Kaki King’s Life’s Work Tests the Outer Limits of Playing Guitar

Kaki King
Kaki King Courtesy photo
There is no secret to becoming a guitar virtuoso, according to Kaki King. Only by playing the instrument on a daily basis for the past 30 years has she mastered her aggressive, percussive, and technically impressive finger-style technique.

In fact, King’s entire adult life has been dedicated to pushing the boundaries of playing guitar. “Expanding the possibilities of the instrument has always been something I’ve been focused on,” she says. “I want to keep experimenting and pushing the envelope. I don’t ever want to be done.”

King’s epic chops have earned her widespread recognition. In 2006, she was the only woman and youngest musician on Rolling Stone's list “The New Guitar Gods.”

Not that she cares about that sort of stuff.

“I ignore all of that nonsense,” she says. “That’s not the sort of legacy that’s interesting to me, and it’s not even reasonable or true, just totally hyperbolic.”

Speaking from her home in Brooklyn ahead of her set at Kravis Center in West Palm Beach, she says to expect a spectacle. During her immersive multimedia show, The Neck Is a Bridge to the Body, King’s instrument will be transformed from a blank white canvas into a dazzling explosion of light and color.

In this case, there is a secret — a technique called projection mapping.

“It’s really not as complicated as it seems,” she says. “Let’s say you take a piece of cardboard, cut out the shape of a guitar, and shine a light through it; you get the reverse silhouette of a guitar. Really, what we’re doing is sending light to only the guitar using software and digital projection.”

But there’s a little more to it: The signal from King’s guitar runs through a digital interface, which triggers various images — like, say, a spiral or a wash of color — based on which notes she strikes. So it might not be obvious to the audience, but there is a direct relationship between what they see and hear.

“I feel like I get more out of [the show] than anyone,” King says, “because I know what’s happening and I know how to control it... It’s very surreal, very beautiful. It’s taking the guitar and making it look like something it shouldn’t.”
click to enlarge
King's guitar as a blank canvas.
Courtesy photo
In the name of pushing personal boundaries, King collaborated with the 12-piece Porta Girevole Chamber Orchestra last year. The product is her most recent album, Live at Berklee, which includes arrangements of her compositions for solo guitar, reimagined with the addition of strings and woodwinds. As a self-taught guitarist, King was forced to overcome her fears in order to work with the group of classically trained musicians.

“It was kind of intimidating,” she says. “I had a bit of impostor’s syndrome, because I didn’t go to music school and I have a very limited knowledge of music theory, but I was able to let go of that after I realized I am qualified to work with an ensemble, write for an ensemble, and give directions and take feedback.”

And when it comes to performing at a high level, either with an ensemble or solo, King says the only obstacle is herself.

“There’s this open-ended, communicative circuit between my fingers, my body, and my brain,” she says. “The only thing that can interrupt that circuit is my own self-doubt and all the subcategories of self-doubt — insecurity, fear, procrastination. Otherwise, I just sit and play guitar, and good things happen as long as I remain open and meditative without thinking too hard.”

Kaki King. 7:30 p.m. Thursday, March 1, at the Kravis Center, 701 Okeechobee Blvd., West Palm Beach; 561-832-7469; Tickets cost $32 via
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Howard Hardee is a freelance writer based in Madison, Wisconsin. Originally from Fairbanks, Alaska, he has a BA in journalism and writes stories about music, outdoor adventures, politics, and the environment for alt-weeklies across the country. He is an aficionado of fine noises and has a theremin in his living room.

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