Andy McKee: Tune-Up

Originally published in Guitar World, August 2010

The YouTube sensation covers new ground with Joyland.

In the fall of 2006, Andy McKee was just a guitar teacher working in a Topeka, Kansas, music store with three low-budget solo acoustic CDs to his name. Then, within a matter of weeks, he became an internet phenomenon.

“Rob Poland, who ran the label I was on at the time [CandyRat], thought it might be a good idea to make some videos of me playing and put them on YouTube,” McKee remembers. “So we did that, and the next thing you know, my song ‘Drifting’ was on YouTube’s front page!”

On that song, McKee channeled the virtuoso spirits of Michael Hedges and Preston Reed, his arms crisscrossing the guitar’s body like anxious spiders in a bravura display of two-handed tapping, artificial harmonics and percussive effects. The high “wow” factor of his performance drew in lots of viewers, and then lots more. “Drifting” now ranks among YouTube’s all-time most-watched videos, having been seen by more than 30 million people.

All that attention enabled McKee to land some better gigs, quit teaching and spend even more time practicing. On his latest album, Joyland (Razor & Tie), he reaches new heights of fretboard dexterity. Much of the inspiration for jaw-dropping cuts like “Hunter’s Moon” and “Away” comes from experimenting with altered tunings, some of which he’s happened on quite randomly. “I usually detune my guitars when I travel to relieve the neck pressure,” he explains. “Sometimes when I get to my destination, the guitar’s in a whole new tuning. That’s how I wrote [the Joyland track] ‘Blue Liquid’: I got off a plane in Portugal and when I opened my guitar case, it was in this fantastic C#m11 tuning, which immediately inspired a song.”

Joyland is McKee’s most overtly arranged album, featuring keyboards, bass and drums. He’s even thinking about putting a band together for his next recording, although right now he’s content to stay solo and, as he puts it, “play my face off” on the road. His grueling tour schedule stretches well into next year, but he’s not complaining. “It’s amazing to be able to do what I’m doing,” he says. “I honestly never thought it would happen this way.”

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