Talking Story with Guitar Virtuoso Andy McKee


Andy McKee is considered one of the world’s best acoustic guitar finger-stylists, and he’s coming to the Big Island for three shows starting May 30.

Back in 2006, when McKee was an acoustic guitar teacher from Topeka, Kansas, he uploaded a handful of videos of himself playing original acoustic guitar compositions to YouTube. Among the many techniques he employed in these performances were the use of unique alternate tunings, percussive knocks on the guitar’s body, two-handed tapping, over-the-fretboard playing, partial capos, and natural and artificial harmonics. One of the videos he uploaded was called “Drifting.” It became one of the first music clips to go viral online, and now has over 50 million views! These days, McKee continues to record and tour, playing upwards of 100 shows a year and in every part of the world.

I had a chance to connect with him at his home in Kansas where he shared a few interesting stories.

Aloha, Andy! Will this be your first tour of Hawaii?

Actually, I’ve been there twice before. I was there one other time, but it was just a one-off gig. The promoter on the Big Island, Lazer Bear, has brought me over a couple times. I’m looking forward to coming back again!

For those that have not seen your viral videos, can you talk about your style and early influences?

I’m primarily known as an instrumental acoustic guitar player. I kind of got into that style in my late teenage years. I was originally into electric guitar, sort of hard rock and stuff like that, but really became moved by the music of guitarists like Michael Hedges, Will Akerman, and Preston Reed. I just really liked the personal nature of solo guitarists playing the acoustic guitar and started to write my own tunes. I guess it was almost 15 years ago that I had videos on YouTube that went really viral all over the world. I’ve been performing as a finger-style guitar player ever since.

I understand you were the first artist to be signed to Tommy Emmanuel’s record label. What was that like and how did you connect with him?

I’ve known Tommy since about the year 2000, so, quite a few years now. I met him at a bluegrass festival here in Kansas, and we’ve been friends for a long time. When I released my live album a couple of years ago, we started to talk about doing that together. We have the same management team, so it was kind of facilitated by that too. It’s just a pleasure to know him as a friend, and to do shows together too. He’s such an amazing guitar player and we have a good time. Before I come to Hawaii. I’ll be over in Asia for about three weeks. We doing some shows there together, so it’ll be a lot of fun.

(This video features McKee playing the harpguitar)

Tell us about us about this unusual instrument you play called the harpguitar.

The harpguitar has been around for a long time, but it’s never been popular. It’s just a bit too weird, I guess. It’s got a regular guitar six strings and a guitar neck on the bottom and then above that there’s any number of strings. I’ve got six on mine, but there’s six sub bass harp strings and so you can kind of accompany yourself by playing bass on the harp side and maybe use your left hand to do tapping on the guitar and the harp to get the chords and melody. I’ve been playing it since about 2003. Unfortunately, I won’t be bringing it to Hawaii I’ll be coming over from Asia, so traveling with it over there would be a bit of a pain. I’ll have my baritone guitar, which is in my standard stage guitar. I like to kind of mix up the sounds a bit, and the baritone is halfway between a bass guitar and a standard guitar. It’s got a bit of a lower sound to it, and I’ve written quite a few tunes on that.

I hear you’re working on a new record. What can you tell us about that?

it’s going to be a bit of a mix of things this time around. Most people, of course, know me as that instrumental acoustic guitar player, but I’ve been really enjoying revisiting the sounds of my youth in the 1980s. There’s going to be a mix of sort of synthesizer and electric guitar-based rock on it a bit, or pop music, and then the usual stuff people would expect from me. Instrumental acoustic guitar and guitar as well, so I’m hoping to have that out before the end of the year.

I see you’re doing a guitar workshop on Maui and one in California called Musicarium. What are some of the most interesting questions you get asked while teaching?

Most of time it involves technique. I really love to use different techniques on the guitar to get new sounds… incorporating percussive ideas on the guitar body or using altered tunings that’s a big part of what I do. It’s just to expand the range of the guitar and using tapping and slap harmonics and all those sorts of things. That’s the gist ever it but the thing in California is kind of my big music camp, and it lasts for four days. I’m bringing in four other guitar teachers, and we teach all kinds of folks from around the world that come. This is my fourth year of doing it, and it’s a lot of fun!

Your tour of the Big Island has you playing in some unusual places like the Astronomy Center in Hilo, and at Volcanoes National Park. Have you played at some curious venues while touring?

I think I played at the military base on the Big Island the last time and Volcano which was a few years ago. It’s just it’s always a pleasure wherever I end up. I like to play for people and am just trying to deliver that sort of personal thing that you can have with a solo instrumental guitarist. It’s the thing that drew me into it in the first place. That what it’s all about.

(This video features McKee on the German music TV show Rockpalast.)

What can folks expect at you Big Island shows?

Well, I’ll be doing some of the “hits,” I guess… the ones that were on YouTube and people kind of know me for, but I’ll be bringing some newer tracks that people may not have seen me do live. It’s a different kind of show, not like when you go see a rock band, or anything like that. It’s strictly the music and trying to speak with the notes more than anything… more of a listening experience.

Thanks for your time. Aloha, and we look forward to seeing your upcoming shows here on the Big Island.

Aloha to you too and we’ll see you there.

This interview was edited for space and continuity. Listen to the full interview here:

If You Go…

Tickets for all Andy McKee shows:

May 30, Thursday
‘Imiloa Astronomy Center – Moanahoku Hall
600 ‘Imiloa Place, Hilo,
Information: 808-896-4845
Tickets: $35. Gen. Adm. Adv. $55. Gold Circle
Doors: 6:30 pm. Show: 7:00 pm.

May 31, Friday
Aloha Theater
79-7984 Mamalahoa Hwy. Kainaliu
Information: 808-322-9924
Tickets: $35.00 Gen. Adm. Adv.   $55.00 Gold Circle
Doors: 7:00 pm. Show: 7:30 pm.

June 1, Saturday
KMC Theater – Volcanoes National Park
Info. 808-896-4845 Venue:  808-967-8335
Information: 808-896-4845
Tickets: $35. Gen. Adm. Adv. $48. Gold Circle
Doors: 7:30 pm.  Show: 7:45 pm.
(If You Arrive Before 7:30pm, A Park Fee May Apply

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