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Fingerstyle Series: An Interview with Andy McKee

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Photo Credit: Benji Cooper Photography (http://www.benjicooper.com/)

Fingerstyle guitar playing is something that’s rapidly gaining interest in the acoustic music scene. For years, artists that have played fingerstyle guitar in an emotional and frequently unconventional way have composed pieces of music that have attracted millions of hits and fans.

Andy McKee is generally known as one of the most notable guitarists within the genre, generating huge amounts of interest in the genre, whilst inspiring guitarists all over the world to try and play their guitars in this way. We spoke to Andy about how he began to play the guitar and how his career has developed alongside the increasingly popular fingersyle genre.

HUNOW: So you started to play the guitar at 13, but weren’t too fond of your lessons. How did you know you weren’t happy with the lessons and not the instrument itself?

AM: Well, I moved around to a few teachers early on and eventually stuck with one  that was willing to teach me some of my favourite songs along with basic chords and notes. That was when I really started to have fun! Eventually though, I went off and started picking things up on my own. I just knew that I wanted to be like Eric Johnson so I was going to stick with it!

Incidentally, I still want to be like Eric Johnson so I’m still banging away.

HUNOW: Had you always been interested in music? Prior to getting into the guitar, what kind of stuff were you listening to?

AM: I think one of the first cassettes I ever purchased was the soundtrack to Rocky IV, followed by the  album Kick by INXS shortly thereafter. That was when I was around 6 or 7 years old. When I was 8, I discovered metal music and got really into Iron Maiden. A couple of years later I saw the video for One by Metallica on MTV and my world exploded, I couldn’t believe how intense it was! I was mostly listening to metal until I heard Eric’s tune Cliffs of Dover which completely and utterly changed my life. I was so enthralled by his ability to talk with the guitar, his sense of melody. I felt so good listening to him. The next day I asked for a guitar on my next birthday.

As well as these things, I had bands like Led Zeppelin, Crosby, Stills, and Nash, Earth Wind and Fire, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Eric Clapton, and many more playing in my house as a youngster thanks to my parents. My dad had a big LP collection.

AM: Hahaha! Well man, I had already dropped out of high school before I took the GED. The truth is, my sister, my brother, and myself all dropped out and got our GED’s. We are all doing great though and have jobs that pay the bills so we can look after our families! Some folks just aren’t wired for the standard school environment, I think.

HUNOW: Did you find it easier to try and play what other people you liked were playing and learn techniques that way, or were you into learning a lot of theory and scales?

AM: I was really more into learning my favourite songs from other players. It was a great way to use my ear and recognise chords or notes just by listening. I actually learned a lot more about theory and chord construction as I started teaching guitar. I was always staying a few chapters ahead of the students, you know!

HUNOW: A huge factor of you becoming successful was being featured on websites like YouTube. What made you start putting videos of your work out there?

AM: It was actually the record label I was with at the time who came up with the idea. I had joined an indie label in Milwaukee called Candyrat Records in 2005 and their primary focus was to promote this sort of modern acoustic music that I and many others do. In 2006, I was out touring with Don Ross and Michael Manring and we ended up with a day off in Milwaukee. Rob from the label called me up with this idea to shoot several videos and put them on this new website called YouTube and it could be some good, free promotion. We were pleasantly surprised with how it all turned out, to say the least.

HUNOW: Would you say that communication technologies have enabled you to become successful by getting your music to the people who wanted to hear it?

AM: Yeah, I do agree with that. I think that there were a lot of people who didn’t even know they wanted to hear it! The whole instrumental acoustic guitar thing was a pretty specialised genre (and it still is in a lot of ways) so I don’t think there was a very broad awareness of it.  I am grateful to YouTube and other sites that made it possible for me to get my music, and as a result this genre, out there in a bigger way. It’s been such a pleasure to see so many guitarists get into it!

HUNOW: You’re not with Candyrat Records anymore, what happened there? How are you enjoying your new label?

AM: Well, I still get along great with the family that runs Candyrat and there aren’t any hard feelings. I just felt like I wanted to try another label that might be able to help in other ways than just YouTube. My last album, Joyland was released with another label called Razor and Tie in New York. It was great working with them too, but I actually intend on releasing my next musical projects completely on my own. With the possibilities of staying in touch with fans directly these days through social media, I am interested in trying a release without a label.

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Photo Credit: Jason Dailey (http://www.daileyimages.com/)

AM: I do it all at my home studio. Fortunately, it’s just a guitar so it’s not terribly complicated. Just get some good mics, a good room, and a good computer and you are set!

HUNOW: You’ve said that you’re going to release your new material in smaller quantities, so it can be more regular. How small are you talking, a couple of songs every few months?

AM: I’m thinking more like 4 songs on each EP. Hopefully as often as a couple every year or so, it just depends a bit on how hard I am touring.

HUNOW: Having been so successful in the past, how do you try and keep your music interesting?

AM: This is an excellent question. I have been writing some new tunes and am planning on releasing one of the new EPs within a couple of months. As I have been writing the tunes, I have been consciously making decisions to try and push myself, or to develop the music in different ways. For example, introducing different dynamics or taking a riff and playing it in completely different ways with different techniques. One tune is a solo piano piece actually!

It can be tricky as a solo performer, one pitfall we all try to avoid is to not become too monotonous. It’s just you up there and you’ve got to keep it fresh and interesting.

HUNOW: If you could pick any 5 musicians around today that you’d like to collaborate with, who would they be?

AM: You are not going to believe it but I have collaborated with everyone I ever wanted to. I feel really lucky for that. They are:

1. Eric Johnson

2. John Petrucci

3. Don Ross

4. Preston Reed

5. Billy McLaughlin

I’d give anything to play a single note with Michael Hedges, if only he were still around.

HUNOW: You’ve said that for your new material there’s some exciting stuff you’ve got planned. Could you perhaps share a tiny bit of that with the readers of HOLDUPNOW?

AM: There are plans to record some collaborative music with Eric Johnson and John Petrucci! It won’t be on my next EP but it will turn up on one down the road. I still feel like a 13 year old kid when I’m around those guys, you know. I just might implode from the experience.

You can find out more about Andy McKee by visiting his:

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Come back next Thursday for the latest entry in our fingerstyle series.

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