ACCORDING TO THE 2013 GP READER’S POLL, KAKI KING IS NOT ONLY THE reigning acoustic queen—she’s today’s Best Acoustic Guitarist, period. It’s a good bet
that voters considered King’s adventurous artistic spirit and how vividly it shines through
on Glow [Velour, 2012].
King burst on the scene a decade ago as a solo performer with a dazzling, percussive,
two-handed slapping and tapping approach inspired by Preston Reed and Michael
Hedges—and her success hipped a hoard of young players to the style. With emulators
nipping at her heels, King started singing and eventually went electric with a full band
before finding herself at a creative dead end. She recovered her groove by returning to
the acoustic and fashioning fresh paths.
Glow showcases King’s often-overlooked yet extremely swift fingerstyle technique,
as she explores different tunings, instruments, and textures. Her acoustic guitar is surrounded
by powerful, swirling string arrangements provided by the imaginative ETHEL
string quartet, as well as propulsive percussion provided by King herself. Producer D.
James Goodwin added atmospheric elements to King’s droning dreamscapes, reflecting
the woodsy environment of his Woodstock, New York studio, the Isokon.
Glow features a collection of stringed instruments covering a vast sonic range. How
many different guitars did you play?
I brought my full arsenal to the studio, but I ended up using just four instruments.
My signature Ovation Adamas was the workhorse, but I played a Bedell parlor guitar on
“No True Masterpiece Will Ever Be Completed” because I wanted a smaller, boxy sound;
and I used a Gold Tone Weissenborn on “Marche Slav.” The high-register guitar on some
pieces is a little Veillette Gryphon High 12.
How did you get hip to that?
I was playing on a session produced by creative sound master David Torn a few years
ago when he put one in my hands. “Oh my God, I need one of these” was my first thought.
Its brilliant sound is so unique, and it’s actually very easy to play despite having 12 strings
stuffed together on a short-scale neck with high tension.
Do you use the Gryphon as designed, with strings gauged .009 to .042, and tuned
to D standard nearly an octave above E standard?
I used that as a starting point to get to DADGAD for “Great Round Burn” and “King Pizel.” The Gryphon is interesting because
it’s not like a traditional 12-string with four
thick strings and four octave strings in addition
to the two doubled pairs. It’s all six
strings doubled in unison. I use LaBellas on
it. On “Fences,” I dropped the high D—the
one closest to the ground—to C because I
wanted that string to stand out compared
to the coupled D string. I also dropped the
second G string—the one closer to the ceiling—
down to F.
What possessed you to try that?
It’s just my nature to mess around. I’m
not a 12-string player historically, and I
thought, “Why not change a couple of the
notes and see how it sounds?” The High 12
was so inspiring that songs sprang from it
with minimal effort. They practically wrote
Did you record it direct using the built-in
preamp, with microphones, or both?
I always incorporate a direct signal run
through a DI, and my preference is the L.R.
Baggs Para Acoustic because the sound is
really clean. For the Glow sessions, I was often
sitting on a couch surrounded by a cage of
maybe ten microphones, and I put my trust
in the producer to figure all that out. James
Goodwin used a lot of Blue microphones to
record Glow. When I record myself, I generally
point a single large-diaphragm condenser
microphone at my face.
What’s your favorite microphone?
My favorite mics at the moment are my
Rode NT1-A and a Telefunken that’s essentially
a copy of a Neumann U 87. That one’s a
little bright but it sounds great on just about
any instrument, including my voice. On my
first record I used the DI signal for a bass-y,
plastic vibe, and a Neumann U 87 pointed
almost at my forehead. I always get the best
results when I have a reference microphone
somewhere around my head capturing essentially
what I’m hearing when I play. I’ve asked
for that so many times and had people say,
“You’re crazy—such a cute little girl.” And
every time they try it they say, “Wow, you’re
right. That sounds great!”
Why don’t more players experiment with
open minor tunings, and what led you to
experiment with D minor on Glow?
A lot of the acoustic players I grew up
listening to who used open tunings were
going for pretty, kind of pastoral sounds.
I love some of that music, but I have very
little interest in making it [laughs]. I’m more
of a minor-key kind of person. Historically,
I’ve used a lot of tunings that don’t include
a third and so aren’t major or minor, per se.
I started experimenting with open D minor
because I can get from it to DADGAD quickly
and easily by raising the third string a wholestep
I used D minor on “Cargo Cult,” “Kelvinator,
Kelvinator,” and “Streetlight in the
Egg,” which are three very different songs.
It’s challenging to make truly unique, quality
songs mining the same tuning. It seems
to help when you create songs in different keys from the tuning itself. That’s why standard
tuning is so great—you’re not dependent
on the open strings, you’re making your
hands work. I like to make my right hand
work, but I’m lazy with my left hand. That’s
the opposite of most players.
From watching video of “Cargo Cult,” it
appears that you get a lot of mileage out
of a power-chord shape rooted on the fifth
string that you slide up and down to the
odd-numbered positions while letting the
first two strings ring.
Muscle memory is hard to get away from.
That power chord is a familiar place for most
players. If you change your tuning to, in this
case, D minor, suddenly that power chord
shape sounds totally different because there’s
a minor sixth on top of it, and you’re getting
a variety of additional colors from the
first two open strings. All of a sudden you
find yourself playing a fresh-sounding riff,
and your fingers are still happy.
I also noticed that when you lift your first
finger from the root, and put your second
finger on the sixth string at the same fret
as the third and fourth fingers, it yields a
handy natural minor chord that’s a fifth
below the starting point.
There you go. A lot of people ask me
how I memorize where all the notes are in
the different tunings I use, and the answer
is I don’t have time for that! The beauty is
I really don’t know what I’m playing. I’m
playing from my heart, and I’m playing what
sounds good to me rather than what I was
taught. That’s essentially the root of everything
great I’ve ever done—using simple tools
to create something that sounds totally new.
Can you detail the tools and techniques
you use to create the sound on “Bowen
|ETHEL (left to right)—Tema Watstein, Kip Jones, Dorothy Lawson, and Ralph Farris.
I lay my Bedell parlor guitar on my lap
with the strings slacked. Then I place a custom-
made block of wood with notches it—
think of a Dobro bridge—under the strings
at the 16th fret. Once I tune up, it divides
that particular guitar into two halves related
by the interval of a perfect fourth from right
to left, or, inversely, a perfect fifth from left
to right. Now there are two tunings: E, A,
C, E, G, A (low to high) on the soundhole
side, and A, D, F, A, C, D on the neck side.
I fingerpick on both sides of the new
bridge, but I only use my first two fingers
on my left hand. The power still comes from
my right hand, and that side comes across
more clearly because of the soundhole. The
secret weapon is if you pluck a high-pitched
string on the right side and simultaneously
bend it by pressing down with a finger on your left hand, it makes a boing sound like a
koto. The technique is actually very similar
to traditional koto playing.
How do you approach the Glow material
onstage without the luxury of having
ETHEL on hand to play the string quartet
The record turned out so cool that sometimes
I worry if the songs hold up without
everything that ETHEL and James added,
but on the other hand those things were
additions. I wrote and played all the songs on
guitar first, and I ultimately believe that the
songs do stand up beautifully when I perform
them solo, even if my ear misses certain
things sometimes. I’m sure my approach
to them will change. I’ll eventually experiment
with effects and loops, but right now
I’m keeping it fairly cut and dried playing
solo acoustic guitar. The good news is that
this music coincides with the time in my
life when I’m playing my best, so nothing
is really lost.