ANDY McKEE IS the epitome of solo acoustic excellence, and on his new album, Symbol (Mythmaker/Cruzen Street), the guitarist embraces his role as one of the planet’s premiere percussive fingerstyle ambassadors. Three of Symbol’s six songs are covers honoring his most influential heroes, Preston Reed, Billy McLaughlin and Michael Hedges. McKee also conveys reverence for Prince, with whom he toured Australia in 2012, by milking every drop of meaning from “Purple Rain” without uttering a syllable. McKee’s rendition is actually quite straightforward considering the advanced techniques at his command, and it is majestic in its modesty. He allows the starkly exposed melody to speak for itself, and this version will surely spur other players to give it a shot.
The penultimate track pays homage to McKee’s other obsession, video game music, and he renders the symphonic “Streets of Whiterun” with expansive beauty on harp guitar. The acoustics on Symbol sound deep and lush, which is particularly impressive, considering McKee recorded at home using a single Mojave Audio MA-200 microphone to capture his Greenfield guitars. The album was mixed by solo finger stylist and former Guitar Masters tour mate Antoine Dufour.
The finale commemorates some of McKee’s favorite movie soundtrack music with a medley of training scene tunes from Rocky IV, which was a formative factor in his lifelong instrumental appreciation. With original composer Vince DiCola playing everything except guitar, it’s a wild sonic sea change, the dramatic nature of which is furthered by McKee’s diametrically different electric guitar style. It bears no resemblance to his percussive acoustic approach and is instead inspired by shredders such as Joe Satriani and John Petrucci. He even used an Ernie Ball Music Man John Petrucci signature model on “Rocky IV Medley.”
McKee wears his modern acoustic Eagle Scout badge with honor, and he gets truly geeked up talking about instrumental virtuosity of all stripes. But what sets him apart is his pure passion for honest musical expression. McKee relishes opportunities to preach what he practices. He recently completed his annual Musicarium guitar camp, and is touring with fellow solo acoustic icon and educator Tommy Emmanuel. McKee’s videos are infinitely popular on YouTube, and he has a relatively new TrueFire channel called “The Joy of Playing,” where eager legions of dedicated disciples can browse a broad selection of video tutorials in which their guru pontificates on everything from gear to technique and influences.
What’s at the heart of your deep appreciation for instrumental music, and why haven’t you cut more fresh studio takes recently?
I sometimes stumble over words, so music has always been a direct way for me to connect with people. But considering all of the insanity that’s been going on in the country over the past four years, what kind of music could I write that would connect? I felt like I didn’t understand people the way I thought I did. That really shook me and threw me into a tailspin. My whole desire to even try writing music anymore seemed futile.
Was interpreting a few tunes by your heroes essentially a creative way to get your mojo working again?
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