By Victoria Wasylak
Oh boy,” murmurs Kaki King upon entering a back room at Mill No. 5. She strides through the crowd gathered for her Root Note Studio workshop and guitar necks simultaneously move out of the way like a makeshift musician’s curtsy.
She begins by playing her six-string like an alien instrument, tapping the neck like a keyboard and slapping the body like a conga drum. When it’s over, the room buzzes in awe. Then she proposes the impossible.
“So we’re going to learn how to play that song,” King tells her students.
The room hums with the din of thirty musicians tuning their guitars. King is amused by the dissonance.
“This is a crazy ass sound!” she says.
While somewhat intimidating at first, King’s downhome nature reveals itself through gestures as quick, sharp and whole hearted as her picking. She winks at someone who stands up to catch a better glimpse of her fretwork, and offers her sunglasses to another who’s seated in the glaring sunshine.
Kaki sits, slightly elevated, her white Ovation in hand and a landscape of Lowell mills behind her. She demonstrates what to do with the right hand, then the left and then alternates hands with each step, stringing all the motions together. Her right hand is artfully tipped with four – not five – acrylic nails to help her play properly.
“I wasn’t a protégé, I wasn’t brilliant,” King says, recalling her childhood music lessons. She started learning how to work a guitar at age four but it was her drum training that pushed her guitar techniques to new levels.
“Putting the two together is what makes the song sound speedy and fast,” she says of the techniques she teaches for each hand, from muting strings to tapping the body of the guitar and properly plucking for the heartiest sound.
“You can never repeat too many times,” she advises as the group rhythmically practiced mini-sections of the song. “I’m a real firm believer that you don’t have to practice eight hours a day — you have to practice smart.”
Within the hour and a half course, students learned the foundation of the song and a handful of King’s legendary techniques, just enough information to take home and toy with.
Following the workshop, at her live performance in the Hi Hat lounge, King moved with the same precision and fluidity, finessing the strings with her nails, scratching the body of the guitar, totally experimenting with her sound. She has the power to command a single note to bellow, and silence it just as quick with the slightest touch of a finger. When she wasn’t slapping her strings she was tapping the floor with her feet, not to keep time but for sound effects.
King reached back in her catalogue for the Lowell show, rewinding the clock ten years to play songs like “Goby,” as well as songs from her latest album The Neck is the Bridge to the Body including “Trying to Speak” (parts one and two) and “Anthropomorph.”
After a near two-hour emotional instrumental outpouring, King flees the stage — sans encore, per her request — to sign merchandise for fans in the Vinyl Destination record shop.
“Kaki was so gracious to include us on the tail end of her tour,” says Liz Lawrence, founder of Root Note Studio. “She is a true master of her own style on the guitar. That is a statement that very few musicians are able to live up to.”
Get drowned in sound at kakiking.com