Kaki King's Game-Changing Legs

BACK IN THE FALL OF 2004, GP’ S LATE SISTER PUBLICATION Frets duly anointed Kaki King “The future of solo-acoustic guitar.”

BACK IN THE FALL OF 2004, GP’ S LATE SISTER PUBLICATION Frets duly anointed Kaki King “The future of solo-acoustic guitar.” Perhaps we should have known better. Sure, at the time her refreshingly innovative harmonic progressions, crafty alternate tunings, and multi-layered mastery—pitting frettinghand- hammered bass notes and long legato phrases against picking-hand percussive taps, slaps, and machine-gun like fingerstyle fusillades—marked King’s then-latest release, Legs to Make us Longer, as the biggest game changer in the steelstring realm since Michael Hedges’ Aerial Boundaries.


But envisioning the future for someone as imaginative as Kaki King is risky business. No sooner had the transplanted Atlanta native gone from performing on New York City subway platforms to landing a major label deal and becoming the instrumental solo-acoustic-guitar voice of her generation, when she promptly switched gears.

Choosing to define herself less as a solo guitarist and more as a complete artist, King began showcasing her singer/ songwriter side on 2006’s …Until We Felt Red. By 2008’s Dreaming of Revenge, she was handling much of the album’s instrumentation, as well as more fully exploiting track layering and other studio production techniques.

King’s latest offering, Junior [Rounder], is her heaviest to date, both sound-wise and emotionally. She retains her unique compositional sensibilities, but eschews the two-handed rhythmic tapping approach, instead relying on distorted and heavily processed tones, and the muscular rhythm section of drummer Jordan Perlson and bassist/producer Malcolm Burn, which drives punkish numbers such as “Falling Day” and “Death Head.” Even instrumental tracks like the brooding “Everything Has an End, Even Sadness” and “My Nerves That Committed Suicide” focus more on evocative emotional content than instrumental virtuosity.

Far from hindering her career, however, King’s restless muse has rewarded her with myriad musical opportunities and increased exposure to varied audiences. She has been a guest on albums by Tegan and Sara and Northern State, appeared in the film August Rush, and contributed music to the film Into the Wild. King also collaborated with Foo Fighters frontman Dave Grohl on the acoustic instrumental “Ballad of the Beaconsfield Miners,” from the band’s 2007 release Echoes, Silence, Patience & Grace. When Grohl invited King to join him onstage to perform the song at London’s massive O2 Arena, he unabashedly told the crowd, “There are some guitar players that are good, there some guitar players that are really f***ing good—and then there’s Kaki.”

Are you using any new altered tunings on Junior?

I think the tuning on “Everything Has an End, Even Sadness” is new, and as I recall it is E, G, E, G, B, D [low to high]. “Spit it Back in My Mouth” uses the same tuning, but with a capo.

Has plugging into an amp changed your approach to playing guitar?

Not really. For me the challenge now is learning to play the amp. I used to just plug into an amp and hope for the best, but now I’m more attuned to what different amps and pickup combinations sound like, and also how they sound at different volumes. My backline amps on the current tour are Fender Bassmans, which are great for reproducing the low tones I often use in my style. They don’t have reverb, though, so they force you to deal with the dry, unadulterated sound, and there’s nowhere to hide. I also find that you really have to tune the sound of your rig to the venue in the same way a drummer tunes their drums or a soundman equalizes a room. You have to learn how a particular setup is going to sound in a particular room on a particular night.

Did you have a go-to distortion sound while recording Junior?

Yes. I really like the sound of the Fulltone OCD, and I used it a lot, particularly when playing melodies. I’m learning that you have to play your pedals and your amp— as well as your guitar—which makes things that much more complicated. For example, when I play the solos on songs like “My Nerves That Committed Suicide” and “Betrayer,” I have to be careful because the sound changes so drastically when I step on the pedal. Everything has to be set very specifically. But it also opens up a lot of excellent new options.

Have there been any guitarists who have influenced your electric playing?

Yeah, but I don’t list influences anymore because it’s misleading.

How did working in a band situation affect your writing?

All of the songs were written around the guitar, bass, and drums as a band. One advantage of that is not having to teach the songs to the others before recording them and performing them live, which saved a step.

What is that interesting pitch-bend sound we hear in the background of “Spit it Back in My Mouth”?

That’s Dan Brantigan playing an Akai EVI [Electronic Valve Instrument]. While there are fewer layers on this album than the last one, Dan’s sounds—on horns, piano, and keyboards—saturate some of the tracks in a really interesting way. He’s still experimenting and learning about what he’s doing, so he’s not working in a formulaic way.

Are you playing lap-steel for the melody on “My Nerves That Committed Suicide”?

Yeah, but there’s also horn and EVI. That particular melody is pretty layered.

What are you playing on the song “The Hoopers of Hudspeth”?

That’s a 4-string steel-string tuned like the first four strings of a regular acoustic guitar: D, G, B, E.

What’s that koto-like sound in “Falling Day”?

That’s an Ovation Applause UAE-148 acoustic-electric tenor ukulele that the company sent me for Christmas a few years back. It arrived in a tuning something like an F#7 chord—E, F#, C#, F#, low to high, with the F# on the third string being the lowest note— and I just started messing around with it. I actually used to know someone who would go into a guitar shop, buy a used guitar, and then write a song in whatever tuning it happened to be in.

When you play fast arpeggio runs like the main riff for “Falling Day,” do you always play fingerstyle, or do you sometimes use a pick for a different type of articulation?

I always play fingerstyle. I have long nails on my picking hand and they’d just get in the way if I tried to use a pick. I’d probably just drop it [laughs]. Sometimes I will use a thumbpick when I play baritone guitar, for extra emphasis on the low strings.

Did you start out playing fingerstyle or was there ever a time when you used a pick?

I played with the classical pima [pinky , index, middle, ring] fingering when I first learned as a kid. Later on, I played with a pick for a while. But when I was around 13 or 14, I rediscovered fingerstyle playing, although at that point I hadn’t yet gotten into using acrylic nails.

What do you feel are the common threads between your earliest recordings and Junior?

I’m still using a lot of altered tunings, and I’m still trying to be a decent guitar player. I’m still trying to be above everything as a musician, and I’m still trying to write good songs.