Interview:Acoustic All-Star Kaki King
by Adam St. James
Guitar players and the guitar media have been heaping praise on Kaki King since her 2003 debut, Everybody Loves You. The Atlanta-born and NYC-corrupted artist has shocked the acoustic guitar world into submission with her over-the-top instrumentalism, her huge sense of musical adventure, and probably a little of her funky, spunky good looks thrown in as well.
Kaki is a solo guitarist that draws comparisons to many of the great acoustic masters - from Preston Reed and Alex deGrassi to Michael Hedges and Leo Kottke. But even though her new CD, Legs to Make Us Longer continues her tremendous and oftern terrifying display of virtuosity, Kaki has more of the sensibilities of a New York City punk than a genteel acoustician (is that even a word? Now it is.)
Guitar.com took time to speak to Kaki on the release of her new disc, and her upcoming appearance at the All Star Guitar Night, an always phenomenal parade of guitar talent that will take place at the Winter NAMM show, January 22nd, in one of the Hilton Hotel ballrooms in Anaheim, California.
These shows are only open to those with tickets, which can only be scooped up at the NAMM show - which, unfortunately, is not exactly easy for the general public to get into. But if you can, be sure to get to the All Star Guitar Night and check out Kaki King, Johnny A, Muriel Anderson, and a whole bunch of incredible guitar virtuosos.
In our exclusive interview, Kaki spoke to us about her percussive background, her choice of guitars and effects, her range of open tunings, and so much more.
Guitar.com: Hi Kaki, it's Adam from Guitar.com.
Kaki King: Hey what's up?
Guitar.com: Am I calling you at home?
King: No, I'm on the road.
Guitar.com: Where are you today?
King: Somewhere in Ohio. I'm going to Cleveland.
Guitar.com: Are you actually driving right now?
King: I'm sittin' in the back.
Guitar.com: And how many people are out there with you?
King: My tour manager and my girlfriend.
Guitar.com: So what's going on out there on the road? Are you having fun?
King: Yeah, why not. Playin' music for a living: It's a good life.
Guitar.com: What kind of places have you been playing?
King: Well on this tour it was with Marc Cohn, so it was pretty big places, nice theaters.
Guitar.com: What kind of guitars do you carry with you?
King: I have my Ovation and my Lowden.
Guitar.com: Are those stock models?
King: Well, Lowden - that company doesn't really even exist any more. But the Ovation is - no - it's sort of this new model. I kind of re-designed the look of their guitars, just for the look I wanted to have. It's a little less fussy around those holes. That's what I was working with them on, to make it more cosmetically tight - I guess. Simplified.
Guitar.com: You didn't change the shape of the body at all?
King: No, nothing like that. It's all custom stuff, to my specs, but nothing grand. Just really the look.
Guitar.com: You didn't have them do anything to give you access to higher frets, or anything like that?
King: No, not particularly. I'm pretty happy with their design in the first place, which is why I play their guitars.
Guitar.com: How long have you been playing Ovation guitars?
King: Well, on my first record, I actually played on my dad's Ovation, so quite awhile.
Guitar.com: You did an interview with us last year, after your first album, Everybody Loves You. And now you've released your second album, Legs to Make Us Longer. What has been the evolution between the two discs?
King: I think compositionally, some of the songs on the second record are stronger than those on the first. With the first record, it wasn't even thought out as a record. It was just demos. Some of the songs were recorded years about from each other, and it was only be sheer luck that the sound was consistent.
On the second record, the whole experience was so different. I was in the studio for one week. I played a lot of different guitars. There's a much broader sound to the second record. I had a producer, David Torn, who was able to take the sound - 'cause I'm kind of a purist when it comes to guitar - but he was able to convince me to try some ways we could make the sound so kind of glorious, even though I was still just playing guitar.
And I think I moved ahead musically. Or maybe not even ahead, but I took the stuff in a new direction, which I think is the way I always want to be.
Guitar.com: Certainly the time on the road over the past couple years has improved your playing, I'm sure…
King: Oh yeah. Definitely.
Guitar.com: There's a track on here on which you have vocals, too. Is that a future direction: more vocals?
King: I don't know. I really have no idea about that. I'm not a very strong singer, or lyricist. But it's one possibility out of many musical things I could be doing. I never really know. I've written lots of songs with lyrics and vocals which will never see the light of day. It might be something that I do privately. I really can't say right now.
Guitar.com: Did you originally envision yourself as an instrumental musician, years ago? I know you play drums too…
King: No. I never really had any clue, or set identity or agenda or idea about me as a musician, and my career. A lot of it really has a lot to do with being in the right place at the right time, and the people you know who are willing to help you out. So I never really conceived of myself as a…I think it's a bad move to put yourself in some category where you're identity is instrumental. What's positive about music is that you can always do something different. I know that I play instrumental guitar for a living, but that's not - hopefully - what I'll be doing 10 years from now.
Guitar.com: So do you see yourself playing in a band again at some point?
King: Yeah, or writing for an ensemble, or playing for someone else's band. I'd love to.
Guitar.com: And is there any drum playing in your future?
King: Yeah. Drums are difficult to travel with. And one thing I've really benefited from is being able to hop on a plane, go play a show, and come back. I don't have any logistical problems of getting a van with gear, and stuff like that. That's been one of the things that's really served my career well, in getting myself in front of a lot of people. But I play drums at home all the time, when I can.
Guitar.com: What kind of music do you play on drums?
King: I just play along to pop records. It's kind of funny because I feel like there's this line: you're either a really good pop drummer, and then there's this gap between all those people and the REAL people who are actually playing jazz and serious, amazing stuff. There's this huge gulf that you have to leap over. And I probably will never get to the other side. But if I sit down and get my chops together I could be a really great, tight, pop-rock drummer.
Guitar.com: That's cool. It's a fun thing.
King: Yeah. I like playing altered time signatures. That's kind of where I learned how to do that stuff on guitar - from playing drums.
Guitar.com: Your guitar playing is very and rhythmic and percussive, especially the over the top of the neck stuff you play. A lot of that must be coming from your drum background.
King: Yeah. I feel rhythms more than I feel melodies sometimes.
Guitar.com: When you're writing new material, do you record your ideas?
King: No, I don't. I've lived by this weird rule that everything I did had to be in my head. And if I couldn't keep in my head, then it wasn't worth recording. I've had something like 20 or more fully written songs, completely in my brain, when I was doing a record. And it just about made me crazy. I just had to record them so I could stop thinking about them and clear my brain. We recorded about 22 songs for the second album.
Guitar.com: So what are you future plans, musically?
King: Well, I'm not trying to play instrumental guitar forever. It's frustrating because it's so easy when you have one instrument, and you have such strict parameters. I was trying to stretch the limits of what you can do with a guitar. But once you look outside of that, you could just have any combination…I think that's the one thing I'm learning: I'm thinking about instruments that will sound good together.
I can't speculate on what my future will bring musically. I'm trying to go in a new direction. It has nothing to do with peoples' expectations. I know that personally I'm not going to be happy doing another solo guitar record. I love music, I love doing that, but there's a new challenge out there calling me.
Guitar.com: You do strike me as a person for whom the next album might be a completely different thing altogether, like a P.J. Harvey record or something.
King: Yeah. That's the ultimate goal, right: doing things so that every record sounds different, but still unique to you. That really is what the artists' that I admire do. They never make the same record twice, but you never felt like you were listening to some copy of someone else. It was always totally unique. And that's my ultimate goal, to always be exciting and changing. And even if it's not different, at least I won't be standing in the same place.
Guitar.com: Do you play electric guitar?
King: Yeah, I do. I have been playing a lot more. It's so utterly different. It's almost a completely different instrument. I feel more comfortable on lap steel at this point than I do playing electric. It just takes getting used to.
Guitar.com: What kind of gear are you using for a lap steel and for an electric?
King: I have a Gretsch Electromatic lap steel. They're one of the few companies still making new lap steels. And it sounds great. I didn't want to pay a lot of money for an old one and then break it on the road. When we were making the record we had a bunch of old lap steels lined up, and we tried them one by one. And the new Gretsch sounded the best, so I used that. I use it direct on stage. I plug it into a reverb and volume pedal - Digitech - and a little bit of compression. And it goes through the P.A. I can't fly with an amp, so I just cut them out of the equation altogether. And I have a 1967 ES-345, that's my electric guitar right now.
Guitar.com: But you keep that at home?
Guitar.com: What do you play that through?
King: I have a Fender Vibroverb Re-issue. It's really a great amp.
Guitar.com: And what effects do you use?
King: I have a little pedal board that has an EQ, and an A/B box. And I have a loop unit. Basically my setup is from compression or EQ to A/B to volume to reverb to a Boss Loop Station, and then out through a direct box. Sometimes I play an acoustic and loop it, then play a lap steel over that loop.
Guitar.com: At home, or live?
Guitar.com: Oh, cool.
King: So that's the extent of my pedal board.
Guitar.com: And you do a lot of open tunings, right?
Guitar.com: Can you give us a rundown of all the tracks on your new album, and tell us what tunings you used for each song? What is your main tuning?
King: I use C-G-D-G-A-D a lot.
Guitar.com: So DADGAD with a dropped low string…
King: The two lowest strings dropped a whole step.
Guitar.com: Right. And for those who might want to try to figure out your songs, tell us each song's tuning.
King: The first song ("Frame") is four guitars just standing on stands. The second song ("Playing With Pink Noise") is CGDGAD. "Ingots" is DADGAD. "Doing the Wrong Thing" is - I don't know - E-G-D-F#-B-F#.
Guitar.com: Like an Em9 tuning.
Guitar.com: And what about "Solipsist"?
King: DADGAD. And "Neanderthal" is CGDGAD.
Guitar.com: "Can The GWOT Save Us?" is played on lap steel. What does GWOT stand for?
King: Global War on Terrorism. I don't remember the tuning.
Guitar.com: And "Lies"?
King: Standard tuning.
King: CGDGGD - different from my other tuning.
Guitar.com: And "My Insect Life"?
Guitar.com: And you change all these tunings right before you play the songs live?
King: Yeah. And I don't use a tuner. You get used to the tunings after awhile.
Guitar.com: Wow. Brave. Well Kaki, thanks for speaking with us, and have fun at the NAMM show and the All Star Guitar Night.
King: Anytime, Adam. Later.
About the Author:
Adam St. James joined Guitar.com shortly after the website launched in the summer of 1999 and has been the site's Editor for several years. Adam has worked as a guitar tech for Sammy Hagar, and is the author of several guitar and music instructional books, including "101 Guitar Tips: Stuff All the Pros Know and Use" (published by Hal Leonard). He fronts blues and rock bands in the Chicago area. See www.adamstjames.com for info on all Adam's books, bands, and barstool banter.