Guitarist Kaki King's rightful place is among kings of the strings

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Kaki King

Kaki King (Charles Osgood/for the Chicago Tribune / November 16, 2012)

Who is the greatest guitar player?

Depending on your age and musical tastes, the answer will vary.

Eric Clapton, yes? Or, for those of a classical bent, perhaps Andres Segovia? How about, for you older folks, Les Paul or Django Reinhardt?

Rolling Stone, a fairly good arbiter of this sort of thing, has a list of the "100 Greatest Guitarists." First created in 2003, the list is topped by Jimi Hendrix, Clapton, Jimmy Page, Keith Richards and Jeff Beck. In 100th place is Lindsey Buckingham.

Notice anything about all of those above names?

Correct. Rolling Stone's is a male-dominated club, but for the small exceptions of Joni Mitchell at No. 75 and Bonnie Raitt at No. 89.

So I hereby nominate for inclusion Kaki King, who was recently in Chicago for an appearance at the new City Winery as part of a national tour.

I am not alone in my admiration for this 33-year-old, who is also a talented singer-songwriter. Rolling Stone included her on a 2006 list of "New Guitar Gods," along with 19 others. Topping that list was John Mayer.

King was ranked ninth, the only female to make that list and the youngest person on it.

"I don't know why there aren't more great women guitarists," she said during her Chicago visit. "I think there are more in the classical world, but I just don't know."

She started playing music when very young, growing up in Atlanta.

"I began the guitar at 4 or 5," she said. "It is a difficult instrument to learn. There is so much more instant gratification from the piano or the drums."

So, she began drumming and eventually played that instrument in bands before going back to the guitar while a student at New York University. Her first album, an acoustic gathering titled "Everybody Loves You," was released in 2003, and she embarked on her first tour. After an appearance on "Late Night with Conan O'Brien," her career immediately changed course.

"I never thought about playing solo guitar on late-night TV," she said. "That was not intended to happen, but it did, and it turned into my vocation. But I wanted to spread out and see what else I could do."

She did plenty. In no particular order, and far from all-inclusive, she recorded the albums "Legs to Make Us Longer," "Until We Felt Red," and "Echoes, Silence, Patience & Grace," which featured her singing and songwriting; collaborated with Eddie Vedder and Sean Penn on the soundtrack for the film "Into the Wild"; performed with the Foo Fighters and The Mountain Goats; and toured nationally and internationally.

Her latest release, "Glow," is a return to her roots.

"All of my first albums were instrumental guitar, and I wanted to reconnect with that style," she says. "The idea was, 'Let's write some songs on the guitar and see where it goes.'"

Here's how it went, according to a review in Guitar World magazine: "You'll be struck by the pristine recording quality, the crystal-clear tone, the acoustic separation and the compositions that stem from masterful and moving arpeggiations."

That's a bit too technical for me, but King is pleased with the album's reception.

"This is all a lifelong experiment," says King, who lives in Brooklyn, recently married her girlfriend and is featured in a new international ad for the Gap (worth a look on YouTube).

"I get better at different things. Some things have sort of been committed to muscle memory, and on the road my stamina gets better. … It all gets better," she said.

To watch her play is to observe a seemingly easy artistry, almost balletic in the movement of her fingers and hands and in the use of the guitar for percussive beats (once a drummer always a drummer). You can have a look at kakiking.com.

"That's nice to hear," she said. "But this is a lot of physical work. I had a friend who said, 'I don't understand why any instrument should involve so much pain.' She's right. While the right hand is doing its thing, the body has to remain very steady and the left hand has a lot of physical work, moving and squeezing. I miss a string by a millimeter and everything is out of tune."

She wants one day to play for a room full of guitar players.

"At least they'd know how hard it is," she said. And then she played and, like most artists fully in control of their gifts, made it look so, so easy.

Rick Kogan interviews newsmakers on WBEZ's "The Afternoon Shift," weekdays 2-4 p.m.

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