Q&A: Guitar showman Andy McKee

Famed for his innovative playing style, guitar master Andy McKee will perform at The Hamilton Nov. 7. Photo courtesy of Perpetual Media Relations.
Famed for his innovative playing style, guitar master Andy McKee will perform at The Hamilton Nov. 7. Photo courtesy of Perpetual Media Relations.

When Andy McKee plays the guitar, he plays more than merely the strings.

Rather, his fingers tap along the guitar’s neck, pat against the body and glide along the frets, using the instrument as a percussive tool as well as a melodic one. His innovative approach has given him droves of fans on YouTube, earning him over 25 million views with tracks like “Rylynn.”

McKee continues his fall U.S. tour at The Hamilton tonight at 7:30 p.m. and tickets are $29.50. The Hatchet caught up with McKee to talk about music and the internet, jamming with Prince and topping himself with new EPs.

Hatchet: You came to prominence on YouTube. Has that kind of online forum been critical for smaller, independent artists?
I don’t know if it’s critical, but it definitely helped me out. I was fortunate to get in kind of early when YouTube was still pretty new. YouTube is such a huge website now it can be hard to maybe break out on there now.

At that time I had just joined an independent record label that was focused on acoustic guitar, the kind of stuff that I do, it was their idea to put videos on YouTube, at that time I was just ignorant of what YouTube even was. We had no idea it would kick off like it did, we were really pleasantly surprised with that of course. It was a crazy, freak thing but if you get on early and playing guitar in an unusual way helped me get out there in a big way.

Hatchet: But with the online territory comes the trouble of pirated music and shared files. Has that impacted you at all?
McKee: A little bit. I don’t really try to file lawsuits or anything like that, but I’ve tried to let people know that buying my music legally definitely helps me and my family, it’s a way for me to have an income. I guess I try to make it obvious how it affects independent artists like me or artists that are sort of with smaller labels. Pirating sort of takes the money right away from the artist that you like.

Hatchet: You also sell guitar tablatures online. Is that a hard sell when there are a lot of free guitar tab sites with your music on it?
McKee: One thing that I wanted to when I made those tablatures available on my website was just to make it really affordable. If people are aware that they can get them from me directly and for a good price, it helps, but I’m sure I’ve been affected by all the other versions out there for free.

Hatchet: You toured with Prince last year on his “Welcome 2 Australia” tour. How did that come about?
McKee: It was crazy, we got an e-mail from Prince’s management saying he was interested in working together. We didn’t think it was real at first! He had discovered my music on YouTube as well, so I went up there to Minneapolis where his studio is and met him and a couple of the band members and just sort of played a bit together, and the best thing I knew, he wanted to tour together in Australia. It was really an honor to play with him, he really is a musical genius and can play all kinds of instruments and it was just an amazing opportunity to play a lot of those larger audiences.

Hatchet: What was that departure like from small, intimate venues to arenas? Do you feel like your music translates well in that large setting?
McKee: I think so! As well as that tour, last year I also opened for a really great band that I’ve always loved called Dream Theater, so on those shows as well, it was really large audiences over in Asia. On both of those instances, there were people really into it. But there is something about the more smaller audiences, where people can see you better, and the way that I give a show as well when I’m doing my solo thing, I really like to engage with the audience, talk and joke, and I like to be able to see their faces. So I like that as well.

Hatchet: You’ve crafted a solo act that’s so novel in how it keeps audiences engaged — even people without an understanding of music can see your hands move and see the finger tapping and be impressed. How do you top that?
McKee: Well, I guess the whole thing with YouTube and the song “Drifting,” the one that really took off, was me playing the guitar over the top of the neck and hitting the guitar body and stuff, but all those sort of pyrotechnics and things where you’re sort of putting on  a show, I really try to use those things to just write good music. I’ve just been focusing mostly on using techniques and trying to come up with the best compositions that I can that are interesting to people, that they’ll remember and that they’ll have an emotional attachment to — those things that people really love about music that stick with them for the rest of their lives. So that’s what I’m trying to do, just write really good music, not necessarily like, play six guitars at once or something (laughs).

Hatchet: Your last album “Joyland” came out in 2010. What can we expect after the tour? A new album in the works?
McKee: Yes, there is! Over the next few years what I’m planning on is releasing EPs rather than full-length albums and releasing new music more frequently rather than having an album every few years. So I’m going to have a new EP hopefully at the end of next month or December. I’ve also been experimenting with piano a bit so I have a solo piano song that’ll be on there.

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