KAKI KING GOING ELECTRIC may not be news of “Dylan-goes-electric-at-the-1965-Newport-Folk-Festival” proportions, but it’s a pretty big deal when the heir apparent to the solo-acoustic guitar throne drops her trademark Ovation Adamas, plugs in a Hamer Newport, and assembles a touring band. Until We Felt Red [Velour] marks a radical departure from the percussive, two-hand tapping that made King the toast of the acoustic community the past few years. It’s loaded with electric textures—including significant amounts of lap- and pedal-steel guitars—and King even sings a few songs. From the Simon & Garfunkel vibe of “Yellowcakes” to the baritone tones on “Goby” to the downtown jazz of “I Never Said I Love You” to the trippy soundscape of “Gay Sons of Lesbian Mothers,” Until We Felt Red is a lush and surprising album. Some of King’s fans will likely mourn the dearth of solo-acoustic tunes, but fans of her creativity will be glad that she decided to destroy all preconceptions of who she is supposed to be.
Can you detail the steps in your conversion to playing more electric guitar?
Solo-instrumental, fingerstyle-acoustic guitar is a like a martial art. You have to be very disciplined to get good at it. The genre is somewhat obscure, and the idiom almost demands that you stay within certain boundaries. That self-limiting system can help you as an artist. You only have one instrument to make an album, so you have to get creative to keep it interesting. However, when you have all the sounds in the world at your disposal, the whole process becomes a lot different. But I don’t think of what I’ve done as a conversion, because I’ve been playing different instruments all my life.
What are some differences you’ve realized between acoustic and electric guitar?
There’s a cultural difference to a lot of people who pride themselves on listening to acoustic music, but that never meant anything to me. Music is important—not just “acoustic guitar” music. Technically, the electric guitar has so much more sustain, which makes it a much more difficult beast to tame.
How does the electric guitar’s sustain affect the way you play?
I have to pull back a lot, because every note is ringing so much longer than it would on an acoustic. I have to be more choosy in order to use sustain to my advantage, because I’m still playing in open tunings. I can’t stop the sound, so I shred less. I’ve also slowed my tempos. Too many chords ringing on top of each other become a giant blur, so it’s hard to write really fast songs on electric—especially in open tunings.
Has playing more electric guitar influenced your acoustic approach?
I’m not sure, because I go back and forth so often. I’m surrounded by guitars in my apartment, and I’ve also started playing a lot of lap-steel and pedal steel. Being able to switch between instruments has become a lot more essential to what I do—particularly onstage.
What led you to lap- and pedal-steel guitars?
I opened some shows for Robert Randolph and David Lindley, and I really wanted to play pedal steel. But I thought it would be a better to start with the lap steel, because they’re inexpensive, and I could learn on a basic 6-string model. I figured I would get the left-hand bar technique down, and then graduate to pedal steel. So I played lots of lap-steel until I finally got confident with it. Then I got a pedal steel, and I realized it’s completely different. Because you can’t change the pitches of your strings on lap steel like you can on pedal steel, you’re completely dependent on your left-hand technique—how much you can move the bar around to get the notes you’re trying to achieve. Pedal steel is all about the pedals. If I’d only been paying attention, I would have realized that most pedal-steel players move their hands back and forth between a couple of notes, and all the magic is in the feet and knees as they work the pedals and levers.
What are your primary axes at the moment?
The Ovation Adamas is my main acoustic onstage, but I don’t think I used it on the record. My main electric guitar is a Hamer Newport hollowbody—which is the perfect size and weight for me—and I’ve been playing my Veillette baritone guitar like mad. I used it on “The Armies of the Tyrannized” and “Goby.” I still play my little Gretsch Electromatic lap-steel, and it has been fun trying to conquer my Fessenden pedal steel, because it’s too big for me. I can play the floor pedal or the knee levers, but not both at the same time! Most of the distortion sounds on the record were created using three amps: a reissue Fender Vibroverb and two custom models that belong to [album producer] John McIntyre.
I’m still getting my new live show together, but the current pedal selection includes Boss delay, octave, and reverb pedals, as well as a Loop Station. There’s also a Maxon distortion pedal and an Ernie Ball volume pedal, and I’ve recently started experimenting with using a Roland PK-25 to trigger organ and synth sounds from a Roland XV-2020 synthesizer. I don’t know how far that will go, but I’ve really gotten into synth sounds.
Will you ever go back to making solo-acoustic albums?
I’ve done two successful acoustic-guitar records, and it just wasn’t in me to do a third one right now. I wasn’t as drawn to the acoustic, because it has been pretty much my only instrument the past four years, and, frankly, I wasn’t coming up with anything as creative as what I did on Everybody Loves You and Legs to Make Us Longer. I still love acoustic guitar—and I certainly want to make more acoustic records in the future—but I thought this would be a good time in my career to do all these other styles I love. So Until We Felt Red is a mixed bag, but I like that. I wanted to work on my technique, and my writing, and get everything out.