SOME ARE born with an abundance of talent but never fully realise their potential, letting their gifts go to waste. Others have more modest abilities but strive hard, and by their efforts, make the very most of them.
Then there is a third breed, those who possess rare and rich talent and who are prepared to learn, to work, and push themselves fully to explore their gifts, and by such effort, they, and we, both benefit.
American guitarist Andy McKee is one who fits into this category and Galway will have a chance to see his magnificent abilities and hear his wonderful music when he plays the Live Lounge at The Radisson Blu Hotel on Thursday March 3 at 7.30pm.
A Kansas apprenticeship
Andy McKee was born in Topeka, Kansas, and playing guitar was a good hobby for a young teen to have in a place where, “there wasn’t whole lot going on”.
“Most of Kansas is very agricultural, there’s a lot of wheat fields and cornfields and playing the guitar gave me something to do when I came home from school,” Andy tells me during our Monday morning interview. “My dad gave me a guitar for my 13th birthday. I asked for a guitar after I heard Eric Johnson doing an instrumental on the electric guitar. It was awesome.”
Most guitarists start learning the acoustic before graduating to electric, but for Andy it was the other way around. He took a year of formal lessons for electric guitar while his cousin Richard Kimzey showed him various “Eddie Van Halen techniques”. However a major turning point came when Andy was 16 and he saw the extraordinary talent of Preston Reed for the first time.
Reed’s unorthodox technique of over the neck fretting and double handed work on the guitar neck, along with his left hand simultaneously strumming and performing percussion on guitar body, changed Andy’s approach to playing forever.
“I went to see Preston give a masterclass in Topeka and was amazed at what he was doing,” says Andy. “His use of percussion and different tunings to play songs that would be impossible to play otherwise, made me dive right into modern acoustic guitar. He’s a huge influence on my style.”
Andy swapped his electric for an acoustic and started listening to such innovative acoustic players as Reed, Don Ross, and the late Michael Hedges. He studied their techniques, listened carefully to their albums, explored the tunings they used, all the while trying to figure out, by ear, how they were achieving their sound and style.
Sixteen was a significant year in Andy’s life as not only did he discover the direction in which he wanted to pursue his guitar playing, but the direction he wanted to take his life in, and at first his parents were worried.
“I dropped out of school when I was 16 to concentrate on playing guitar and for a couple of years there were questions about what I was going to do with my life,” says Andy, “but when people were able to see what I could do my father was very appreciative. He passed away a few years ago but he did get to see some of the success I’m having now.”
Andy is not shy to credit his influences, citing Michael Hedges “compositional sense and approach to melody, rhythm, and harmony” as important, alongside the music he grew up listening to, such as Metallica, The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, and Tears For Fears (check his inspired cover of ‘Everybody Wants To Rule The World’ ).
Yet a listen to any of Andy’s albums - Nocturne (2001 ), Dreamcatcher (2004 ), Art Of Motion (2005 ), Gates Of Gnomeria (2007 ), and Joyland (2010 ) - or watch his videos on Youtube and it is immediately apparent that he has a talent as original and as exciting as those who have inspired him.
“I might start out by trying a technique or a tuning from someone I admire and come up with a variation or experiment with it, and through that you sometimes happen on a new technique,” says Andy. “Sometimes these things are happy accidents or it’s because you are trying to find a way to play a melody and a riff at the same time and you have to develop technique to make that possible.”
These influences come together on ‘Away’ from Joyland. It shows a strong Preston Reed influence in its percussive style, but also Andy’s originality in its tuning of (high to low ) F#AC#G#BE, which Andy describes as his “most unusual”.
The piece is played on the harpguitar, a fascinatingly strange instrument which incorporates a regular acoustic guitar with a large ‘harp like’ section on its top left hand side.
“The first time I saw it being played was at a bluegrass festival in 2002/3 and Stephen Brennan, a great guitarist who’s now also a friend, was playing it,” he says. “I got to know him and he gave me the guitar he had at the festival. He has about three or four of them.”
As Andy was inspired by numerous guitarists, so others are now inspired by him. Some guitarists would see him and say ‘I want to be able to do that’. Others would say ‘I could never do that’. What advice does he have for those learning the guitar?
“It’s best to keep an open mind and allow creativity to have space,” he says. “I never really saw a guitarist with amazing abilities as something to turn me off. I was always inspired by it and that’s the best approach. If you see someone inspiring you can go home and work on their music. Don’t give up. Have faith in what you can do.”
Internet woes and joys
When Andy released his first couple of albums in the early noughties, the CD was king, vinyl was on a life support machine, and downloading was unheard of. These days CDs are facing extinction, vinyl has become a religion, and downloading is supreme as the new way we consume music. It’s an extraordinary turnaround in such a short space of time.
However the rise in downloads has seen illegal downloads, music piracy, and illegal filesharing take off in ways the eighties’ ‘Home taping is killing music’ campaign could never imagine.
Andy’s music is available physically and as downloads. He does not mind which format people opt for, but he has spoken out publicly against illegal downloads, such as his famous note to Pirate Bay:
“Thanks a lot for uploading! It’s not like I need to make a living with my music or anything,” he wrote. “8,676 thieves. If you really appreciate what I am doing, buy my CD legitimately so I can continue to compose music rather than work at K-Mart.”
“I don’t want to be a crusader against filesharing but I believe people should pay for their music,” Andy says now, reflecting on the issue. “A song costs only 99c on iTunes and that’s not much to pay for something you can enjoy an infinite number of times.
“Someone has put years into learning their instrument and I would feel awkward stealing from an artist. I don’t know if there is any way to stop it and people know it’s stealing to take money away from an artist.’”
Where the internet has been of enormous help - indeed crucial - to Andy’s success is through Youtube. Andy first put up videos of himself in 2006 and his astonishing abilities caught the imagination of music fans and word of mouth encouraged more and more people to check out his entries.
Six years later, Andy’s online community has raised his YouTube views to more than 78 million plays and he held the top three positions for Top-Rated Videos of All Time on YouTube. This online media success has resulted in a major boost to album and ticket sales allowing him to tour internationally with more than 200 live shows a year.
“I put up the videos hoping to get some new fans but it was amazing how it blew up and boosted my career,” says Andy. “It’s led to opportunities to perform in the UK and Ireland and the rest of European and Asia, and turned performing into a full time career for me.”
Andy clearly loves writing and performing music and playing live, always taking time after the show to meet fans. He will be busy with shows over the coming while, but will also be taking a break as well after April when his first child is born.
“I’m looking forward to that very much,” says the father to be. “It will be my first child, my first son.”
No doubt Andy will be teaching his son to play guitar when he’s older? “Very likely,” he says. “He’s going to see a lot of guitars around the house.”