In a world where the genre of fingerstyle guitar is clearly dominated by male guitarists comes one Kaki King; unique, distinctive, eclectic and one very talented guitarist. She's shared the stage with an impressive array of guitarists ranging from 8-string wizard and jazz phenom Charlie Hunter to folk legend Richard Thompson. Her resume touts an impressive selection of gigs as well. Last year her tour covered the Bonaroo festival and one of the premier listening rooms in the country, Freight & Salvage in Berkeley, California. She accomplished all of this just as her first CD, Everybody Loves You, hit the streets. Guitar.com caught her performance at the recent Winter NAMM show in California and decided it was time to bring her to the attention of our community of guitarists. We spoke with Kaki regarding the development of her technique, her new release, Everybody Loves You, and what it's like playing listening rooms one day and party-hardy events like Bonaroo the next.
Guitar.com: Hey Kaki.
Kaki King: Hey there.
Guitar.com: So let's jump right in, shall we?
Guitar.com: Your playing style and the path towards your technique is a unique one. When you look at the field of guitarists (jazz, rock, blues, funk, etc.) and then the number of them playing fingerstyle technique. And then the number of players who take that element to the next level, like yourself, that's a very pared down pool of players. What led you to your technique and compositions?
King: It was just like, well I've been playing a long time, since I was a little kid, and I've listened to a lot of fingerstyle players but I've also had a great interest in all sorts of music. With guitar, I was able to incorporate many of the styles that I've picked up over the years and I think I've also challenged myself to write songs that were captivating.
Guitar.com: Right, that's a strong goal to put before yourself. Certainly a good motivational tool. I've also read that you were working the house band for Blue Man Group, which was probably more of straight up rock gig compared to what you do on solo guitar. How did you come into that gig?
King: It was almost a tangent to a lot of other stuff I was doing. For a brief period I had fancied myself like a budding composer and I was trying to write things for string quartets and other types of ensembles. I had also played drums for a really long time in a variety of bands and I played bass a lot. I did a lot of rhythm section stuff. So my guitar playing is sort of an offshoot of that. I never really expected to make a living from it but it was really fun and it was this really challenging thing. It was this little disciplinary thing I had to put myself through.
Guitar.com: I saw you recently perform at the NAMM show. You were playing an Ovation Guitar. Is that your main guitar?
King: Yeah, I play Ovations quite a bit. I'm actually working with a company, we're kind of redesigning some things. I got some brand new ones since NAMM that look a lot different. They're really a generous company and sort of letting me do what I want so I've submitted a few designs and they worked hard to change the shape of the body. They really hooked me up with all the trimmings. So I do play with Ovations mainly because it's a great stage guitar. I've played with Lowden on stage and I have a Taylor at home.
Guitar.com: I've met a few players who are smaller in stature that prefer playing Ovations because of the way the guitar makes itself available, especially the ones with the shallow bowl. Plus with your crossover technique, that would also seem to be a good reason.
King: I actually really like the way they sound, especially on record. They sound especially crisp. I tune my E string down to C and that really comes across on the Ovation with drive and sustain. I don't think you really get the same amount of sustain from a wooden guitar. I really like to play in super low tunings and that has a lot to do with it. They're definitely not the most versatile guitar but at the same time, they have this character to them that I'm trying to explore more and bring out more in my playing. I play a deep bowl version, which they don't really make anymore but I insist on playing deep bowled ovations. Of course the scale length isn't any shorter. I actually feel my Lowden is a bit smaller but.
Guitar.com: With all the low tunings that you're using, do you vary any string gauges?
King: No, I still use light strings.
King: I use a .013 and a .017 on the top and everything else is stock.
Guitar.com: So let's talk a bit about your CD, Everybody Loves You. You've got a collection of 10 songs that stretch over how many years of composition?
King: The second song was written when I was 18.
Guitar.com: Do you use a lot of different tunings or do you stick with just one or two?
King: No, I use a lot. They're all kind of based on, wellI use DADGAD a bit. I'm actually using standard more but only for a couple tunes. I'm using some weird tunings. I don't really know what they are. I'm not really good at theory but it's basically an Esus9 tuning. What else? A lot of low C stuff, a lot of open C, C9, yeah, that kind of stuff.
Guitar.com: Do you bring a number of guitars with you on stage, in different tunings or are you altering one as you go along?
King: No, I'll play with two guitars, sometimes one. I'll just tune them to the song I'm going to start with and go from there.
Guitar.com: Makes sense, right. How do you like your guitar set up? With the tapping technique, do you like the action set a lot higher than normal?
King: No, I like it really low. My hands are really small and I cant really play guitars with super high action.
Guitar.com: I'm sure you've been asked this question six ways to sideways but who was your inspiration?
King: Well, it's weird. In a way, I still look to players, particularly Alex DeGrassi and Preston Reed, for inspiration and technique. But I think that Alex has hit the pinnacle in composition for guitar, for me. I think he's a genius in that regard. The way he structures songs. The way he puts them together. I sit there and I listen to his records and study them. I almost map them out in my brain. I used to be very linear, and particularly on Everybody Loves You. I was writing section to section to section. There's a few songs that have that AB pattern but a lot of it was just writing and not necessarily coming back to a theme. I'm sort of appreciating that more. Rather than writing eight sections and calling that a song, writing two or three sections and put a variation on the theme and really make it creative. I think that's a lot harder to make a song hold like that, than it is to just spew out all this junk and call it a song.
Guitar.com: I think one of my favorite Alex recordings is Deep at Night.
Guitar.com: He's just a brilliant player. There was a great camp of players that came from Windham Hill that seemed to be misunderstood. But they all came into their own.
King: Yeah, I listen to him all the time. But as far as inspiration goes, I'm looking outside of guitar playing to look at composition and songwriting. In some ways, for some tunes I'm exploring new things. I have this one new song where I have this chord pattern that is about a minute long and I repeat it three times. But each time I repeat it, it's a little bit different. Each time it becomes more aggressive. So by the time I finish it's a completely different song then when the song I started with. There's so many different things you can do, stuff where it's really rhapsodic and there's no time signature. And there'll be a lot of improvisation on the rhythm and the breathing of it, which is very different for me because Im very used to everything having a very set pace.
Guitar.com: Well I've seen that you've been opening for some very interesting artists; Keller Williams, Charlie Hunter, Richard Thompson, Marianne Faithful, Label-mates Soulive, Robert Randolph any standouts amongst the many?
King: Working with Charlie Hunter was great.
Guitar.com: I'll bet. Seeing him up close must have been amazing.
King: He's so good. Incredible.
Guitar.com: How about Robert Randolph? That must have been very cool.
King: Yeah, that was a trip. Those were shows that were by far the craziest. By far the most crazy party animal audiences. But yet, there's so much energy and everyone is talking and screaming but I don't really mind because they're really giving it back to you.
Guitar.com: It certainly makes for a different vibe when you consider that you're playing listening rooms and that is totally a different environment.
King: Yeah but it's cool. I'm really lucky to be an artist who can play Freight and Salvage, which is the quintessential Northern California, not a bar. It is THE listening room. And I headlined there, which was really cool. It was a great show but I was under the damn microscope.
Guitar.com: Right, that's the environment.
King: Right but it's cool to go and have that type of experience, which I don't think many players really can. Most of the time, and I say this with a smile, but you are really selling alcohol. And that's kind of why the promoters and the club owners bring you in because that's really where they make their money. And that's totally fine by me, but to be a player that can play listening houses, where people are just there to zero in on the music. But also play bars and huge venues, where people are there to party. I like both of those experiences a lot and I'm lucky to be able to do so.
Guitar.com: That sounds like it makes for a nice balance and gives you an appreciation for both by getting the opportunity to do both. Now did I hear a rumor that you were going to play Bonaroo (a big jam band festival in Tennessee)?
King: I played Bonaroo last year.
Guitar.com: How crazy was that?
King: That was amazing actually.
Guitar.com: Well, Kaki, thank you ever so much for speaking with us. What does the remainder of 2004 hold for you?
King: Right after I'm finished with this tour, I immediately go back in and do another record.
Guitar.com: Sweet well good luck with that. Hopefully, we'll catch up with you again on the road.
Be sure to check Kaki's website at - KakiKing.com