A FLAIR FOR FINGERSTYLE
Revered as one of the world's finest acoustic guitar players, his success is perhaps all the more significant for the effective way he has brought an otherwise acquired taste to the attention of the masses. A uniquely influential artist, he is without a doubt a virtuoso whose attention to detail and melodic timbre, coupled with his nimble fingerstyle and a natural flair for music has touched millions of people, as much via his engaging live performances and perhaps even more thanks to his renowned YouTube clips. US artist ANDY MCKEE speaks here to Michael Bugeja ahead of his debut live performance in Malta later this month.
Discovering guitarist Preston Reed's work was a turning point in your musical journey. What were you into before that, and what about Reed's style got you hooked?
I was mostly listening to electric guitar music before I discovered Preston Reed. Some of my favourite bands and musicians included Dream Theater, Metallica, Eric Johnson, Joe Satriani, and Pantera. When I saw Preston perform, I was really impressed with the idea that you could cover rhythmic, harmonic and melodic ideas at once on a guitar. I had learned a few acoustic guitar pieces prior to that, but nothing that approached the level of what Preston was creating.
Having been quite partial to ‘shred guitar’ before immersing yourself in the more eloquent fingerstyle, how do you compare these two aspects of guitar-playing and the power and technique one can conjure out of both?
I guess I'd go back to the idea that in fingerstyle guitar, you are trying to cover all of the musical bases simultaneously on one guitar while "shredding" generally involves playing melodic lines or solos exclusively while playing within a band context. When playing lead guitar in a band, you have a lot of freedom to "shred" in those solos and you can really put a lot of focus on your melodic abilities. In fingerstyle, you have complete control over the entire composition; you can affect the dynamics, tempo, improvisation, etc. at anytime. You can really express yourself throughout the entire composition rather than just taking a solo here and there. Playing fingerstyle really suits me well, I enjoy being able to relate to my listeners through this kind of music because it feels very direct.
How surprised were you at the reaction that your YouTube clips attracted, and what do you feel it was about your clips that struck so many music fans worldwide, considering this style isn’t quite mainstream after all?
I was very surprised and I think I will always be surprised at the success of Drifting and the other tunes. It's not that I didn't think my music was any good, it's just that in today's world I didn't imagine many people would take the time to listen to an instrumental acoustic guitarist. Playing the guitar in this over-the-top percussive way (heavily inspired by Preston) surely didn't hurt. Also, perhaps my somewhat unusual appearance piqued some people's curiosity. Whatever the reasons may have been, I'm very grateful that my music reached so many people and led me to having a career as a performer. I am sure that my purpose is try and help folks through my music.
Apart from your original work, you’ve also covered several popular songs by other artists. What do you look for in a song that inspires you to rework it into your own style and have there been any songs you’ve found particularly challenging in this regard?
For me, it's simply a matter of falling in love with a piece of music. When that happens, I have to make an arrangement. Just the other week I made a new arrangement on harpguitar for a piece called Streets of Whiterun (composed by Jeremy Soule). It's an orchestral piece from a video game called Skyrim that I just couldn't get out of my head, not that I wanted to! Anyway, as far as a challenging arrangement, I would say Bjork's Venus as a Boy was tricky. I ended up layering about 12 guitar tracks for that one, so it wasn't a solo arrangement. I just wanted to give it a go as a guitar orchestra sort of thing!
You've worked with Josh Groban, Lee Ritenour, Prince…clearly fingerstyle’s appeal is way broader than most people think. A word about your experiences working with such a diversity of artists and what you feel it is about fingerstyle that is so effectively captivating once listened to and not just heard?
Wow, cool I like this question! Well, I'll just say that from my own experience fingerstyle guitar is really compelling for a couple of reasons. One is that you are listening to a solo musician expressing himself strictly through music. I've always felt that there is something very powerful about relaying your thoughts and emotions without using words. The second thing that is appealing about fingerstyle guitar music is that it is played on a guitar. Of course this is arguable, but I think the reason that the guitar is the most popular instrument on the planet is because you can manipulate the strings in so many ways, and this is especially true with fingerstyle guitar. It's also a very visual instrument from the listener's point of view. Working with the people that I have has been a real honour and I couldn't really have imagined that I'd be collaborating with folks like Prince when I started. Overall, I think I'm more of a composer than sideman though, so I intend to continue writing music as my creative outlet.
A word about your latest EP, Mythmaker. What attracted you to go for an EP this time rather than an album, and what inspired the distinct variety featured within?
I am interested in trying to get music released as frequently as I can so I plan on releasing an EP at least every year. I think the way that music is acquired these days doesn't necessitate the creation of albums anymore, people just want new music as soon as they can get it! On the Mythmaker EP I wanted to branch out a bit from just solo acoustic guitar so there ended up being a solo piano piece and a piece for piano, acoustic guitar, and electric guitar.
You’ll be playing in Malta for the first time soon, where fingerstyle is relatively fresh and still growing in popularity. What expectations do you have of this visit and what can we expect from your live performance?
I can't wait to see Malta, it looks beautiful! I will be performing a lot of my original compositions for solo guitar and baritone guitar, with some stories about the songs while I change my guitar tunings in-between! See you all soon!
Andy McKee will be performing live at City Theatre in Valletta on Saturday, May 23. Claire Tonna & Justin Galea will be performing before the main act. Doors open at 8pm. Tickets are available online at ticketline.com.mt.
This article was first published on The Sunday Times of Malta (10 May 2015)