How Kaki King Became a Guitar Master

Kaki King makes a return appearance to the MIM.
Kaki King makes a return appearance to the MIM. Simone Cecchetti
If you have any doubt about the guitar’s ability to mesmerize, take a listen to instrumental guitarist Kaki King. The multitalented musician, who’s from Georgia and now resides in New York, has been creating intricate and intriguing sounds with a few different types of the instrument, including acoustic, electric, and lap steel, since releasing her debut record, Everybody Loves You, in 2002.

But King was playing long before then. “Like most parents,” she says, “mine encouraged me to explore music.” Though she started playing guitar around age 4, it was closer to age 8 or 9 when the relationship with the instrument was solidified.

That first record proved her ability to weave involved tales through the guitar without vocals being needed or missed. Songs like “Close Your Eyes & You’ll Burst Into Flames” use careful plucking to deliver the sweet tones that set dreamy moods.

As time went on, the percussive nature of her playing became part of her signature style, along with alternate tunings and jazzy elements. She is continuously evolving. Whether playing effects-laden shoegazer rock or creating the thickness and twang that emanates through the lap steel, she maintains a mastery that makes it feel like more of a deep exploration than a passing interest. She’s explored sound looping and layering, which bring depth to her sound.

How she views her relationship with the guitar might be part of what fuels such consistently powerful results. “I see the instrument as something that has control over me and our relationship,” King says. “I realized several years ago that it is directing me and that it really is what makes all the decisions. It’s almost as if I am in service to it.”

Atop that foundation of respect, she has followed the guitar down some interesting paths. Last time she was in Arizona to play at the Musical Instrument Museum, she performed The Neck Is a Bridge to the Body, the soundtrack to her immersive multimedia production.

Throughout the years, King’s also worked with a broad range of musicians, from Foo Fighters to The Mountain Goats. She’s also contributed to a number of soundtracks, including Into the Wild and August Rush.

Even with such a lengthy roster of projects behind her, King hasn’t tapped into all of the styles she wants to get involved with. “I would still really like to do something in the realm of Bill Frizzell or Daniel Lanois, something very minimal,” she says.

But her artistic wishlist isn’t limited to collaborators. “I’d like to really slow it down a lot,” she says. “Sometimes, it can be more challenging to create something slow and minimal than something with a lot of busywork on the guitar. I am excited to do that.”

When King returns to Phoenix to play MIM, the concert bill also will feature South African guitarist Derek Gripper, another extremely skilled performer who will make you look back on your LEGO-playing days and wonder why you didn’t pick up that instrument instead. He was 6 when he started playing classical music. First, it was the violin, and then he learned piano, followed by guitar. In addition to the music of South Africa, Gripper has mastered styles from around the world. In 2009, he taught himself to play the music of the traditional Malian kora — a 21-string lute-bridge-harp on a six-stringed guitar. Though the two tend to play different styles, the night focuses on both guitarists’ interest in technique and innovation.

Kaki King and Derek Gripper perform at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, September 7, at Musical Instrument Museum, 4725 East Mayo Boulevard. Tickets are $38.50 to $58.50. Call 480-478-6000 or visit
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Amy Young is an arts and culture writer who also spends time curating arts-related exhibits and events, and playing drums in local bands French Girls and Sturdy Ladies.
Contact: Amy Young