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Kaki King's Inventive Acoustic Flow

January 30, 2014
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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 themselves.

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 from F.

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.

 
ETHEL (left to right)—Tema Watstein, Kip Jones, Dorothy Lawson, and Ralph Farris.
Can you detail the tools and techniques you use to create the sound on “Bowen Island?”

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 embellishments?

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.

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