GP Flashback: Kaki King, June 2003

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“I guess my dad was hipper than most,” says Kaki King. “Instead of sending me off to piano lessons with all the other kids, he forced me to play guitar—and I hated it. I took a few lessons and quit. But my dad always made sure there was a guitar around the house that was small enough for me to play, so I’d pick it up now and then, and strum a few chords or check out a Beatles songbook. Then, when Nirvana broke big, it seemed like every boy in my sixth-grade class started to play guitar. All of the sudden, it was cool to be playing, and Ialready knew way more than the boys did.”

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Today, King still knows more than a lot of players her age. Fresh out of college, the 23-year-old solo guitarist is making a big noise in acoustic guitar circles with her self-produced debut, Everybody Loves You. The buzz began at New York City’s Mercury Lounge, where she worked as a waitress and bartender. Scoring some stage time, King won over crowds with intriguing instrumentalsthat feature hypnotic, jazz-inflected chord progressions, lyrical melodies, and wild techniques such as two-handed tapping and percussive slaps to the guitar body. In addition, she rarely employs standard tuning.

“I like that it’s really easy to switch keys in standard tuning,” she notes, “but it’s hard to play open strings in standard and have them sound glorious. Then again, you can become overly dependant on open tunings. For example, you can be in DADGAD and play lovely things forever, but, eventually, it’s going to stop sounding interesting. The trick is to keep searching out new tunings and new ideas. One interesting tuning I use is [low to high] C, G, D,G, A, D—it gets you away from all those parallel fourths that arise in standard tuning.”

Although King was “blown away” after hearing albums by Alex de Grassi and Michael Hedges—and used her ear to learn some of their techniques and tunings—the pivotal moment in the evolution of her style came when she stumbled onto a true mentor.

“I went to the Swannanoa Gathering in North Carolina to immerse myself in guitar for a few days,” she says, “and everybody had Martins and Taylors, and was playing this lovely sort of Celtic guitar music. It was all very nice, but then I met Preston Reed, and what he was doing was much more interesting than what was going on around him. He tapped riffs, hit his guitar, and, like me, he tuned down a whole-step or more, and was into getting far-out sounds. He even played the exact same guitar as me—an Ovation Adamas. It seemed very serendipitous.”

Soon, King adopted some of the techniques used by Reed—such as treating her guitar like a set of bongos, while simultaneously playing riffs and chord progressions.

“Banging on the guitar just makes sense to me,” she admits. “You have this resonant box that sounds cool when you smack it, so why not go for it? Also, if you’re standing onstage for 45 minutes trying to keep people’s attention, you’re going to have to start screwing around with some interesting ideas.”

Another Reed-approved tactic that King uses to wow audiences is tapping melodies on the high frets with her plucking hand while tapping out bass lines and countermelodies with her fretting hand—which is often over the neck.

“It may look wild, but it’s really just the most practical way of doing it,” she offers. “If I’m tapping something with my fretting hand at, say, the 10th fret, playing over the neck allows my plucking hand to cross over unimpeded, and play something down at the 3rd fret or so. And tapping the low strings is a lot easier with your fretting hand over the neck because you don’t have to worry about accidentally muting the higher strings. Also, if you’re in a tuning such as DADGAD, you can very easily tap the lowest two strings with onefinger to get instant fifths.”

As much as tapping helps King generate musical ideas, it presents a logistical challenge when she plays fingerstyle.

“Long, acrylic nails on your picking hand give you a fantastic plucking tone, but the longer your nails are, the more theyinterfere with tapping,” she says. “Tuning down helps because the string tension is lowered. This means I don’t have to tap straight down. I can tap at an angle so the tips of my fingers still hit the string—even when my acrylic nails are long.”

Despite delivering flashy, crowd-pleasing riffs and techniques that sometimes seem like spontaneous combustion, King insists that little or none of what she does is improvised.

“I’ve never really been one who noodles or takes solos,” she admits. “When you’re soloing, in a sense, you’re improvising a melody, but melodies by themselves really don’t mean a whole lot to me. What really gives a melody meaning is how you choose to harmonize it—and that’s a lot harder to improvise on the spot. It’s not at all arbitrary. For that reason, I hold the compositional aspect of music to be quite sacred. I really value being there during the genesis of a piece, and being the person who really felt the song as it was written.”

Excerpted from the June 2003 issue of Guitar Player