shows in Asia and Europe in the early part of this decade, which was great. But in November of 2006, Rob Poland from Candyrat Records had the idea to put some videos of me playing on YouTube. The stuff took off like crazy. One video in particular has had nearly 20 million views, a tune called “Drifting.” The other ones range from around 1 to 10 million views each. We just had no idea they would take off like they did. It’s brought my music to so many people — I feel very lucky for that.
BH: Watching your clips, I saw you are also skilled in a more obscure instrument — the harp guitar. How did you pick that up, and do you often bring it on the road with you?
AM: I got my harp guitar about six years ago from a musician named Stephen Bennett. He’s a good friend of mine. I just love that thing; it’s got a great tonal range. I try to bring it out on every tour. I will definitely have it for the gig up in Madison!
BH: It seems that watching an acoustic “fingerstyle” performance is quite the experience. How does it differ from a traditional acoustic set?
AM: Well, I just do instrumental music, so there is no singing. But I always tell some stories about where the tunes come from; I like to keep the show kind of intimate, like we are all just hanging out.
BH: Do you have a highlight of your career so far?
AM: Doing the album with Don Ross last year was really a dream come true. I’d have to say that is probably the highlight so far.
BH: What is next for you?
AM: Well, I am doing about four more weeks of gigs in the U.S., then it’s Portugal, Spain, Germany and the U.K. After that, I am taking about six months off to compose and record a new album. I did 152 gigs last year, so I am kind of looking forward to that down time at home as well as getting my creative mojo working!
BH: Reading the many comments viewers have left on your YouTube videos, I feel compelled to ask the question they are all dying to know — do you in fact play Guitar Hero, and if so, are you a pro at that as well?
AM: I play Rock Band, and I am a bad mama jama at the drums on there! I bought one of those Ion premium kits so I can feel like Mike Portnoy when I jam on some Dream Theater!
Andy McKee will be performing at the Majestic Theatre tonight at 8 p.m. Tickets prices range from $13 to $15.