Taylor's fingerpicking technique is a central element of his style, known for its melodic complexity and rhythmic precision. He weaves intricate patterns, often incorporating alternating bass lines with intricate melodies on the higher strings. This technique, showcased in songs like "Fire and Rain" and "You've Got a Friend," creates a rich and textured backdrop for his warm, resonant vocals.
In contrast, Taylor's strumming adds depth and emotion to his music. His gentle, yet deliberate, strums create a rhythmic foundation that complements his introspective lyrics. This combination is evident in classics like "Carolina in My Mind" and "Sweet Baby James."
Taylor's guitar style is not just about technical prowess, but about conveying emotion and storytelling. Whether he's delicately picking the strings or strumming with heartfelt intention, his guitar work harmonizes perfectly with his introspective lyrics, creating a timeless musical experience that resonates deeply with listeners.
While there is no such thing as a "wrong" guitar, just consider what the right guitar could do for your playing.
When buying a new guitar, trying to differentiate between what you need and what you want can be a tough gig. What many do know, however, is that they aren't looking to just buy another random guitar. They are looking for an instrument that will help them achieve a new level of musicianship or address a particular music style. I've been around quality instruments since 1975, so my personal preference for tone and feel in relationship to application has become very clear. It's a process, but it's one worth spending the extra time to get right. We've discussed body size, scale lengths, and string tension in previous columns. This month, we're going to consider response and application—both incredibly important to consider when purchasing your next guitar.
First of all, resonance and response in relationship to any musical instrument are two sides of the same coin. It's the balance of these two that greatly defines an instrument. Resonance, which is mostly heard and felt in your body, is set primarily by the instrument's body geometry and flex. On the other hand, response is largely set by plate tension and material, both of which affect high end and attack. When these two are balanced correctly, that's when the magic happens.
With any one particular type of guitar—such as a dreadnought, for example—there is a level of feel and responsiveness that defines the instrument, but those same qualities will still vary from one guitar to another. This can be confusing at first to the average player, but the good news is that having a better idea of what you're looking for can quickly narrow the choices. Even better, it can significantly increase your chances of ending up with a guitar you'll really enjoy playing.
When I think about the flattop steel-string guitar market, I think about three primary categories: the fingerstyle guitar, the high-power guitar, and the jack-of-all-trades guitar. The fingerstyle guitar is an easy one to talk about because the requirements of a fingerstyle guitarist are unique and defined. They are primarily after quick response with even balance from string to string and note to note. Additionally, they are looking for an efficient sound that comes to volume quickly, so headroom and raw power are not on their radar. This means that while a fingerstyle guitar is incredibly fun to play and easy on the hands, it will hit its maximum volume quickly when driven hard.
This means that while a fingerstyle guitar is incredibly fun to play and easy on the hands, it will hit its maximum volume quickly when driven hard.
On the other hand, the guitar typically desired by bluegrass players is a high-power instrument that offers lots of headroom. What you gain in headroom, however, you lose in response and feel, so that power comes at a price. Plus, it takes a lot of conditioning to develop the hand energy to drive these tops and keep them moving.
Finally, there is what I think the majority of players want: a guitar that will cover a wide range of music styles and one that is relatively quick to the touch. It has a respectable low-to-mid range response and is commonly found in medium to larger body sizes. That said, picking this guitar out of the crowd can be a challenge.
Remember that low end is mostly generated through body geometry, so, in the beginning, compare guitars of the same general body size to keep the decision making to a minimum. Once you've narrowed the field down to three or four prime candidates, ask the store owner or dealer to put new strings on all of them. This will serve as an effective way to compare the high-end and high-midrange response between the guitars. And once your desired response has been identified, you can start comparing different body size options by going through the same process. By switching back and forth between, say, a dreadnought and an OM, you will find the low end you prefer to match your preferred response. Personally, I'm drawn to larger guitars with higher-tension soundboards. They are quick to the touch and require low hand energy, which allows me to play for hours without getting worn out. That said, everyone has their own perception of what is best for them.
The takeaway: Top response is a key element for every acoustic instrument that you should be mindful of when choosing your next guitar. With the correct guitar in your hands, you might find yourself able to break barriers you've been struggling with for years. I've seen it happen time and time again—when a player finally gets matched with the correct instrument. And it's magic.
COVID’s got even the world-renowned fingerstyle visionary wrestling with her chops. Here’s how she rolled with the punches, pivoted, and released the soundtrack to her on-hold-for-now audio-visual performance project, Data Not Found.
Kaki King had big plans for 2020. The world-renowned fingerstyle guitarist had upped her already considerable game on her previous record, 2015's The Neck Is a Bridge to the Body, by painstakingly creating an immersive live production in which visuals generated by a unique projection-mapping process were displayed upon her signature Ovation as she performed. This year she planned to continue on that trajectory with her newest project, Data Not Found, which explores modern themes of “big data," artificial intelligence, and how they function in the natural world.
King worked with a team that included sound designer Chloe Alexandra Thompson to create the show, which had its international premiere in Abu Dhabi in 2019 and its U.S. premiere at the 2019 Ellnora Guitar Festival. Data Not Found was then set to tour in 2020, before which King would record the performance piece's soundtrack album. Unfortunately, as the pandemic reared its head, things went very awry during the March 2020 sessions.
“We all gave each other COVID while we were making the record," King explains. “We were being careful but it was just everywhere in New York City. All of us in the studio got sick." Once everyone recovered, it became clear that tour plans would have to be postponed, but King decided to proceed with the release of the record, Modern Yesterdays. “We figured it would've been a piece to promote and talk about the show. But now it's its own thing." She adds, “It's sort of shocking that it even got done, given the timeframe."
A Soundtrack Without a Show
Of course, the album stands quite easily on its own legs. “The more I listen to it, the less I see it as the soundtrack to a live show," King agrees. Opening track “Default Shell" finds the guitarist playing a minimalist-inspired riff, her clean, midrange-focused acoustic tone surrounded by a warm bed of synth—courtesy of Thompson—amidst what headphones reveal to be an expansive stereo field. As the record proceeds, Thompson's synths seem to evolve organically around King's guitar on tracks such as “Can't Touch This or That or You or My Face" and “Lorlir." Elsewhere, they stray from this path. For instance, on “Godchild" King plays a mostly unaccompanied, groovy midtempo figure with a dry sound that feels cozy amidst the vastness of the other tracks.
The sound of King's guitar is certainly at the center of the record, but a big part of Modern Yesterdays is her collaboration with Thompson, whose spacious sounds shape and amplify the emotional content of the compositions, serving as an ideal complement to King's playing. Thompson's work as sound designer on this project blurs the line between collaborating musician and producer, and King quickly credits her hard work. “Even though we're improvising inside of some songs, it's not completely random," King says. “She is figuring out and tuning in and dialing in these very interesting things that happen during the show. Everything you hear in the entire show goes through her ears and her computation. She's not just a sound engineer that's making sure anything that may happen is gonna sound good. There's a lot more creation involved and a lot more creative decision-making—on her part, independently, and our part, collaboratively."
While King knew she was creating something much larger-scale than a typical recording project, she always starts with the music first, allowing that work to guide the way. “I don't really worry about why or what it's for," she explains. “I like to enter a project with about 50 percent of the tunes very well worked out and then maybe some good ideas and maybe some hunches." Her process is organic and takes time: “Some of these things were written over years. Ultimately, it's kind of sitting there waiting to be discovered in my guitar. I write two seconds of music that I come back to six months later and then a song comes out, or I show up at a friend's studio to hang out and I end up writing a piece. There's no logic, no equation or calculus that I can recreate, year after year. I just have to trust the process, that it will get done eventually. And as long as I'm playing, I'm writing."
King created Modern Yesterdays with sound designer Chloe Alexandra Thompson for a touring audio-visual show called Data Not Found.
In that way, King sees her songwriting work as that of a “revisionist," slowly developing ideas over the course of time through trial and error until the song reveals itself, often through repeated performance. That process of development never ends, even once a song is recorded, as the guitarist may continue to delve into the nuance and detail of any of her songs. She elaborates, “I don't think anything ever gets really finished. Especially as a solo guitarist, I'm always trying to do something a little different. It's like a see-saw effect: I may go really long in one direction with a really long, drawn-out, improvised intro before I get into the song, same for the outro or middle. It's sort of like adding something, chipping away at that, then adding something and chipping away at that, until eventually it's like, 'This is the nicest way I know how to play this particular piece.'"
Data Not Found was created with this idea in mind, so when the production does eventually tour, audiences will hear the songs on Modern Yesterdays continue to develop. King explains the methodology behind the performance. “In Data Not Found, there's maybe one completely pre-recorded video where I'm trying to hit visual metronome marks. Everything else is improvised. Data Not Found is rigid in terms of getting from cue to cue as far as lighting and coordination with my video, lighting, and sound people, but within each scene it's all up for grabs."
The Passerelle Bridge
One Modern Yesterdays track that sounds noticeably different is “Teek," in which King creates melodic and percussive sounds and uses koto-inspired bends by employing her Passerelle Bridge, a device the guitarist created in partnership with luthier Rachel Rosenkrantz. (See video below where King performs "Teek" using the Passerelle Bridge.) The Passerelle is a sleek metallic object that sits between the strings and fretboard and functions as a secondary bridge, breaking each string into two independently playable sections. “Teek" is a fine example of how King uses the gadget to achieve sounds that she'd long been searching for.
She previously sought out DIY-style solutions as part of this quest, shoving various items between her strings and fretboard—maybe most notably including a plastic knife. But King wasn't satisfied until meeting Rosenkrantz and beginning a trial-and-error process to perfect the sound and design of what became the Passerelle. The duo went through various stages of prototypes in order to explore all of the possibilities behind their idea. King explains, “We had to decide how tall it should be, how far the strings should be spaced, how to get the right balance of the groove that the string is in so it doesn't buzz and it doesn't slip out—a lot of tricky stuff."
Ultimately, King found the right collaborator in Rosenkrantz, who is not only a luthier but has a background in industrial design and is a professor at the Rhode Island School of Design—all of which King credits for the final outcome of the Passerelle: “All that combined is really the essence of what the piece looks like."
Beyond King's use of it, the Passerelle bridge has reached plenty of players who have created their own sounds with the device. “We've sent it to a lot of people who've shown us what they're doing with it and it's been a great pleasure and a fascinating world to open up," King says proudly. Ultimately, she sees it as something anyone can figure out how to use, adding, “It's first and foremost a noisemaker. You put it on your strings and tighten it up to some kind of tension and you can pluck on one side and bend on another. It's very basic." It's that simplicity that makes the Passerelle both accessible and fun to a wide variety of guitarists.
Life at Home
With her tour postponed and an ambivalence about the typical lack of audience feedback from streaming performances, King is one of many performers with high-level technique who have realized the limitations of being stuck at home. “I'm learning the hard way that there is almost no good way to maintain one's chops in a vacuum."
Kaki King's 2015 project, The Neck Is a Bridge to the Body, was an immersive multi-media live production in which visuals were projected onto her signature Ovation Adamas 1581-KK acoustic as she performed. Photo by Marla Aufmuth
It's not that King doesn't play—she still plays every day. It's the absence of two huge motivators—a deadline and the risk of messing up during a live performance—that make playing a thrill and add impetus to keeping chops sharp. King was generous enough to share her own experience and admits the effects of being stuck at home in a pandemic have set in. “It has been super, super hard. My stamina and accuracy have gone to shit. It totally worries me, and I don't know how to recreate the setting. What am I supposed to do? How do I recreate the situation by which I'm supposed to be prepared for a show when there's no show? It's a big conundrum. I think there are much more talented people that have their shit together that aren't in this situation, but I am definitely in it."
Home life has been inspiring King to work in some new ways, though, and she's branched out to learning material from other composers. “I have been learning a couple of Gyan Riley's tunes and it's been really fun," she shares. “It's been something to do at night after the kids go to bed and brings me back to that feeling when I was a kid of successfully learning someone else's song."
Kaki King is known for acoustic fingerstyle playing, but she also incorporates a 1975 Fender Telecaster Deluxe into her Data Not Found live show. Photo by Waleed Shah
She's applied that inspiration more broadly and recently performed a duet with guitarist Yasmin Williams. The two recently performed a radio show for New York's WNYC, and King explains, “They did the thing where they asked us to play together. After so many years of being the awkward solo fingerstyle player who doesn't really solo and having to noodle around, I said, 'How about we take a different approach and I learn one of your songs, note-for-note, and we play it together in unison?' We took the time to make it really special."
If nothing else, finding inspiration in the work of others may be something King uses to keep herself playing while many players struggle to adjust to gig-free life. “Learning someone else's song is such a joy," she says, adding, “I'm looking forward to doing more."