In the Eighties, radical fingerstylists like Michael Hedges and Preston Reed pioneered an acoustic guitar style based on an alternate-tuned, percussion-heavy, new age–tinged sound.
Kaki King explored it further in the new millennium beginning with her 2002 debut, Everybody Loves You.
Some people have dubbed the style “progressive acoustic guitar,” while others prefer “modern fingerstyle.”
Jon Gomm, one of its latest (and most popular) exponents, has even heard it referred to as banging, due to its practitioners’ tendency to rap, slap and knock their hands against the body of an acoustic guitar for percussive effect.
Whatever you call it, there’s no doubt that this genre of acoustic guitar–based music is experiencing a major resurgence, thanks to the internet. In 2006, an unassuming-looking acoustic guitar teacher from Topeka, Kansas, named Andy McKee uploaded to YouTube a handful of videos of himself playing some original and incredibly complex instrumental acoustic guitar compositions.
Among the many techniques he employed in these performances was the use of unique alternate tunings, percussive knocks, two-handed tapping, over-the-fretboard playing, partial capos and natural and artificial harmonics. One video in particular, for a propulsive yet ethereal tune called “Drifting,” became one of YouTube’s first viral sensations—likely because it was both melodically appealing and visually stunning—and racked up millions of views on the then-new site.
McKee has since become the figurehead of this style of playing, and scores of exceptionally talented guitarists have followed in his wake. Many of them, such as French-Canadian fingerstylist Antoine Dufour and British picker Mike Dawes, have recorded for the Wisconsin-based independent imprint CandyRat Records, which has become known as the leading purveyor of this music.
Like McKee, Dufour and Dawes have found much success online, partly through elaborate solo reimaginings of full-band songs, in which they recreate rhythm, lead and vocal parts on acoustic guitar. (Dawes’ version of Gotye’s “Somebody That I Used to Know” and Dufour’s take on Imogen Heap’s “Hide and Seek” have respectively registered 2.8 and 1.5 million YouTube views.)
One of the newest and brightest entries in this realm is Daryl Kellie [pictured above], who created an online stir with an elegantly arranged version of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody.”
Then there is Britain’s Jon Gomm, who employs a dizzying combination of extended techniques that explore the outermost reaches of the acoustic guitar. Gomm tends to play in a fluid, eight-finger, above-the-fretboard manner, and seemingly manipulates every bit of his instrument, knocking his hand against the guitar’s top, back, sides and the fretboard, scratching his nails across bridge pins, twisting tuning pegs mid-song, and using an assortment of pickups and pedals.
Like many of his peers, he has found his greatest success on YouTube, after his signature song, “Passionflower,” went viral in 2012.
That the online world has proved to be a vital forum for these artists is understandable, given that there is an uncharacteristically prominent visual component to what they do. Each musician’s playing style is a marvel of not only creativity and ability but also coordination. “There’s a pretty interesting visual aspect to it, with all the wild techniques,” McKee says, “which is one of the reasons I think YouTube has been such a great arena to showcase the music.”
Guitar World recently caught up individually with McKee, Gomm and Kellie to discuss their unique approaches to the acoustic guitar, as well as how each cultivated his impressive technique and style. Interestingly, they all share not only a love for Michael Hedges and his ilk but also a background in heavy-metal guitar. Says Gomm, “This new acoustic movement is almost like the unplugged version of shred.”
Adds McKee, “I think what ties the two together is the complexity of the music. When all of us guys were first getting into the guitar and wanting to learn these different techniques, metal music was the place to go, because you had guitarists doing unbelievable things on their instruments. In a way, we’ve now transferred some of that over to the acoustic.”
Perhaps no musician better represents the new progressive acoustic guitar movement than Andy McKee. The 34-year-old is so much the face of the scene that some call this form of music “ ‘Drifting’-style guitar,” a reference to his most famous composition, which has notched almost 50 million YouTube views since its 2006 debut.
At the time, McKee was giving guitar lessons around his hometown of Topeka, Kansas, and recording for CandyRat. “[CandyRat label head] Rob Poland had this idea to shoot some performance videos for this new web site called YouTube,” he recalls. “He thought, Maybe we’ll get a few new fans. So we filmed, like, eight videos in one day and put them up.”
One of them, “Drifting,” went viral after being featured on YouTube’s homepage, and McKee became an online phenomenon. Soon, he was accepting offers to tour with Tommy Emmanuel and record with Josh Groban.
“I went from teaching guitar in Kansas to playing guitar all over the planet,” he says. “Which is what I always wanted to do.”
Amazingly, “Drifting” is the first song McKee ever wrote in the style with which he has become so closely associated. He composed it when he was 18, just two years after hearing the percussive-heavy instrumental acoustic guitar work of Preston Reed.
“When I was 16, my cousin took me to see Preston at a guitar workshop here in Kansas,” he recalls. “At the time, I was playing electric guitar and was way into Pantera and Dream Theater and Iron Maiden. Then I saw Preston and he was doing all these amazing things with just one acoustic. It blew my mind. I wanted to figure out how he was able to cover melodic, harmonic and rhythmic ideas all at once.”
McKee also cites fingerstylists like Don Ross, Billy McLaughlin and Michael Hedges as primary influences. Of all his acoustic contemporaries, McKee’s style most closely mirrors that of Hedges, in both his use of the guitar’s body to add percussive elements and his tendency to create lush, harmonically rich soundscapes using altered tunings and droning open strings. On occasion, he plays a double-neck harp guitar, an instrument popularized by, and closely associated with, Hedges.
Since the success of “Drifting,” McKee has become a force in the acoustic world. A few years back he created a tour called Guitar Masters, a sort of G3 for the acoustic set. He also performs upward of 100 dates each year on his own, and sometimes in front of enormous audiences, such as when John Petrucci invited him to open some arena gigs for Dream Theater in the U.S., Mexico and the Far East.
Equally thrilling, and even more unexpected, in 2012 McKee received an offer to join Prince for a series of shows in Australia.
“He watched some of my videos, and one in particular, ‘Rylynn,’ [See the video above] really stood out to him,” McKee says. “He invited me to Minneapolis to jam with him and his band, and from there he brought me out on tour. And it was amazing. I would start the shows with an acoustic arrangement of ‘Purple Rain,’ and during Prince’s set I’d sit in with him and his band and we’d do a medley of his songs.”
As for his own music, McKee has released a series of well-received albums, including his most recent, 2010’s Joyride. He also continues to seek out new avenues to explore with his own music.
To that end, his new Razor & Tie–issued EP, Mythmaker, features not only his distinct acoustic guitar playing but also a solo piano piece and an electric guitar–and-synth composition. “I’m trying some different things out and letting inspiration take me wherever it does,” McKee says. “I don’t feel like I have to write the next amazing acoustic-guitar song necessarily—I just want to write the next amazing piece of music.”
Andy McKee Axology
GUITARS Michael Greenfield G4.2 (fanned fret), Michael Greenfield G2B and G4B.2 (fanned fret) baritone, Michael Greenfield HG1.2 harp guitar
PICKUPS K&K Pure Mini
CAPOS Shubb S1 and S5 Deluxe (banjo)
PREAMP D-TAR Solstice
A few years back, Leeds, England–based singer-songwriter Jon Gomm was just another guitarist—albeit one with a devastatingly advanced extended technique—trying to carve out a musical career by gigging extensively across Europe.
Then his life was changed by a single word: in early 2012, British actor and comedian Stephen Fry sent out a tweet consisting of “Wow” and a link to a video of Gomm playing his song “Passionflower” live.
Today, that video has close to 6 million views, and Gomm has become one of the most talked-about players in the acoustic guitar scene, with fans ranging from David Crosby to Steve Vai to Lamb of God’s Randy Blythe.
One look at any of Gomm’s many videos makes it easy to see why his playing has caused such waves. On the main melody of “Passionflower,” for example, he builds an entrancing and hypnotic rhythm pattern by, among other things, scratching, banging and knocking the body of his guitar, a Lowden he calls Wilma.
He sounds notes, including harp harmonics, exclusively using eight-finger tapping and with both hands positioned over the fretboard, and he continually reaches behind the headstock to retune his two highest strings as they ring out, to create a synth-like effect. To top it off, he sings over the whole thing.
But despite the practically acrobatic nature of his playing, Gomm insists that his music is not a gimmick. “Every song has to have a meaning and connect with people emotionally,” says the 36-year-old guitarist, who actually composes his lyrics first and adds instrumentation afterward. “And you can’t make that connection just by doing gymnastics.” He adds that his favorite thing about playing in this style is that “there are no boundaries. I can think in any genre I want and try to put that into the music.”
Gomm has played many genres over the years. Early on, he schooled himself using Steve Vai’s instructional book Shred Extravaganza and later studied at the Guitar Institute in London and earned a jazz degree from the Leeds College of Music.
Thanks to his father’s career as a record and concert reviewer for a British newspaper, he received first-hand tips and pointers as a teenager from a famous players, including B.B. King, bluesman Walter Trout and the late steel-guitar virtuoso Bob Brozman, whom he credits with turning him onto the idea of using the guitar as a percussion instrument.
“He would flip his guitar over and play drum solos on the back of the body, which was mind blowing to me,” Gomm says. “I also had a guitar teacher who was great at flamenco, and percussive playing is a big part of that style. So while a guy like Michael Hedges was huge for me, it was probably less for the percussion thing and more for his amazing way with altered tunings.”
Altered tunings are a big part of Gomm’s style as well. For him, it serves as a way to further unleash his creativity. “I went to guitar school, and I learned a million scales,” he says. “But if I take the guitar and just twist a few pegs, all of a sudden everything is new. Sometimes the most creative thing you can do is tune your guitar wrong and let your ears, rather than your brain, do the work.”
Gomm also pushes his creative boundaries by using banjo pegs on his B and high E strings. The pegs can be set to toggle between two notes, allowing players to loosen and tighten a string’s tension to hit distinct pitches at will.
The effect, as demonstrated by Gomm on songs like “Passionflower” and “Telepathy” (both of which appear on Secrets Nobody Keeps), is similar to bending a note on an electric guitar or playing with a synthesizer’s pitch wheel. On another composition, “Hey Child,” which features an overdrive-laced shredding solo, he uses the banjo pegs to create dive-bomb-like whammy-bar effects.
“You can get really creative with them and bring your sound into so many different worlds,” Gomm says.
Which, essentially, is how he feels about this acoustic guitar style. “There’s just so much you can do,” he says. “When I pick up an electric guitar now, it feels like a toy. The acoustic feels so much more powerful and free to me. It’s a beast of an instrument.”
Jon Gomm Axology
GUITAR Lowden O12-C (“Wilma”)
PICKUPS Fishman Rare Earth Blend, Fishman Acoustic Matrix
STRINGS Newtone signature super-heavy gauge (.014–.068)
EFFECTS Three Boss PQ-3B Bass Parametric Equalizers, Boss OC-3 Super Octave, Boss DD-7 Digital Delay, Boss RV-5 Digital Reverb, Tech 21 SansAmp Character Series Blond, Line 6 Verbzilla, Line 6 Echo Park
AMP Trace Elliot TA 200
In contrast to many of his contemporaries in the progressive fingerstyle world, Daryl Kellie’s musical proclivities and background lean more toward jazz and classical forms rather than the ethereal, percussive-heavy approach of Hedges and Reed.
Which, in a sense, made Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” an ideal showcase for the 30-year-old’s abilities as a solo guitar arranger and performer.
Kellie’s interpretation of the song is remarkably evocative of the original, with the guitarist employing complex chords, tapping, hammer-ons and plenty of harmonics (both natural and artificial), to great effect.
Explains Kellie, “I’ve always come at this from a jazz-fingerstyle guitar angle, and the classical guitar thing is something I’ve always kept up as well. With that in mind, something like ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ is in a way similar to the kind of very dense arrangements you often find in classical guitar music. So arranging the song came pretty naturally to me.”
In general, most any style of playing seems to come naturally to Kellie, who began his guitar life as a hard rock and metal fan.
Growing up in Hampshire, England, he was an avowed acolyte of shredders like Steve Vai, Joe Satriani, Eric Johnson and Eddie Van Halen (“I actually snapped the whammy bar off my Fender Squier trying to learn ‘Eruption,’ ” he says), and in his late teens he toured Britain as the lead guitarist in a “proggy, gothy” metal band named Season’s End.
At the same time, he began cultivating an interest in jazz and classical solo guitar, studying the playing of everyone from Joe Pass to Lenny Breau (from whom he cultivated his skillful harp-harmonic technique) to Martin Taylor, who also served as his guitar teacher for a time.
Then, in his early twenties, Kellie’s older brother gave him a copy of Andy McKee’s 2005 CandyRat effort, Art of Motion, which includes the songs “Drifting” and “Rylynn.” Recalls Kellie, “I thought it was amazing. I was already getting into the solo guitar thing through my jazz studies, so to see what Andy and some of the other CandyRat artists were doing, with the percussive element and all the interesting techniques, it felt like the next frontier. It was a style of guitar that seemed to be all encompassing, like you could go anywhere with it.”
Kellie threw himself wholeheartedly into this new style, and in 2010 he self-released his first EP, Don’t Expect Much and You Won’t Be Disappointed. But it is his growing online catalog of inventively arranged cover songs that has been garnering him the most attention.
A quick search on YouTube brings up videos of Kellie tackling songs in a variety of genres, from rock classics like the Beatles’ “When I’m Sixty-Four” and the White Stripes’ “Seven Nation Army” to Tetris and Super Mario Bros video-game music and pop hits like Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It),” which appears, along with “Bohemian Rhapsody” on Kellie’s new, self-released full-length effort, Wintersong.
“I like the idea of doing something that’s unexpected,” he explains. “If it’s the first time someone’s been to one of my gigs, they might be like, ‘Is that freakin’ Beyoncé that he’s playing?’ And I also want to show that these are great songs and there’s some interesting things going on in them.”
The success of his “Bohemian Rhapsody” arrangement has inspired Kellie to create more covers. “I’ve been considering some Nirvana arrangements, using lots of artificial harmonics and that type of thing,” he says. “And it’d be fun to do something really ‘outside,’ like a Megadeth song, perhaps.”
Ultimately, his goal is to keep pushing his acoustic-guitar technique into new realms. “I want to continue to learn and try new things,” he says. “I would love to incorporate techniques like tapping and harp harmonics into jazz and jazz improvisation pieces, which I don’t feel is done very much, particularly on the acoustic. I think that would be really interesting.”
Daryl Kellie Axology
GUITARS Gibson L-50, Taylor 810 custom, 110ce and 310ce
PICKUPS Fishman Rare Earth Blend
EFFECTS Electro-Harmonix Holy Grail Reverb Nano, Boss RC-30 Loop Station
PREAMP BBE Acoustimax
Photo (Daryl Kellie): Alex Flahive