You’re Smiling Now, Mr McKee
Guitar student Phil Clarke (left) deconstructs the acoustic wonders of instrumental guitarist Andy McKee (right) – with his own professional journey in mind; ACM always.
‘Drifting’ – at first we’re unaware he’s even started playing it. His touch is so soft that only halfway through the first verse do we recognise it, and cheers echo through the venue of around 100 or so.
Finally, he’s playing that song – the one that blew us away when we first saw it on YouTube all those years ago. It’s just one guitar, how can he make so many beautiful sounds from it? Now though, the song’s tangibly different than in that video, due in part to the baritone guitar he’s playing it on – the much lower pitch gives a thicker texture to the sound, and reminds you of the original version, yet seems new and fresh. Undiscovered yet familiar.
Andy’s performance of ‘Drifting’ also shows his progression as an artist since he wrote it when he was 18 or so, and hardcore fans will notice and appreciate the more refined performance he gives nowadays. Contemporary yet reminiscent. Andy’s use of dynamics is another highlight in this song, the quiet sections inaudible until your ears adjust to the near silence of them followed by a bold, regal fortissimo that truly showcases the massive amount of control he has over his instrument. Deafening silence vs a profound roar.
The main appeal I’ve found of Andy’s music is that his melodies are incredibly well constructed and accompanied, making it easy and chill listening yet still being complex at heart with a fair amount worth analysing. Having influences such as Dream Theatre does lend itself to adding progressive elements into one’s songs, after all. His song ‘Rylynn’ is what I believe to be his best example of this. When he played this tune the whole venue succumbed to the sheer beauty of the melody, the kind that makes modern life’s problems melt away.
Andy is not the perfect live act. Firstly his stage presence has yet to be refined, as he likes to hunch over in the centre of the stage, rarely moving around so we can get another angle of him. This shows it’s about the music, and to a lot of people, that’s enough. As well as this, he tunes his guitar by ear between songs rather than using a conventional silent tuning method like a tuning pedal or something. “Impressive” you might think, as being able to discern relative pitches is a genuine skill, however, it gets really quite annoying being forced to listen to the tuning process as loud and obnoxious as it is in between the gentle ballad that came before and the 80’s rock cover to come after. It’s quite the unpleasant and unnecessary juxtaposition, and really could do with a revision – either using a digital tuner or simply muting the front of house sound between songs would go a long way to improve the experience of Andy’s set.
Andy is also well known for playing the harp guitar, essentially a standard acoustic guitar with an extra set of bass strings, and is a cool set piece to spice up the otherwise single instrument set. His original song Into the Ocean offers a slightly different timbre because of this, and it showcases Andy’s skill (yet again) in being able to not only play this instrument but write for it as well, creating a soothing melody with accompaniment now enhanced by the extra bass strings he has available.
Andy McKee is a must-see for instrumental fingerstyle acoustic guitar fans the world over – or anyone who just needs to chill out for the night. his truly inspirational original material takes a modern spin on what Preston Reed, Michael Hedges and Don Ross did in their hay-day, and captivates his audience with his mastery of melody, the likes of which only the greats can claim fame for utilises inspired, yet still unique fingerstyle guitar to capture his audience in his harmonic and melodic soundscapes. His heroes are clear to see for anyone who knows the fingerstyle greats of three decades or so ago – he even covers some of their songs in his set to pay tribute in his own way – but this only adds to his set of truly inspiring original material played alongside.