These days, Andy McKee says many of the things you’d expect to hear from a guy with two kids approaching age 40. He’s worried about social media, especially the fact that it discourages face-to-face communication. When he’s at home, he’d rather hang out with his family than be in front of a computer.
He’d also much rather listen to a song with a good melody than some technically brilliant guitarist showing off a new style. That’s the funny thing about turning 40: You find yourself a different person than you were at 27, and McKee may be the best example of those contradictions. Social media, after all, gave him a career as an acoustic guitar wizard.
In 2005, McKee was a guitar teacher in Topeka, Kansas. A couple players he respected who shared an acoustic guitar label suggested he put a few videos online. So he filmed a half-dozen videos showing off the crazy way he played guitar, releasing them once a month on a strange new platform called YouTube.
McKee’s technical brilliance, so unique that many had never seen it before, went viral (which, back then was just called popular) earning him millions of views in just a few weeks. It wasn’t long before people wanted him to play – in person – around the world.
This was far more than McKee ever expected, though he knew after picking up a guitar at age 14 that he wanted to have a career in music. He loved guitar-driven metal bands like Metallica, asking his guitar teacher if he could learn “Enter Sandman,” but he wanted to play guitar because of Eric Johnson, the instrumental guitarist known for “Cliffs of Dover.” McKee connected with the melodies Johnson played much more than he did with song lyrics.
Then, when he was 17, he heard his first acoustic guitar album, and, as McKee put it, it was a flip of the switch.
“They were doing stuff I didn’t know was possible,” McKee said in a phone interview for BandWagon. “I thought the acoustic guitar was just for strumming along to campfire songs.” His emulation of those techniques morphed into his own “moves” that others didn’t know were possible.
“I think most guitar players are like that,” he said. “They take inspiration and come up with their own things to go with it, ending up with something unique. People weren’t doing that stuff, especially in Kansas. I was just trying to problem-solve on how to play a song, and wound up developing my own thing.”
“I didn’t know if I would be anything but a teacher, but I did enjoy performing and was hoping to have some sort of career,” McKee said. “The level that it happened so quickly really took me by surprise.”
He’s since released a half-dozen albums and performed in 45 countries globally, turning his steel-string guitar into an orchestra with his use of altered tunings and stunning, percussive two-handed tapping technique. But these days, McKee focuses more on songwriting than technical brilliance. A song he writes has to speak to him in the same way Johnson’s music spoke to him, inspiring him to pick up a guitar. If it doesn’t, he works on it until it does.
“Just because you are a great guitar player doesn’t mean you’re a great songwriter,” McKee said. “I originally wanted to do fancy guitar work, but that’s just not as interesting to me anymore. I’m interested in a good piece of music.”
He is, in fact, still surprised at the emails he gets from fans about his music and not about his jaw-dropping ability: brides walking down the aisle to his song, his music being played at a funeral, or even fans naming their child after one of his tunes.
Even so, when he performs, he always includes something that shows off his skills as one of the world’s best acoustic guitar masters, including his 57 million view YouTube hit, “Drifting.” He knows he has fans because of his technique and that his current career wouldn’t exist without social media. But he hasn’t posted a video on YouTube in…well, he can’t remember when. He’s focused on making the best music he can rather than developing the next crazy guitar technique. He’s even working on a new album with 80s rock guitar and synth sounds set for release later this year. He’s not sure how his fans will take it, but recently, he went back to social media to find out, posting samples on his Instagram account.
“People seem to be digging it on social media,” McKee said with a laugh. “I’m happy about that.”