INTERVIEW On YouTube, musicianship, and guitars

A conversation with Andy McKee

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Fingerstyle guitarist Andy McKee performs in Boston on Oct. 28.
Courtesy of larry perez

Andy McKee is one of the best fingerstyle guitarists in America, currently signed onto the Razor & Tie record label. He is famous for achieving over 40 million views on YouTube to date for his signature song, “Drifting.” McKee is currently on the Guitar Masters tour, along with fellow fingerstyle players Antoine Dufour and Stephen Bennett. I sat down with him to chat about the tour, being a guitarist, and life in general.

The Tech: First of all, I must confess, I am a huge fan. And if I could receive autographs over the phone somehow I would totally ask for one right now.

Andy McKee: Haha, great!

TT: Can you talk a little bit about the Guitar Masters tour, where you guys are at the moment, what’s coming up, and generally just cool stuff that’s been going on during the tour?

AM: We’re just getting started today, in Colorado Springs, and touring through the Midwest and later the Northeast. I’m touring with Antoine Dufour and Stephen Bennett. We’ll be doing individual sets and collabs.

TT: You were on Candyrat Records before switching to Razor & Tie. Did you leave on good terms?

AM: Yep, I was one of the first guys signed onto the label, and the label owner Rob Poland told me, “if ever you want to move to bigger and better things, let me know.” And we’re on great terms still. In the future I may work independently, since it’s not difficult to do self promotion, especially online.

TT: There was a Guitar Masters tour last year as well?

AM: Yeah, it was me and Eric Johnson, who was one of my first influences. I met him when I was 12.

TT: Back when you started you wanted to play hard rock and metal, correct?

AM: Yeah, I loved Metallica, Pantera, Iron Maiden, so on. My first guitar was a nylon string classical, and it was pretty tough trying to play “Enter Sandman” on it. I got an electric shortly after that and learned a lot of metal. When I was 16 I met Preston Reed, who was just an amazing solo acoustic guitarist and inspired me to go on that route.

TT: What’s a group or artist without a guitar player that has influenced your playing in some way?

AM: One of my favorite musicians is Bruce Hornsby, the pianist. I also like Björk and Imogen Heap. Sometimes at home I’ll experiment with electronic music.

TT: How much music theory do you have under your belt, and general technical musical education?

AM: I used to teach guitar lessons as a living, and personally I didn’t have much formal training, just a year and a half of lessons on electric. When I got an acoustic, I really just went off on my own, learned scales and chord construction, and so on. When I go to write, I often experiment with alternate tunings and different layouts on fretboard, and I don’t usually bother learning the scales for all of them. Usually I’ll just place riffs and melodic ideas on top of it.

TT: What do you think is the future of musicians, YouTube-wise? Will there be more professional musicians cropping up? Do you think it damages the professionalism of a musician if they are a YouTube star?

AM: I think YouTube is a great idea for upstart musicians, but I can see the point, why it may be construed as illegitimate. To legitimize yourself as a musician, and to be compelling, you have to go out and do shows, and perform in front of people. It means so much more to be able to be playing in front of your fans and audience, really makes a difference in your career.

TT: Did you start off doing booked shows or open mics?

AM: I started off playing in coffee shops in Topeka, Kansas, where I grew up. Later I had a few successful competitions in fingerstyle, got invited to Taiwan, Japan, England. Really loved getting out there and playing around the world.

TT: Favorite city?

AM: My favorite show was at Glasgow, Scotland. The crowd was incredible, and funny to hear everyone chanting my name in the middle of the concert!

TT: So there’s a YouTube video out there of you, Sungha Jung and Tommy Emmanuel jamming to “Ebon Coast.” Crazy?

AM: Last year we were all invited to perform in Bangkok, and the guy that organized it thought it’d be cool if we all sat down and played together. And Sungha knew a few of my songs, including “Ebon Coast,” so we did a few rehearsals and recorded it.

TT: If you had a second life and were not a guitarist, what would you be?

AM: Funny that you ask that, because I have a song on Joyland, “My Life As a CPA,” that kind of jokingly explores that. I think if I could choose, I’d like to be a video game programmer, because I’m kind of a video game fanatic.

TT: Favorite game?

AM: Elder Scrolls. I just got an Alienware in anticipation for Skyrim.

TT: Do you have any advice for budding guitarists, especially those who are writing their own music?

AM: You have to have a real connection with music, and what music means to you. You need to have an emotional interaction when you hear music; as someone said, you can’t help but become a musician. I listen to a lot of my favorite musicians, learn their songs, use my ear a lot to figure everything out, to recognize intervals and chords. If you can develop your ear learning songs from other musicians, that’ll be very useful. It’s hard to say what makes a good composer. Definitely takes practice, and spending a lot of time learning from other guys.

TT: What’s in the future?

AM: I’m doing GMT until mid-November. I just had my first son, so enjoying staying at home a bit, taking the rest of the year off. Later on, more gigs with Eric Johnson. I have material I’ve started work on, and I’d like to have an album out by next year.

Andy McKee and the GMT come to Boston Oct. 28 at Showcase Live.