It may be going just a little too far to suggest that Andy McKee has totally redefined the role of the guitar, but he has certainly stretched the instrument’s rhythmic and textural purview.
McKee will demonstrate his singular approach to playing the guitar at concerts at the Zappa club venues in Herzliya, Jerusalem and Tel Aviv between April 30 and May 2.
Considering his percussive take on the guitar, one might have thought that McKee has some drumming experience on his resumé, but that is not the case.
“I started on the guitar as my first instrument in my teenage years. That was on electric guitar, and I played in rock bands and that kind of stuff,” he says. “I switched over to the acoustic guitar when I was about 16.”
McKee clearly was out to set down his individual marker from the start. In addition to his unorthodox way of playing music, he also took the reverse route to the regular guitar model transition. The unconventional instrumental move was inspired by some top-quality sources of inspiration.
“I guess most people go from acoustic to electric guitar,” says McKee, “but I was inspired by some modern acoustic guitar players, including some guys who unfortunately have not become too famous – guys like [Canadian fingerstyle guitarist] Don Ross and [late American guitarist] Michael Hedges. They all inspired me to try the acoustic guitar, and they used all kinds of tunings and unusual techniques, and that really inspired me to try that, too.”
That McKee has done a good job feeding off Ross, Hedges et al is abundantly clear from the five albums he has put out to date and the hundreds of concerts he plays around the globe. When you see the 35-year-old father of two do his thing on stage, you have to check that there are no other guitarists in the shadows or a playback running before you realize that McKee is producing all the rhythms, melody and harmonic voices by himself.
When you are aiming to juggle so many rhythmic and sonic balls at the same time, you need to have your sensitivity level finely honed, and your technique needs to be spot on.
“That is something I have focused on a lot more in the last five or so years, the control of dynamics and how you can bring a lot of expression to the acoustic guitar,” he says. “If you bring the volume down and your touch on the string, that can really add a lot to the expression. I really love that.”
McKee says he was also prompted to traverse the electricacoustic divide because he wanted to be his own man on stage.
“The main thing that really inspired me to play acoustic, in addition to the guys I mentioned, is the fact that you can cover all the aspects of music on one guitar. You can express rhythmic ideas and melodic ideas and harmonic ideas rather than just taking a guitar solo or playing a guitar riff, and you can combine all those things at one. It’s like being a piano player when you can play all those things at one time,” he explains.
But it’s not just about technique and application. McKee brings some pretty left-field guitar tunings into his sonic fray, too.
“I took inspiration in that area from people like Joni Mitchell and David Crosby, using alternate tunings all the time,” he says. “I really love that because, in a way, it’s almost as if you have a new instrument each time because you are kind of throwing away the chord shapes and the scales and patterns that you know on the fretboard.”
The basic element of taking the right exploratory approach to making fresh musical sounds, says McKee, is not sticking to the tried and tested avenue of expression.
“I found this quote from [Buddhist monk] Shunryu Suzuki, who said: ‘The beginner’s mind is full of possibilities, and the expert’s mind is closed to all the possibilities.’ I think that is an interesting way to think about the guitar. If you put in this new tuning, it’s almost like you have a new guitar and all these new possibilities,” he asserts.
For now, McKee primarily performs solo, but he does not rule out the possibility of exciting collaborations in the future.
“I am interested in doing projects with other musicians and maybe doing some singing down the road. We’ll see how it all pans out; but I’ve always let inspiration take me wherever it takes me. My experience with music has been just to let things happen, without having much control over it,” he says.
Having such prodigious technique must surely be the result of constant and prolonged practice. Surprisingly, that is no longer part of McKee’s regimen.
“I used to practice a lot when I was a teenager, sometimes up to eight hours a day. But now I mostly just try to write music every time I pick up the guitar or even play around on the piano.
I’ve never been a guy that practices scales a lot or anything like that. I used to learn songs I liked from other players and get inspiration and start playing around,” he reveals.
Everyday logistics also feature in the practicing equation.
“I don’t have too much time,” explains McKee. “I have two kids, and I’m out touring and doing shows and stuff a lot. I just try to write new music every time I pick up the guitar.”
McKee plays on several members of the guitar family, including the deeper baritone guitar and the weirdly shaped sonically expansive harp guitar, which has an elongated body and an extra set of six strings.
“That gives me a lot of possibilities,” he notes. “I can play a lot of things in different ranges on the harp guitar.”
With a year-round gig schedule that takes in some 200 shows and five well-received CDs thus far, McKee is clearly a hit. That is also evidenced by the fact that a YouTube clip of him playing a number called “Drifting” has been viewed close to 50 million times to date.
There will be a lot to take in, visually as well as aurally, at McKee’s three shows here.
For tickets and more information: (03) 762-6666; *9080; and www.zappa-club.co.il