Andy McKee: The Road to Success

By Rod DeGeorge

Like most people, I was first introduced to Andy McKee’s music by seeing a video on YouTube. I was blown away by the fact that he was covering all aspects of the music on one guitar. He had the percussion, the chords and the melodies going on all at once. Plus, it wasn’t just the technical aspect that was impressive, the compositions really pulled you in. He is much more than just a YouTube sensation, he has something that really connects with people and it has lead to an amazing career. He has toured the world several times and has performed with musical giants such as Prince, Dream Theater and Eric Johnson. He was gracious enough to sit down and talk about the various aspects of his career, how it got started, some personal highlights and what’s in store for he future. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

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Guitar Connoisseur: You seem to have a genuine joy and deep connection with music, it also seems important to you to pass that on to your audience, while educating them about the players that influenced you such as Michael Hedges etc. How does it feel now, that you are the guy who moves and inspires so many? How did you go about accomplishing that and was it a deliberate goal, or do you think it was just a by-product or your passion for music.

Andy McKee: Yeah well, it’s definitely a huge honor to me personally just to think that I am that kind of guy now that inspires maybe a new generation to look at the acoustic guitar and play it in a different way. So, yeah, I think it is kind of a byproduct of my sort of love for music that I’ve gotten to where I am. You know, before I even picked up a guitar, I was listening to music a lot. I was into quite a bit of different kinds of music. My mom would listen to Earth Wind and Fire and stuff like that, and my dad would play things like Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin. So, I just always like to listen to music, and then when I started to actually play, I felt like I discovered my purpose in a lot of ways. So yeah, just being able to go play now for a living, and inspiring people to try to play a guitar, it just makes me feel like I’ve really succeeded at something. You know?

GC: Yes, that’s awesome! Now with YouTube being the launching pad for your career, did you or your label have a specific plan on how to market in that platform? How did you decide that YouTube would be the platform to focus on?

AM: Yeah, well that was it was really just the idea of the record label that I used to be with, to put some videos on YouTube. I had just become aware of the website really, and at the time I didn’t know much about it. It was still brand new in 2005 when we started, and they got this idea to put the videos up. YouTube itself was pretty new at the time as well, so, it was really just like, well ,here is this new website and we can put videos on it for free. You know? And we’ll just try to spread the word about it and maybe we’ll reach some of the people that are into acoustic guitar music, and hopefully we’ll start to make a name. That was really all that it was, there was no big idea. Really, the label that I was on, CandyRat Records, it’s just one guy that happened to like acoustic instrumental music, and so he decided to start a label is all that was. He had no prior experience with the music industry, nothing like that at all. So, it was just really a novelty homegrown thing, let’s put some videos on his website. That’s all it was, you know, when it started to take off, all of us were just blown away. Like I said, we really just hoped maybe we’ll make a bit of a splash in the acoustic guitar world, for whatever that might have been worth. It’s not the biggest genre, but maybe it can lead to some gigs here and there. But man, just the way it went viral, suddenly I was getting invited to go play all corners of the map, So, it changed my life in a big way and golly, I still kind of think of it like a fast forward button on my career. You know? I had some things going on before that, but when those vides went viral, and suddenly people who weren’t really into guitar music necessarily, where checking it out, it really just boosted my career in a big way.

GC: That’s great! So, it was more of a timing thing than a brilliant marketing plan?

AM: Totally, that’s all it was. I mean there was like, no money put behind the videos in any way. It was just, put some videos on YouTube and yeah, it was a timing thing. We got in so early, and the website wasn’t inundated with a million guitar videos. You know? I think that definitely helped us out.

GC: Yes, and you had a product that really connected with people. That’s what makes the difference. Now speaking of YouTube, on your personal page, it shows that it has been a few years since you uploaded a video. Do you feel you are moving away from that? Is that a conscious decision, or are you just too busy with touring?

AM: Yeah, it’s kind of a mix I guess of all those really. The videos that really went viral were, as I mentioned, actually uploaded by the label that I used to be with. So, my own channel that I have on YouTube, I’ve never been real active with it, I guess. Ever since the original ones went crazy, I’ve just really been focusing on touring a lot, and that seems to be more important for sustaining a career that’s viable in the music industry. Getting out performing, it’s just much more important than uploading videos on YouTube. So, I’ve been focusing on that and that’s mainly it. I am going to have a new album next year, and I imagine we’ll shoot some new videos for those and put them up on the channel as well, but it’s sort of just a side thing compared to the touring.

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GC: So, for you it was more of a launching pad to allow you to do your thing with performing?

AM: Yeah, and I really love getting out and playing. And I think the most common comment that I get at the end of the show, ‘cause, I always go out and meet my fans after the shows, is that it’s just so much more enjoyable seeing it live. And when you hear that, it’s like “yeah”, I need to be out here on the road playing for people. It’s just a better experience than watching it on the screen.

GC: I’ve heard you say that Eric Johnson’s Cliff of Dover was sort of the genesis for you to start focusing on guitar and instrumental music, have you ever tried to do a solo version of that?

AM: No, I guess I haven’t. You mean I like on acoustic guitar and all that?

GC: Yes.

AM: I never have and I’m not too sure why. I have done arrangements in the past of tunes with solo acoustic guitar, and taken Pop tunes or whatever, and done that. But, I don’t know, it just never really felt right to me, I guess, like in an arrangement sense. Some pieces really feel so perfect how they are, it’s like, is there a way that I could present cliffs of Dover that would be interesting? I don’t know, I haven’t found a way yet, I guess.

GC: Your arrangements can be somewhat piano like, and you also play piano, did you play piano prior to the guitar? How do the two instruments relate to your style, or method of composing?

AM: Well, we always did have a piano in the house when I was growing up. So, technically I did play the piano before the guitar. But, I never had any lessons or anything like that. I was just playing around on it and trying to hear songs that I knew. Trying to find out where it could be played on a piano sort of thing. Then many years later, I kind of did dig in a little bit more and I learned of a couple of pieces on piano. But, I’m really not a pianist, I don’t think. It’s kind of something I mess around with a little bit. But, as far as how it relates to composing for guitar, ever since I really dove into the acoustic guitar side of things, one of the main reasons I did was because I liked how people could cover melody, harmony and rhythmic ideas all at once with one guitar. So, before that, I was into electric guitar and was interested in learning lead guitar. But, when I started to hear these guys, these solo instrumental guitar players really covering all aspects of music on a guitar, I really fell in love with that, and that’s what drove me to the acoustic guitar. All these players like Michael Hedges and so on. So when I go to compose now, I guess you could say that I do think of it as a really a polyphonic instrument, and you can cover all aspects of music on guitar at once. Rather than maybe just playing a riff, like when you’re in a band, or taking a lead, you know? I’m trying to really think of all the aspects of music at one time and putting it on the guitar.

GC: While developing your technique for your solo acoustic style, were you very pragmatic and set up exercises for the different techniques, or did it just evolve from playing and writing songs?

AM: Yeah, it was very much there the second option there. I really dove into players like Michael Hedges that we’ve mentioned, Preston Reed and Don Ross, I would get these Narada records, there was a record label called Narada, and they put out these sampler CDs that would have twelve different type of guitar players on there. I would just listen to that stuff, loving all the music I was hearing and trying to learn what was going on by listening to it and then trying to put it on the guitar. But, I did buy an instructional video cassette from Preston Reed, he really kind of detailed his techniques on a few of his songs, and that helped a lot. Plus, I bought an instructional book from Don Ross. So, there was a couple of instructional things that I was able to find that pointed me into the right direction. But, my whole life, I’ve never been real strict as far as practicing, or regimented study. It’s like OK, I want to go play guitar, so I would sit down and just play guitar for a couple hours or whatever. It was all just because it’s fun, and so, if it felt like work I probably would’ve never done it.

GC: Luckily for us, it didn’t feel like work to you.

AM: Yeah, it was just fun, trying to learn an Eric Johnson tune or any of those guys we just spoke about.

GC: Listening to your compositions, it would appear that you have a solid grasp on music theory, does that come into play consciously when composing, or do you rely mostly on your ear?

AM: Yeah, it’s almost like ninety percent ear I would say. One of the other things that I like about this sort of approach to guitar playing, is the use of altered tunings. I’ll either come up with a brand new tuning of my own, or I’ll discover one from some other players that I’ve just never tried, or make little alterations here or there. And so, I’ve got this guitar in a brand new tuning and I just let things happen. I just try to listen for something to play, like, what kind of chord voicing can I do here, and I have this whole new pallet that I can play with. So, it’s all just kind of ear based from then on. Then I’ll try to hear melodic ideas that can fit with what I’m coming up with, then just put it together. Really, I don’t analyze it until later when I need to make a transcription so other people can learn it if they want.

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GC: Well, that pretty much answers my next question about writing with altered tunings. So, on to the next. With your style of playing, it seems like it would be mostly composed, do you do much, or any improvisation, and if so how do you approach that with all the altered tunings?

AM: Yeah, I really don’t improvise much at all, and it is because of the altered tunings. Knowing where to put your fingers next kind of can be mystery if you’ve got the tuning in an F#m11, or something like that. I do get playful with the tunes I would say. I mean, sometimes I’ll push the rhythm a bit here, or do dynamic things a little bit different, but I won’t be going on any sort of ten minutes guitar solo or anything like that. It’s just composed music really

GC: Your Mythmaker CD was an EP instead of a full length CD, I’ve spoken to a few artists who believe that this is the wave of the future, at least for more independent artists, what are your thoughts and experience on this subject?

AM: Yeah, that was something that I was thinking at the time too. It might still be true that that’s a better way to go, but, I think next year I’m going to do a full album, I’ve been working on a lot of tunes, since then, but I have also been touring a lot. I’m not really able to compose when I’m on the road I’ve discovered over the last several years. It’s something that I try to do, but doing the show and then going to the hotel and trying to play guitar a bit, sometimes I just really want go to bed because I’ve got to travel to the next city early in the morning. It just doesn’t really work that well for me. Anyway, I’ve got a whole bunch of song ideas that are just not finished yet. So, I’m going to be doing them next year, working to finish them up and taking some time off the road, several months anyway.

GC: Speaking about being on the road, you have had the opportunity to play with some giants like Prince, Dream Theater & Eric Johnson. Can you talk about how that came to be?

AM: Sure, well, I guess I will start with Eric Johnson. When I started to have a career playing, and doing live shows, my manager asked me if there’s ever anybody you want to play with, you should make a list and I’ll try to make it happen at some point. So, we did that and I think at the top my list was Eric Johnson. So, he knew that from early on. So, after a few years, I started this thing called Guitar Masters, which is a tour with myself and some other guitar players. We kind of rotated out who goes on the road and he reached out to Eric. Incidentally Eric was going to be releasing an acoustic album, so he was interested in being in on it and so, that was our first time getting to go out and touring together. That was 2010 and we would each do our sets and then we play together at the end. So, you know, it was really a dream come true to spend time with him on the tour bus, become friends and play together and all that stuff. And as you know, he’s the guy that made me want to play in the first place, so, it was really great.

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GC: Yeah, that’s awesome!

AM: Yeah, thanks. And I guess with Dream Theater, I had met their guitarist John Petrucci at a music store in Kansas City, I guess it was probably 2005, I think. And he was doing a meet and greet, and my friend owned the music store. So, when he was going to go pick up John up at the hotel, he said to me, do you want to come with me and you can meet John Petrucci and ride in the car. I was like “ohhh yeah” so we did that. We picked him up and as we’re driving to the music store I mentioned that I was a big fan, and although I’m more of an acoustic guitar player these days, I said “would you mind if I played something for you at music store?”. He said, “sure why not”. So, we got there and I played him a couple tunes and he was like, “damn that’s sick, that’s way cool”. I was like, “I am glad you liked it man”. So, that was kind of that, I didn’t get an email or anything like that. I just played guitar. Then a few years later, I went to the NAMM show in Anaheim and he was signing autographs at the Ernie Ball booth. So, I got in line, just to get an autograph, and I get up to where he is and I say, hey man, my name is Andy Mckee, and he was like “Andy Mckee! hey man, I remember you, I was showing my wife your videos the other night”. Now, at that point the videos were up on YouTube and he’s like, “Man, you didn’t have to wait in line, you should have came right up hear and this and that”. I was like, “ah man”, I mean, I was blown away. He then wrote his email on the back of the autograph that he signed for me, and so I had an e-mail at that point. Then a couple years later, I think 2010, he sent an email asking if I’d like to open for Dream Theater in California and Mexico. Also, if I wanted to do some shows in Asia after that. And I was just like, Oh my God! So, I went and did that, and we still stay in touch to this day. It was another dream come true. I mean, they are a progressive metal band, and I wasn’t too sure how it might go over playing for their audience, but most people who are into progressive metal, are just kind of into interesting music of all kinds. So, it went over really well. You know, we would be like in Tokyo in front of ten thousand people, and I’m just like Oh My God!

Now, with Prince, his management emailed mine in February of 2012 and had said and that he was interested in collaborating, and we were just all blown way. We weren’t even sure if it was real at first. I’m like, Oh my God, Prince! This is insane! And so, I went up to Paisley Park and met him. He said he’s been listening to my work, liked what I was doing, and he wanted me to play a bit for him and then just sort of jam a bit with him and the bass player and the drummer. So, we did all that and then he says what are you doing this year? This was 2012, and that was when I went to Asia with Dream Theater. I was like, I actually have these shows that I’m open for them, but after that, there’s nothing going on in May. So he said, all right we’re going to do something, I was like alright that sounds cool man! So, he said let’s go play some Ping-Pong. After he passed away, I was hearing everybody saying that. I guess he really like to play ping pong. He was really good too! He had one backstage every night.

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So, I went off, and then the next thing I heard, he booked nine concerts in Australia that he wanted me to be the guitar player on. I was just like, “holy shit!” you know? How are we going to work that out, what’s the plan? So, we went back and rehearsed and he came up with a medley of about, I think seven tunes, that he wanted me to play on with the band. Some acoustic guitar and some electric guitar, and the harp guitar. Yeah so, I finished up with Dream Theater and then about a week out from the show with Prince, I get this e-mail and the subject line said “here is your outfit” with exclamation points. I was just like, Oh my God! What is he going to want me to wear? You know, it never even crossed my mind that I might have to wear something on stage. He was saying that he wanted me to open the concert and walk across the stage, which is his symbol, and as I was walking, I would be wearing a 50 foot long cape that would unfurl, as I walked across this big stage. He would then have lights projecting water and fire and the universe on the back of a the cape. He actually had two or three drawings in the email of me wearing like a 50 foot cape. I don’t know if it’s just who I am or a mid-west thing, but I was just feeling really awkward about having to wear a fifty foot a cape, you know? I told them that I didn’t know if I was comfortable wearing a cape, and then he was OK with having one of the dancers wearing the cape. So, I opened the show with my acoustic version of Purple Rain and the dancer wore the cape and then we went down this elevator. He would then come out and play for like an hour, hour and half. Then I would come back and play with the whole band, and then the whole show would end with Purple Rain, the traditional version. It was just amazing! I mean, it was just an experience I never would have guessed that I would have. You know, just looking back to when I was growing up, and then, being on stage with the guy, it’s just amazing!And I feel so honored that he liked what I did. Because, I mean, like wow, this guy wrote all his music, and he played all these instruments, and he was a killer guitar player! It was just so amazing to be around him, and he just had this sort of charisma and fire about life and music. It’s just an intensity and impressive thing about him. Anyway, it’s a real shame what happened, but he was a really brilliant guy and I feel lucky to have had some time with him.

GC: That’s great! It has to feel really good to have artists that you looked up to and that inspired you, to now be giving you accolades.

AM: It does man, it really does. It just makes me feel like I’ve achieved something you know? Because, I mean, before all this stuff even happened, I was just kind of hanging out in my bedroom playing guitar and video games. I wasn’t a real ambitious guy. But, having these videos really mean something to people, it’s really changed my life in a big way.

GC: Can you talk about your masterclasses and retreats and how someone who may be interested it your style of playing can get involved in some of those?

AM: Absolutely, well I did the first Andy McKee Musicarium, that’s the name of the camp, and I did the first one last year in August and it was great man. I used to teach guitar for ten years before I started to tour so much, so, I have to have quite a bit of experience with teaching. I was kind of excited about the idea of having a camp where it was just all kind of based in a resort for four days and people can fly in, stay with me and the other instructors, and we just have some time together to talk about guitar techniques, what everybody was up to, and pass on some of these ideas that we’ve got. So, it was a lot of fun and we had people from Australia, India, Turkey, Germany, France, England, Canada, Mexico, Brazil, just all over the planet. So, I was blown away by that fact, and it was just so nice to have that sort of international feeling to it. You’ve got people with different life experiences and we’re all just there for the love of music. So, that really meant a lot to me. I would love to do it every year and we’re doing it again this year in August, and then and I intend to do it every year. But also, next year I’m going to be taking some time off from hitting the road so much. I’m looking at doing instructional courses with maybe an online guitar instructional group, like maybe True Fire, or one of these kind of things.

GC: Great! Do you have any plans for a live DVD at some point?

AM: Yeah that’s is something that I’m looking to do. It’s something that I wanted to do last year, but the timing didn’t workout. We’re hoping that we could do that, maybe next year. It is really something that’s missing from my catalog, I guess you could say. So, I would love to get that out.

GC: We will all be looking forward to that! Well, I would like to thank you for taking the time to speak with us, we really appreciate it. Thanks again, I will let you go and It has been great talking to you.

AM: Thank you! It has been my pleasure for sure!

Be sure to visit the Andy Mckee Store where you can purchase his latest CD:
Live Book

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