One thing you will notice as a music lover, is the fact that many genres of music are often dominated by men. Especially in the world of guitars, we don't hear as many stories about great female guitarists. In 2006 Rolling Stone announced "The New Guitar Gods" and Kaki King was the only female on the cover. She has been described as being a "genre unto herself" and all six of her albums have been unique and diverse. She is not only a guitarist, but also a composer using the entire guitar as her palette.
As a kid Katherine King or Kaki learned both drums and guitar, which shows when she performs. She uses the fretboard and the guitar body for percussive and rhythmic effects for her compositions. Along with her albums Kaki has also written music for movies and TV. The first thing you will notice when watching her play is the variety of techniques that lead to all the unique sounds coming from her guitar during a performance.
Kaki's drumming past is shown with her percussion style playing and fret tapping techniques. In fret tapping the string is lightly "tapped" instead of normally being fretted. There are a few different styles of tapping, but if done just right it can give a percussive or even chime effect. This effect is easier to do on an electric or acoustic guitar that has proper action and good strings. Kaki also uses the slap bass technique on her guitar strings. To play slap bass you strike the string with the bone in your thumb and then pull the string to make it slap back against the fretboard. Another common percussive effect is to use the body of the guitar as a drum, and clearly the body size will have an effect on how it sounds. Experiment with where to strike the body just right to get the desired sound. Be sure to add some rhythmic percussive playing to your next practice... tap, slap, and wap your guitar and see how cool it sounds!
Another useful technique employed by Kaki is different guitar tunings. She will often use open tunings, viola or mandola tunings, and the seven string Russian guitar tuning. That last one is very interesting for those who are playing seven string guitars right now, it is tuned in thirds and is an open G (D G B D G B D). Different tunings can give your songs surprisingly different sounds. Just be sure to never tighten your strings to the point of breaking and you will discover a whole new world of sound and style. Strum your guitar tuned to the standard tuning E A D G B E, now tune it to D A D G A D, strum that. See how different the instrument sounds, that is how Kaki takes the guitar to another level.
Whenever an artist uses a variety of stompbox guitar effects they are sometimes called a "shoegazer" for all the time they spend staring at the ground. However, when used correctly effects boxes can add dimensions to the sound of your guitar playing. That is what Kaki is always attempting to do with each song, add different layers to the music. She is also known to use a loop pedal, which is a great effects pedal that takes skill to use just right. By recording various phrases, arpeggios, and patterns the loop pedal will play them over and over while you add more to the song. Ironically sometimes her playing is so amazing that she can even fake stompbox effects!
As we have mentioned before you know you have made it as a guitar god when you have your own line of custom guitars made. Kaki King has always been very loyal to the Ovation brand. For those who have never played an Ovation they often have carbon fiber tops, thinner bodies, and are electric-acoustic guitars. Ovation guitars just simply have a unique sound when compared to all other wood acoustic guitars. This different makeup of wood and carbon fiber allows for more percussive effects, perfect for a player like Kaki. The Ovation model made with Kaki, was the Adamas 1581-KK.
Kaki also is known to play a lap steel guitar; I am personally a fan of that instrument. When it comes to lap steel it isn't always necessary to buy one, it is possible to lay an acoustic on your lap and with the the right slide and slide technique play it as a lap guitar. Playing lap steel style will greatly increase your creativity on guitar, it's like a whole new instrument when played that way. Add some pedal effects like delay, and looping, along with some percussive tapping and you have a sonic delight all from your simple guitar.
Not only does Kaki use her guitar for a variety of sounds and effects she is also known to use visual pieces and art as a part of her show. While this may not reflect on her guitar skills, it is an important part of her music. When you choose to immerse your listener completely within your composition, it rarely hurts to add a visual experience into it. It can be a memorable part of your artist image, or important to the specific piece of music being played.
So far every technique and method that we have shown is really nothing complicated. Tapping strings, tunings, effects, all within practicing ability of a beginner, but then watch Kaki King take these simple concepts and turn them into virtuoso playing. It's not that her guitar playing is all about technical mastery, her personality is also a part of her style. She has mentioned in past interviews how after playing guitar for 30 years, it is a part of who she is. And that is very clear when listening to all the unique, complicated, and even strange sounds she makes with a guitar. Considering how her musical direction has changed over the years, it will be interesting to follow her career from here on out to see what awesome sonic masterpieces she will com up with in the future.
Recently, Kaki King has published a great lessons series for Jamplay, check it out at this link.