In music, physical size means little. The self-described “diminutive” Kaki King is a case in point, her small stature belying the huge sounds she’s able to wrangle from her instrument. Over the course of a ten year career, King has established herself as one of ‘the’ guitarists on this planet – indeed, there are few, male or female, who can match what she’s able to accomplish, what she’s done for the guitar in terms of thinking way outside the box, in only a decade.
Of course, this style of hers – fiery fingerpicking, extremely complex fret-hand work, almost physically attacking her guitar incorporating a very percussive methodology – isn’t something she arrived at overnight. No, King’s is a style which is, and has been, constantly in motion, constantly evolving, all the way from when she first picked up a guitar at age four, through to Glow, her recently released sixth record.
“It’s really, really important for a solo guitar player,” King says on this need to continually evolve. “It’s hard to distinguish yourself as a unique voice if you don’t keep changing and evolving and really pushing the boundaries… I think it’s really important to try new things, even if they’re the wrong things.”
It was in her early teens that King really began to deviate from the beaten track (having learnt all she could from her guitar-playing father), when she began experimenting with different tunings. “The Eureka moment was really when I started to play finger-style and retune my guitar, that was when everything exploded for me,” she concurs. “That’s when the guitar became, sort of, infinite.”
“When I was about nine, someone taught me how to play a power chord, and I was fucking set, my life was set for the next six months,” she laughs. “I’d learnt a power chord, and I could play any song ever written. So I played power chords for six months. So it was a process of learning a new idea, or a new concept, and then playing it to death, then learning a new concept and playing that to death.
“So [the evolution began] when I realised you don’t have to use a pick, you can use your fingers – I heard Chet Atkins for the first time and thought, ‘Oh my god, there’s so much that I can do now’. So I finger-picked all my chords on standard tuning, then someone says, ‘Here’s another tuning on your guitar’, and then there’s another six months of my life.”
“It went from these jumps to these plateaus that I would linger in, then a new thing would then reveal itself, and I got deeper and deeper down the rabbit hole of doing weird stuff on the guitar,” she laughs again. “And it was just normal, I didn’t consider what I was doing. I didn’t think it was strange, it was just a product of me experimenting for years and years.”
The results, as fans and press the world over will agree, is something incredibly unique, a melding of the likes of Preston Reed, Leo Kottke and Rodrigo Y Gabriella, a style that King herself, a right-hander, can’t really explain. “I get asked that a lot,” she laughs. “I think it’s far more right hand than left… there’s so much right hand stuff, and my right is far more developed than my left. I guess it’s something that’s better experienced… and I think other musicians get something different out of my music than music fans do.”
Samuel J. Fell