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Kaki King, the New York-based guitar dynamo from Atlanta, doesn’t so much play her instrument as attack it. Often whipping her fingers against the strings from the top of the fret board and pummeling the lower half to produce a profusion of rhythmic melody, this frail-looking hipster with dark hair and pale skin is one badass motherfucker.
While she may not look like the typical guitar god—Hendrix, Van Halen and Page certainly weren’t 5-foot-1 females—King has mastered her craft to the point at which she has defined a style. From the stark one-woman/one-guitar arrangements on her 2003 debut, Everybody Loves You, to the more polished full-band production of the recently released Junior, her guitar playing is the shining star. Employing elements of slap bass and jazz, her cerebral compositions emanate just enough pop and grit to keep casual listeners interested.
Having grown up as a drummer who occasionally messed around on the guitar, King, now 30, didn’t get serious about the instrument until she was in college. How she got so good so fast is beyond even her comprehension.
“It’s not hard for me,” she says without sounding pompous. “Playing is my language, and it’s kind of my personality coming out. It’s a very personal thing. . . . I think everyone who plays an instrument has a style that’s all their own.”
That may be the case, but King’s style is clearly more advanced than most. When she really gets going, like on her instrumental roller coaster Pink Noise, her hands move so fast they become a blur moving like a twister on the horizon. Similar to Kobe Bryant crossing over on a defender and going to the hole, King’s playing is instinctual as much as it is premeditated.
“What I play is definitely thought-out, but there are times when I’m playing strictly on feel,” she says. “It just kind of depends on the situation. If it’s very loose and improvisational, sometimes the right thing for me to do is just let go and play.”
And while virtuosos may rule at what they do, their compositions often get too intellectual for most people. No one wants to listen to someone blaze through technical numbers short on soul and long on precision.
King, who has opened for precision-player-extraordinaire Eric Johnson, is onto this pitfall and decided early on to steer clear of this path. After two albums of mostly ethereal acoustic instrumentals, she recruited a band, switched to electric guitar and started singing more. Her third, most successful effort, 2006’s Until We Felt Red, showcased her sweet, textured vocals and hooked listeners with its opener, “Yellowcake.” The result was a broader fan base and the realization that if you’re not changing, you’re not growing.
“I have a very low tolerance for boredom. Doing the same thing over and over again is definitely boring to me,” she says. “I like challenging myself. . . . I know that my singing is not the reason that people come to see me, but I find it exciting, and it keeps me interested. I hope all of my albums sound very different from one another.”
Her lack of boredom tolerance also made her transient-touring-musician lifestyle a blessing and curse. She admits that going gig to gig, traversing endless slabs of highway, can chip away at the exhilaration she squeezes out of her short time onstage. At the time of this interview, King had been on the road more than two months—encompassing multiple countries and continents—with nary an end in sight.
“After a while, you start to feel like you are underwater,” she says. “I’m not saying that it sucks, but I have to work hard to make each day different so I avoid feeling like it’s Groundhog Day.”
Which begs the question: Does a virtuoso musician have to play in front of an audience to be fulfilled, or can she simply sit alone indoors, shredding in front of the mirror and no one else?
“I don’t think I’d be happy just playing by myself with no one else to hear it,” she says. “There is something special about the solitariness of writing, but the other side of it is expressing your playing in front of other people.”
Besides, you can’t really be a guitar god without giving the masses a place to worship in front of your axe.
This article appeared in print as "Inadvertent Guitar Goddess: Playing guitar comes easy to Kaki King, who finds overcoming boredom is the hard part of being a musician."