She’s wearing a pink babydoll dress, playing her white Fender Mustang bass and sitting on her amp—just like she once did at an elementary school performance.
Back then she was smaller than her bass. Now McKenna Petty practices with her band, The Aces, which recently opened for Tim McGraw at Stadium of Fire. She’s a Utah girl who has come a long way from those early days at Orchard Elementary School in Orem.
Petty remembers her best friend saying to her when she was just 12 years old, “You should ask for a bass for Christmas, and we’ll start a band.”
Petty, now a junior at BYU, agreed to the suggestion and asked her parents for a bass guitar. “I didn’t even know what a bass was, but I did it and I asked for one.”
Her mother, Wendy Hullinger, was surprised when her daughter asked for a bass but bought her one nevertheless. “I figured it’d be a kind of fleeting thing.”
She said her daughter really liked the Jonas Brothers, and she and her friends wanted to form a girl version of that. Petty’s best friend Cristal Ramirez had a guitar and her sister, Alisa Ramirez, had a drum set—all they needed was for Petty to get a bass to complete their band.
Soon after Christmas break, Petty, Cristal Ramirez and Alisa Ramirez started playing together, learning covers and writing their own music. Every Monday and Tuesday Petty would go home after school with Cristal and Alisa for band practice.
“We were really surprised when they would continue to play,” Hullinger said.
The three young girls were dedicated to practicing every week. Petty said it was easy to make the transition to practicing as a band because the girls were already hanging out.
“We were just such good friends that it was fun, and it was just good to put our time into something that was going to be beneficial to us,” Petty said.
Neither Petty nor any of her bandmates ever took music lessons; she and her friends just figured their instruments out on their own. Her uncle played the bass, so he gave her a few pointers, but Petty, with no formal training, just watched videos and learned covers.
“We all just started learning together. It took me a while to figure out what I was doing on the bass,” Petty said. “It definitely took work to get to where I am now.”
When she started playing the bass, Petty was about the size of her instrument.
“She would come home with bleeding fingers and I remember she had to put super glue on her little fingertips to make them hard enough to be able to pluck those bass guitar strings,” Hullinger said.
Cristal Ramirez remembers one of their first performances together, during the first year of the band, when they played for an elementary school graduation. Petty’s bass kept unhooking from her guitar strap prior to the performance.
Their performance took place in a middle school auditorium of about 700 or 800 people and right in the middle of one of the songs, Petty’s bass unhooked and hit the ground.
“I just heard her scrambling around, like trying to pick her bass up, and she was so little and her bass was so big, so she was like sitting on an amp,” Cristal Ramirez said.
To this day, The Aces still joke about that performance.
In the audience that day was Katie Henderson, who became good friends with Petty in middle school. Henderson became the lead guitarist of the band because of that friendship.
When Petty talks about herself, she naturally references her bandmates, as well. Petty said she feels she is part of a sisterhood: they understand each other, travel together and produce music together.
“It’s just so natural and normal because I’ve been doing it so long. I love that we’re all so close,” Petty said.
Petty’s band members love her and see her as someone who can always make them laugh. They also mentioned that because she has long hair and she’s always wearing a dress, she’s known for having the “sweet girl style” of the band, and according to Cristal Ramirez, Petty is the most feminine of the band.
“She owns that look,” Henderson said.
For Petty, the best part about being a member of The Aces is performing live. She loves the music they write together because she feels it’s more relatable.
“That’s the most special and important part of being in the band for me,” Petty said.
Petty’s mother said Petty’s music is therapeutic for her daughter. Music is Petty’s creative outlet, her stress reliever.
“It’s just a creative thing that helped me release emotion,” Petty said.
Hullinger remembers a particular performance as a great moment for Petty. The Aces were competing in a battle of the bands competition in Heber. The rest of the bands were made up of older males playing punk rock and rock ‘n’ roll sets. Hullinger remembers the crowd went wild when The Aces got up on the stage. She then heard one of the guys in the other bands say, “Dude, we’re going to get beat by a bunch of little girls.”
And they did. At the time, Petty and her bandmates were in junior high.
“I like to brag about her a lot,” Hullinger said.
Petty was accepted to BYU with a full-ride scholarship. She’s dedicated to her studies and does well in math and science. According to Hullinger, chemistry has been one of Petty’s favorite subjects thus far at BYU.
Petty has yet to declare her major, but is interested in life science, health science and neuroscience.
“I’m really fascinated by science, and I think medicine is kind of cool. Maybe in the future going into something like that, or therapy —like music therapy or psychiatry,” Petty said.
Petty’s freshman year was difficult because she still wanted to stay active in The Aces. Learning to balance practicing and studying was difficult, but she’s been able to complete two years of school. She’s not sure she’ll be able to keep up the same schedule from now on because the band is getting more publicity and more projects, but school is still important to her.
“She’s got a humility about her that I think makes her work really hard still, you know,” Hullinger said. “She just feels like she has continually to get better at what she does and work harder, and she’s just driven that way to be the best she can be, and we’re really proud of her.”
The Aces started about 10 years years ago, and they’re still making music. Petty and her bandmates have been working hard and are starting to see the results — like playing for a crowd of 50,000 at Stadium of Fire.
“It’s this great story about a bunch of little girls that had this big dream and they made it come true,” Hullinger said.
The Aces practice every day for at least two hours, but the band members also practice individually.
“We’re doing it. We’re full-force doing it. This is our life right now,” Petty said. “We just want to keep on pumping out music and touring and, you know, eventually sign to a label and just live the dream, man. Hit the road.”