In 2007, Kaki King was the only woman to place on Rolling Stone’s list of new guitar gods.
Her presence there is, of course, a testimony to how women guitarists are still shut out of the canon. But it’s also a statement that her music is so original (the magazine could only describe it as “Van Halen meets Bootsy Collins”), her talent so fierce, her creativity so boundless, that her influence is undeniable. Now, King is taking that influence to a whole new level with a different project—a place that seeks to make the finest guitars, and knowledge of them, available to anyone who stops by.
That place is named Other Cathedrals (after celebrated English guitarist Adrian Legg’s album Guitars and Other Cathedrals). Other Cathedrals includes a guitar library that showcases many guitars from King’s personal collection, including custom-made instruments, and makes them available for anyone to play. Lessons are also available; King herself teaches advanced students. Finally, a recording studio is available—musicians have the option to bring in their own engineer or work with one in-house [ed note: rehearsal and recording space is available for hourly/day rates or per project].
The idea for Other Cathedrals came to King when she noticed two problems she could solve at the same time. This first problem was one she noticed after having a baby last year, and giving music lessons over Skype. Even her most gifted students were limited by the quality of their instruments. “These people had terrible guitars they really could play, and they were not informed enough to know that there were really great instruments out there that could help them. They would say things like ‘well, how come when I do this, it doesn’t sound like you?’ And I’d be like, ‘God, you know, you’re doing it perfectly; you’ve just reached the limit of the instrument that you have.’”
Holloway Harp Guitar, image courtesy of Other Cathedrals
As King thought about how to better equip her students, she also thought about how her guitar collection was making her feel like the guitar hoarders she hated. She owned many guitars, mainly Ovation and Hamer, and she also had been accumulating custom-built guitars that proved hard to sell. “So they started sitting around in cases, and I’d move the cases from the storage unit to basement, [or] whatever. It became burdensome and also embarrassing because I really frown on people who are collectors, meaning collectors who just buy and hold, buy guitars that never even get played a note. I saw this need for people to play instruments that they couldn’t afford or even have access to because so many are one of a kind. This is my solution to both of these problems.”
King realizes that guitar stores can be intimidating, with foot traffic coming and going and sales staff staring customers down, which often leaves musicians without time to get to know an instrument they might purchase. Worse yet, the atmosphere can scare people away from playing at all.
Ovation Kaki King Signature Adamas, courtesy of Other Cathedrals
She designed Other Cathedrals to have the opposite effect. When people visit, she gives them a tour to show them where everything is, and what the function of all the equipment is. She’s careful to keep things organized with lockers for picks, slides, and capos so time isn’t wasted looking for them. But the most important things she offers are more ephemeral.
“As I was developing the concept, maybe the most important part of this idea was the idea of solitude and time. The guitars are only half the equation. You can go and get far nicer guitars at a high-end guitar shop. But you’re not gonna get the solitude, and that and the privacy—all those things are very important to me. Even if they’re a little intimidated by the guitars or they don’t know where to begin, I hope that is something they can immediately grasp onto. ‘I’m alone, I’m free, and I can just sit here and figure out the rest.’”
King hopes to make Other Cathedrals even more accessible through community projects, and offering a scholarship is high on her list. That scholarship would be for young women who wouldn’t ordinarily have access to high-end musical instruments. “I don’t want this to become an ivory tower where people who can afford it can come. I want this to be a place where anybody who wants to can come in there and we can figure out how to make that happen,” King says.
Though she’s never taken guitar lessons herself, as a teacher, a key component of her style is to practice new techniques with the student during the lesson. Many of the techniques she uses in her own songs, so students are able to learn with a context where they can apply their knowledge. By practicing together, her hope is that her students won’t go home feeling unsure of whether know how to do something correctly. “I think that you can get a lot done in a really small amount of time if you have someone helping you and coaching you,” she says. “So that’s what I do. I say ‘here’s what we’re going to learn, and for the rest of the lesson we’re going to practice it.’ I can know beyond the shadow of a doubt that I’ve gotten something into their fingers.”