Two Sides Of Kaki King

The innovative fingerstylist offers an insightful look at her unconventional tunings and techniques.
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Anyone who has witnessed a Kaki King solo acoustic concert invariably leaves with the same thought: How the hell does she do that?! King creates a transformative musical experience, a perfect storm of creativity with the most individualistic set of tunings since Joni Mitchell’s. She frequently utilizes unique, unorthodox playing techniques, boasts a cinematic composition sense and, most recently, has added innovative multimedia presentations to her repertoire (see her GP December 2017 cover story).

To help players lift the shroud of mystery surrounding her guitar work, I’m incredibly jazzed to present these detailed breakdowns of two radically different early Kaki King compositions, the peaceful “Night After Sidewalk” and the frantic “Playing with Pink Noise,” enhanced with commentary by the delightful Ms. King herself. I’m also thrilled and delighted (and a little scared) that Kaki and I are presently collaborating on a book project that will feature transcriptions of six complete songs. Consider this a preview.


“The opening statement of ‘Night After Sidewalk’ is as simple as can be,” Kaki explains, “just all of the notes of an open tuning [Ex. 1a] played one after another. When I wrote this song I was still using my pinkie when I was fingerpicking, but for reasons unknown I have basically stopped using my pinkie entirely. If you find it’s useful to you, then by all means use your pinkie for the highest string. But I think the exercise as written [Ex. 1b] gains some strength when using the thumb on both the low E and A string [now tuned to E and B], and using your ring finger on the B and high E [now tuned to B and D#].”

Begin by tuning to the song’s Emaj7/6 tuning (Ex. 1a) and working out on its 3/4 application, as shown in Ex. 1b. Start out slowly, and repeat the exercise until you can get it up, or close, to tempo. (Tip: Follow this strategy for every example in this lesson.) When you get there, move on to Ex. 2’s four-bar excerpt from the song’s opening section. Play bars 1 and 2 exactly the same as the exercise shown in Ex. 1b, then add the slight variation in bar 3, plus bar 4’s Lydian-flavored phrase, which sets up the repeat of the same four bars. (Kaki plays this figure four times, with slight variations during the second and fourth repeats of bar 4.)


Use the same fingerpicking approach as you move on to the tune’s next section, shown in Ex. 3a. Here, a second-position G#5add9 chord (or G#sus2, if you prefer) is first arpeggiated (bar 1) and then finger raked, preceding the open B string in bar 2. Hold the same three-note chord shape until beat three, slide it up three frets and pick only the top voice. We arrive at an identically fingered, fifth-position B5add9 (a.k.a. Bsus2) on the downbeat of bar 3, which is arpeggiated with open B and D# notes over the course of bars 3 and 4. Kaki repeats these four bars, with a slight variation in bar 1, before moving on to Ex. 3b’s lush C#m9 arpeggios. Repeat the entire form thus far — Ex. 2 (four times), Ex. 3a (two times) and the first two bars of Ex. 3b — then replace the last two bars of Ex. 3b with Ex. 3c’s enhanced arpeggios, which now function as F#9/C#, and you’re ready to proceed to the next section.

Ex. 4 is the strongest melody in the song and probably the most difficult section to play,” Kaki says. “The directions are to let the bass notes ring out, but in the fourth measure I let go of the second fret with my index finger on the low E string in order to grab the first fret on the first string on the upbeat of the second beat. It’s the easiest way I’ve found to play that phrase, and stopping the bass note at that point in the measure helps to bring out the melody even more.”

Keep the same pick-hand fingering scheme in mind when playing bar 1’s descending E Lydian melody, which is laced with open B and G# notes, on the second and third strings, respectively. Bar 2 is all single notes, beginning with a fret-hand-tapped F# note on the second string’s seventh-fret (notated as a hammer-on “from nowhere”), followed by a picked G# (first string, seventh fret), a picked F# that’s pulled-off to E two frets lower, and another tap and pull-off, this time from D# to C# on the third string. (Note how the tuning conveniently accommodates these notes at the fifth and seventh frets on the top three strings.) Another open low-E note kicks off bar 3, where it is countered with an ascending melody, utilizing a B-to-C# hammer-on, a picked D# and a fret-hand-tapped F# grace note that is quickly followed by a hammer-on to G#, which then slides downward. This leads to a finger-raked F#add4 chord on the downbeat of bar 4, plus an A-E-D#-B melodic fragment that segues back to four bars of the song’s opening figure from Ex. 2, followed by 11 additional bars of melody (not notated).


Beginning at 1:46 into the track, Ex. 5’s eight-bar section includes four different arpeggiated chord shapes, all performed on the top three strings over an open fourth-string C# pedal tone. A harmonic analysis reveals C#m in bars 1 and 2, C#sus4 in bars 3 and 4, C#sus2add#5 in bars 5 and 6, and B7/C# in bars 7 and 8. The identical fingerpicking pattern from bar to bar renders this section fairly easy to play. Repeating Ex. 5 and extending its last measure for two more bars gets you to the 2:11 mark. Then you’re on your own — at least ’til the book comes out! (Tip: Some previous sections re-emerge.)


Now that you’re suitably blissed out from the previous piece of pastoral beauty, it’s time to jar your senses and push your central nervous system to its limits with the percussive tour de force that’s appropriately entitled “Playing with Pink Noise.”

“Take the exercises for ‘Playing with Pink Noise’ very slowly,” Kaki suggests. “There’s a lot of information to decipher there! Go note by note to figure out what each hand is doing, and practice each motion slowly and carefully. The most helpful hint I can give is that, for these exercises, the hands are working independently of each other. The left hand plays a note, followed by the right hand, and back and forth. This helps the song sound much more complicated than it really is when played at tempo.”

She’s right — there is a lot going on here. There are eight basic actions involved in constructing what will eventually become a repetitive two-bar figure similar to a single-stroke drum roll starting with the left hand. (Note: This technique can be practiced anywhere, and without an instrument.) Retune to Ex. 6’s specs (all strings tuned downward), and we’ll break it down move by move, using a progressive series of eighth-note exercises (later to be converted to 16th notes), and then piece it all together. Transcribing this unconventional style requires some equally unorthodox notation symbols, which I’ll explain along the way. The first four actions appear in the first two beats of Ex. 7a, where, like all remaining examples, I denote left-hand fingering and activities above the staff (1 = index, 2 = middle, 3 = ring, 4 = pinkie), and right-hand fingering below (p = thumb, i = index, m = middle, a = ring).

Start with an overhand tap (O.T.), i.e., left hand over the top of the neck, using your index finger at the ninth fret on the sixth string. Repeat this G# using a right-hand thumb pluck, followed on beat two by a left-hand overhand pull-off (O.P.) to the open low B. (Beware: To me, this pull-off is the trickiest part of the entire figure because you’re not picking or tapping and it’s easier to lose the time.) The fourth action is a repeat of the open sixth string played with a left-hand index-finger upstroke. Repeat the same four moves on beats three and four and ad infinitum in order to gradually program your motor skills. A big part of the weirdness factor of this entire figure stems from hearing not only the O.T.’d note but also the usually unwanted pitch of the string behind the fretted note. Ex. 7b reveals the ghosted, slightly out-of-tune F notes that sound simultaneously above the tapped G#s.


Ex. 8a illustrates the next four actions. Continue the same left-right-left-right hand pattern, starting with a left-hand percussive overhand body slap (O.B.S.) on the top of the guitar just above the neck on the bass side, and follow up on the second eighth note with a right-hand thumb-picked open sixth string. Beat two comprises a percussive left-hand overhand string slap (O.S.S.) across all six strings at the 12th fret — you can use your middle finger to back up your index — followed by an open fifth string (F#) played with a right-hand index-finger upstroke. Rinse and repeat until comfortable, then move on to Ex. 8b’s composite of the first two beats of Examples 7a and 8a, which is actually what occurs in the song. Notice how the left hand gets all the overhand action on the downbeats, while the right hand simply alternates between thumb downstrokes and index-finger upstrokes on the upbeats.

Next up is Ex. 9a, which is the same as Ex. 7b, except the overtapped notes have been lowered a whole step, to B at the seventh fret (plus ghosted A notes from the other side). Ex. 9b combines all eight actions from the first half of Ex. 9a and the second half of Ex. 8a. To complete the figure thus far, connect Ex. 8b to Ex. 9b and repeat as an exercise. Ex. 10 shows the last remaining eight-note action, which begins identically to Examples 7a, 7b, and 8b but is altered to include an open fifth string (F#) as the fourth note. The same move is repeated on beats three and four, albeit with the O.T.’d note transposed to a 12th-fret E (plus a ghosted C# from the other side).


Ex. 11 puts it all together by connecting Examples 8b, 9b, 8b (again) and 10, converting them to 16th notes and upping the tempo to a breakneck 144 beats per minute. That’s right — all that for two bars. All I can say is, good luck! It took me months to even get close, but persistence will pay off. Take that eight-action left-right-left-right pattern everywhere with you. Practice it on laptops, tabletops, your belly or anywhere, until it becomes lodged in your motor memory and can be summoned at will. Why try? Kaki’s Konclusion: “It’s a very different way to approach the guitar, and I hope that it is one that bears creative fruit once you get the hang of it.”