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NEWCOMERS' GUIDE: Mack McKibben utilizes innate talents
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McKibben Music has accumulated approximately 250 students over the last 16 years. - photo by Emily Rose Hamby

Behind McKibben Music lies a musical mastermind who has worked with household names in the industry and made a living off of his innate talents. Graced with the gift of perfect pitch and his intrinsic ability of improvisation, Mack McKibben remains humble and grounded, prioritizing community and family above all else.

“[Family is] the most precious thing on this planet that you got,” McKibben said. “I wouldn’t trade this for all the popularity and all the money in the world. Just being right here – I mean, the community. We [have] a big family.”

Born in Social Circle and moving to Covington at the age of 10, McKibben has remained a lifelong resident of Newton County.

“It was one of the best times to grow up,” McKibben said. “I look back on that time a lot and think about how music came together for me and how it was a salvation and helped kind of catapult me through some difficult times.”

After picking up the piano at the age of five, his mother felt compelled to sign him up for lessons, starting a lifelong passion and eventual career for her son.

“That lasted about two or three months,” McKibben said. “When I’d go to my music lesson, the teacher would play it for me and I’d pick it out when I got home by ear. I never learned how to read music.”

Looking up to music legends such as Billy Preston, Floyd Cramer and Michael McDonald, McKibben sharpened his piano skills by adopting practice techniques and methods that best suited his learning style.

“I could hear [the] chordal structure that they were using,” McKibben said. “I would bring that song to the table and try to figure out what they were doing. Back then, all we had was vinyls. You would get that needle and try to find, ‘Where was that on there?’ By the time you get through, it’s skipping all over the place.”

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- photo by Emily Rose Hamby

While playing junior varsity football as a high school freshman, McKibben was presented with the opportunity to play piano at a party for a senior who was running for student body president. 

“One day I was walking off the field after the party that I played for,” McKibben said. “[The party host] walked up behind me and said, ‘Mack, why don’t you just stick with your piano?’ I thought that was pretty good advice because I [was] getting beat up pretty bad.”

Following his gut instinct since childhood and adhering to the advice from his high school pupil, McKibben pursued music as a career, remembering what initially inspired him to do so.

“I really wanted to play when I was a kid in church,” McKibben said. “I wanted to play an offertory. They wouldn’t let me do it. I couldn’t read. I couldn’t play what they wanted to hear. For that reason, I left pretty much and said, ‘Well, I’m going to pursue music, but I’m gonna pursue it where people appreciate it.’” 

When I’d go to my music lesson, the teacher would play it for me and I’d pick it out when I got home by ear. I never learned how to read music.
Mack McKibben

After marrying his wife, Deborah, at the ripe age of 20, McKibben’s music career was finding great success, however, as a father of five, he vowed to prioritize family, no matter what professional offers were waved in his face. 

“I was not a road guy. I couldn’t imagine leaving my family,” McKibben said. “That wasn’t my idea of being a musician. I was a guitar player, too and I taught guitar for the Recreation Department. I was playing clubs at night, six nights a week and then I’d get up about one o’clock and teach.”

McKibben’s choice to remain a family man in the comfort of his hometown did not limit his opportunities. His resume is nothing short of impressive, working with the Atlanta Rhythm Section’s Barry Bailey, J.R. Cobb and Buddy Buie, Percy Sledge, Dennis Yost and the Classics IV, The Temptations and The Impressions. 

Playing as a sideman for musicians when they came to Atlanta was the method in which McKibben supported his family. To prepare for his gigs, McKibben learned his part by ear from records and vinyls. 

“If you wanted to be successful in that time, you needed to not only know how to read, you needed to have a little bit of the ear. That’s what I had the most of, the ear. I could hear it, and I’d know it. I played outside of the line in all of it. I was [always] wanting to draw outside of the line and not stay in the box.”

McKibben’s talents and interests expand beyond performing. Before opening McKibben Music in 2007, he dabbled in songwriting and established himself as a piano salesman, tuner and mover. Throughout all his achievements, McKibben’s favorite career endeavor is where he found his ultimate purpose.

“The store. This is it,” McKibben said. “When I opened this store, [I] was going through some difficult times. I looked at my life and finally I realized why I was here. I knew that there was a purpose for me being here and it’s not just to sell instruments and it’s not to teach lessons, but it’s basically to be here. We have so many come in and just talk and they need to talk. So I look at this as a ministry more than a job.”

Since opening McKibben Music nearly 16 years ago, the store has accumulated around 250 students. From there, McKibben has made an impact on the community through music, from creating the Drive Time band and performing at events on the Square to presenting a free Christmas musical for over a decade.

“We have met so many fantastic people,” McKibben said. “There’s more than just music going on here. There’s this purpose. It’s life. It’s trying to give life back. And music is one of the greatest languages you can learn. There’s no way I could do it without God.”