Many years ago, an Australian youngster named Tommy Emmanuel had a lofty and unlikely goal: to become a consummate fingerpicker, able to effortlessly navigate any style—blues, folk, jazz, rock, and so on—while mastering the art of songwriting and performing. Today he is that guitarist, although he’ll tell you he’s really “just the messenger.” If you play guitar, the message is that with a little talent and a ton of hard work and dedication, anything is possible—but only if you want it bad enough. At age 56, a time when many people are into a second career or are searching for what they really want to do, Emmanuel remains focused on what he’s been doing since age five. More than ever it’s a deep love for the guitar (or “weapon of mass construction,” as he calls it), the incredible power of music, and his delight in sharing it that keeps his motor running.
His 2011 album, Little by Little, was a 24-song set featuring Emmanuel in a variety of musical settings with a host of gifted collaborators, including bassist Victor Wooten; fellow CGP (or “Certified Guitar Player,” as designated by Chet Atkins) John Knowles; and Doyle Dykes. But for fans of his solo acoustic work, there’s a wealth of great material here, too. On the fast and furious side, Emmanuel dishes up white-hot Travis-style picking on “The Welsh Tornado,” “Locomotivation,” and “The Mighty Mouse.” By contrast, ballads such as “Ruby’s Eyes” and Chet Atkins’s lovely “Smokey Mountain Lullaby” showcase his gift for expressing melodies with so much nuance and feeling they sound more like singing than guitar playing.
Born William Thomas Emmanuel on May 31, 1955 in Muswellbrook, New South Wales, Australia, he received his first guitar at the age of four. His mother played lap steel guitar, and she taught him how to strum basic chords to accompany her. In the early 1960s Emmanuel heard a record by American guitarist Chet Atkins, who seemed to be playing bass, rhythm, and lead, all at the same time. Atkins’s deft fingerpicking made a profound impression on the seven-year-old guitarist and became his lifelong musical compass.
When Emmanuel’s father, Hugh, saw that his guitar-playing sons (Tommy’s brother, Phil, had also become a talented player) were bona fide child prodigies, he quit his coal-mining job and organized a family band. He sold the family home, bought two station wagons, and took them on the road throughout the Australian provinces. Known variously as the Emmanuel Quartet, the Midget Surfaries, and the Trailblazers, the band (which included sister Virginia on lap steel and brother Chris on drums) toured until Hugh died of a heart attack in 1966. For a while Australian country singer Buddy Williams took the Emmanuel kids with him on the road, but eventually child welfare authorities in New South Wales made them quit touring and insisted they go to school on a regular basis.
By the late 1970s Tommy Emmanuel had made a name for himself in Sydney, with his guitar work being featured in commercials and on records by Australian pop acts such as Air Supply (“Lost in Love”). Emmanuel recorded his first solo album, From Out of Nowhere, in 1979, and the next year he made his first pilgrimage to Nashville to meet Atkins in person after a lengthy correspondence that began in 1966.
While Emmanuel became increasingly well known in Australia, it wasn’t until 1993 that his music was marketed to American listeners with The Journey. It was also Emmanuel’s first collaboration on record with his hero and mentor, Atkins, who played his Del Vecchio resonator guitar on “Villa Anita.” That partnership resumed in 1997 with The Day Finger Pickers Took Over the World (which turned out to be Atkins’s final album). Two years later, Atkins honored Emmanuel with the CGP award at the Chet Atkins Appreciation Society gathering in Nashville, putting him in the elite company of Jerry Reed, Knowles, and Steve Wariner.
For the past decade Emmanuel’s career has been in overdrive; he plays some 300 concert dates per year in nearly every corner of the globe. He’s turned out four solo albums, and two live double-disc sets, and he’s recently released albums with master guitarists Jim Nichols (Happy Hour) and Frank Vignola (Just Between Frets). In 2005 Emmanuel was inducted into the National Thumbpicker’s Hall of Fame, and in 2007 he picked up a Grammy nomination for “Gameshow Rag/Cannonball Rag” (from The Mystery).
On a visit to San Francisco in February, Emmanuel was in high gear. In addition to playing two nights to a full house at the Palace of Fine Arts, he performed as the musical guest on Sedge Thomson’s West Coast Live radio broadcast and conducted a two-hour-plus guitar workshop for some 50 attendees.
Emmanuel took a break to sit down with Acoustic Guitar for a discussion about his music career, his guitars, and Little by Little.
You’ve come a long way from touring in station wagons with the family band when you were a child. Can you tell us about that?
EMMANUEL When we were kids, we mostly slept under the stars. If it rained, we jumped in the car or pulled a tarpaulin over us. We had a proper oily canvas tarpaulin which covered all the equipment on the roof rack of the wagons that we had. When we were camping outdoors and if it got a little cold, Dad would undo that and throw it over the lot of us. One of the cars had a trailer, where we kept our amp and a little PA. It was two 12-inch speakers, a little AWA power amp with valves in it, and a Phillips microphone. The three of us—myself, Phil, and Virginia—all played through a Moody, which is an [Australian] amplifier. I think it was probably 40 watts, two 12s, and the reverb unit was separate. Chris had a little drum kit, and that’s how we started.
What was your repertoire back then?
EMMANUEL Mostly the Shadows and the Ventures. We opened the show with the four of us, with Phil playing lead guitar. Then we’d put on leis and Virginia would do about 15 minutes of beautiful Hawaiian songs. My father would come out and tell a few jokes, then Phil and I would play guitar behind our heads, and the two of us would play the one guitar. Then I would play the [lap] steel, and then I’d jump on the drums and play a drum solo. At the end I’d kick over the drum and fall down on the stage, and the audience would think that was funny. The curtain would come down and five minutes later I was in the back of the car sleeping. That was the first few years of my life in show business.
Nobody played bass?
EMMANUEL I never knew what a bass guitar was, so I had worked out how to play the rhythm parts and the bass parts from listening to those recordings, not realizing there was a bass guitar. I think that was nature’s way of preparing me for when I first heard Chet Atkins.
When did you start corresponding with Chet?
EMMANUEL That was just after my dad died. I was 11 years old, and by that time I was already playing “Windy and Warm” and “Freight Train” and a few of the simpler pieces. I was playing them with a straight pick—I wasn’t a thumbpicker yet. In the old days RCA always printed “Visit the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville” on the back of its country album covers. So I wrote a letter to Chet. I remember telling him my name, and what I did, and that I was a fan. On the envelope, I addressed it to “Chet Atkins, Nashville, America.” It got to him, and he answered it! I’ll never forget, I came home from school and my mother said, “Put your bag down and go into your room, there’s something on your bed for you.” There’s this big brown envelope, I open it, and inside was a black-and-white photo of Chet with his Gretsch, and he’s wearing a Perry Como–style cardigan, his hair looking perfect. He signed it “Best wishes to Tommy, from Chet.” I couldn’t believe it.
How did that affect you?
EMMANUEL It made me think that if a boy from nowhere could write to the greatest instrumentalist of all time, and get a reply, then anything is possible. You can imagine in a place like Australia, we didn’t get a lot of Chet’s music, so you had to really look for it. What we heard was Elvis, and the Beatles, some R&B things, and Chuck Berry. Years later I was around my friend’s place and he recorded me playing some things by Chet and by Jerry Reed, and he sent the tape to Chet—without telling me! So I get this handwritten letter on Chet’s office stationary: “I received your tape and I played it for Lenny Breau. We were impressed,” and “Here’s my office number, look me up when you are in the States,” which was all I needed to light a fire under me.
Chet’s validation must have helped motivate you to become successful in Sydney.
EMMANUEL That, and I had no money in those days. I was teaching guitar, I was doing guitar repair, I was playing in about six different bands, and I was trying to get studio work. I was just kind of ambling along, working as hard as I knew how, getting enough money to have a decent place to live. It wasn’t too long before I started getting a lot of studio work, which paid better than gigs. The producers who used me on different things, none of them really believed that I couldn’t read music. Sometimes, if I’d be doing a commercial for an air freshener or something, and they wanted something like Vivaldi, I’d do an imitation that I thought sounded like Vivaldi. I just made something up and it would work, you know? I learned to be resourceful and think quickly on my feet.
Is that still true, that you don’t read music?
EMMANUEL I don’t read a note. I wish I could. I often wonder how much more I could have learned if I could have gotten into the Joe Pass books with all that incredible modal stuff that I don’t know much about. When I played a solo on an album a few years ago a young guy, about a third my age, came up to me and said, “Hey man, I really like how you used the Mixolydian [scale] over the blah, blah, blah,” and I said, “I did?” I didn’t have a clue.
But you can hear it.
EMMANUEL I liked that sound—I can’t name it, but I like it. That’s where Chet was really great with a lot of those things. He’d say, “If you do that diminished thing over that, listen to what that sounds like.” He was handing off his insight and knowledge. He always encouraged me in the right way, because I’ve always wanted to do something different. I wanted to reach a different market, and I didn’t want to sound like a bad version of him. So I got my own thing going. I began writing a lot; I wanted to get songs on the radio and in films. That was my goal as a writer and as an artist. I never, ever thought of myself as just a guitar player—ever.
Let’s talk about the writing on Little by Little.
EMMANUEL Some of the songs, like “The Welsh Tornado” [see page 58 of July 2011 issue of Acoustic Guitar for a transcription] and “The Mighty Mouse,” have their roots in Travis [picking] and carrying on that tradition. It’s a way of getting a younger generation’s attention and saying, “Look where this comes from. This is part of your history right here in America. Your musical heritage is inside that song.” That’s what I was trying to do with those. “The Welsh Tornado” is [written about] Gareth Pearson, who is a really fine player who lives in Canada now. When he was about 16 years old, he came to my show in Cardiff [in Wales, UK]. He played backstage for me, and he was so good I said to him, “I want you to open the show for me.” “The Mighty Mouse” is the scariest ride I’ve ever been on. It starts out with this kind of sugar plum fairy introduction, like a sense of false security, then it’s boom! Balls to the walls.
You included two versions of “Moon River”on the new record. Why?
EMMANUEL I had been playing an instrumental version of “Moon River” in my show, but when I had Rick Price on tour with me he said, “I love that version of ‘Moon River.’ It’s one of my favorite songs,” and he started singing it in the normal key, so I said, “We have to do this,” and it ended up on the record as well. It’s one of the most perfectly written compositions by Henri Mancini, who never ceases to amaze me. It’s one of those flexible kind of songs, and when I play it as an instrumental I’m trying different chords and ideas as I’m going along. The descending chord melody lick on the line “wider than a mile”—I stole that from a piano player I heard in a cocktail lounge at an airport years ago. I’m standing there having a beer, and I hear him play that lick and I go, “What the hell is that?” and grabbed the guitar immediately and nabbed that idea.
“The Trails” is another example of something really different.
EMMANUEL You never hear a guitar player making the sound of a native flute. I was really drawn to that. We went to Utah, to do a function for the Native American Society, for the Navajo. My sheet said “Navajo singers and dancers, and the chief will play the flute.” I was looking forward to it all day, and I knew somewhere deep inside that something was going to happen. As a writer, you’re waiting for something to happen that you can be inspired by, that can give you an idea. I think it’s something I’ve learned all my life, that you can’t force it. You can’t just manufacture some deep idea. Well, the chief came and played the flute, and it just got me. I had my guitar right there and I had to work out some of the intervals to get my head around how the flute worked, and then I could try and put it on the guitar. I went back to the dressing room and wrote the whole thing—it just poured out of me. I flew back to Nashville the next day, went straight into the studio and recorded it. It’s grown a lot since.
“The Finger Lakes” sounds like it comes from the same sort of place as “Lewis and Clark.”
EMMANUEL That’s right. The legend is that the Finger Lakes [in upstate New York] were created when the hand of God came down, but it was the glaciers moving. We were in a place called Skaneateles, which I love dearly. My friend Little Dickey Ward lives up there and has an organization called the Guitar League. I did some shows and a workshop for them, and one morning I got up early and walked to the lake. It was just so quiet, and the water was like glass. In my mind I went back 150 years, and imagined I was on the lake in a canoe. When I got back to my guitar, I wanted to describe all that. So it starts out with harmonics. That describes being on the water. Then it unfolds slowly until it’s describing the great unknown, the vast natural resources, the rivers, the mountains, everything. “Tears for Jerusalem” stands out as another tune inspired by a specific place—I saw the movie The Passion of the Christ and was incredibly moved by the film and the music. I spent a day in Jerusalem and got a feel for the place. When I wrote the song I didn’t want the music to resolve, because nothing there is resolved, and who knows when it will ever be resolved. That’s why the song is full of conflict. I tried to sing the main melody part like it was a Jewish folk song, to make sure it had an authentic feel to it. On that track I’m playing my original old Maton guitar I used on my Only album.
The guitar you call “The Mouse”?
EMMANUEL There was a children’s story years ago called The Mouse That Roared. He was a mouse, but he had the effect of a lion. These little Maton [EBG808] guitars are like that. They’re not too fancy schmancy, but they really have a great voice. I have several of those, including a brand new one. The big guitar I used on “Mountains of Illinois” is called Big Bertha. It’s my original Maton dreadnought with the cutaway [TE1 Artist], and it’s rosewood. One day a friend of mine called it Big Bertha—it is a whale compared to the Mouse—so that name stuck. We call the Larrivée “The Boss” because my producer and engineer Kim Person said to me in the studio, “I love all your guitars, but that Larrivée, that’s the boss.” When I was playing at [Nashville’s] Café Milano with Chet [in 1997], Jean Larrivée was in the front row with his wife and kids. He didn’t know me from Adam, and I didn’t know him, either. After the show he asked me where I was staying, and I told him I was out at Chet’s house. The next day a taxi arrives there with a guitar case and a note saying, “This is for you.” I opened the case and there was the guitar. The neck meets the body at the 12th fret; it’s got a cutaway, with beautiful inlay all around, and rosewood back and sides.
Can you tell us about the 1930s Kalamazoo Gibson that you used on the new album?
EMMANUEL All my life I wanted a guitar like this. About four years ago I got a call from my agent, who said there is a guy named Peter who had been to many of my shows in Holland and Germany who had tickets to four of my upcoming concerts, but couldn’t go because he was dying of cancer. So I said, “Do you think I could go and see him?” The agent rang the family and they said that would be great, but to be prepared because he’s in the last stages. So, I went around to his house, and we played and we sang, had a beautiful time, and he gave me this guitar. It’s from 1934, and it’s all original. It’s been broken in a couple places and repaired. It’s just so light. [plays a few licks on it] Hear the voice? It’s got the sound, somewhere between the Del Vecchio and the Django [Reinhardt] sound. I used this guitar on the album with Frank Vignola. I had it refretted so I could get my vibrato on it.
Who do you like to listen to when you’re not working?
EMMANUEL I’m mainly interested in singers and songwriters. People whose singing and playing I love are Bonnie Raitt, James Taylor, John Mayer, Eric Clapton, I love Stevie Ray Vaughan. When I want to be inspired by people’s great work, I listen to people like Elton John or Billy Joel—people whose music moves the world. If you listen to Elton John’s Songs from the West Coast album, that is truly one of the modern masterpieces of songwriting, performance, and production. When I put that on it just astounds me every time. I try to improve myself and my songwriting by listening to people who are much better at it than I am. If you want to raise your standard, be around people who will help lift you up, because they’re already there.
Practice Makes Perfect
In workshops and clinics, Tommy Emmanuel describes himself as the “Indiana Jones” of the acoustic guitar because, according to him, he’s just making it up as he goes along. Watch him play for a minute, and it’s abundantly clear he puts an enormous amount of thought and hard work into his playing. It seems reasonable, then, to ask: How does a fellow with such a busy schedule find the time and energy to work on his craft?
“I like being busy,” Emmanuel says. “It’s healthy for me. So what I do is I play as much and as often as I can. There are gray days every now and then, where nothing seems to feel like it should. Those are the hard ones to get through, and those are the days I usually tell myself, ‘Don’t worry if you don’t feel like playing. Don’t feel guilty. Do something else.’ So I might just listen to music or watch someone else do it well. And then there are other days when you practically have to pry the guitar off me with a sledgehammer because I can’t stop playing it.”
Emmanuel says he uses the practice time he has to work on whatever is currently relevant.
“I don’t have a routine,” he says. “I just wrote a new song the other day, so that’s all I’m playing. I wanna nail that new song. I wanna be able to play it while someone’s talking to me, or while I’m watching TV, so that when I play it onstage I don’t have to think about it, my hands know where to go. One of the best things to practice is songs that are hard to play, and practice them like you’re onstage playing them. That’s what I do. My practice is also about working on motor skills, working on building strengths where my weaknesses are, working on improving songs I’ve been playing awhile and making them better.”
Staying loose, he says, is the key to playing well, especially at fast tempos.
“I try to work on being as relaxed as I can when I’m playing,” Emmanuel says. “The faster it gets, the more I wanna be relaxed. I don’t want to be straining anything, or pressing anything too much, or trying too hard. When you see someone play who looks like they’re at the edge of their limit, they haven’t done enough work yet.”
Never Mind the Jitters
Fifty years of performing has taught Emmanuel much about connecting with an audience—and how to deal with stage fright.
“First of all, you have to be honest and acknowledge it,” he says. “Admit to yourself, ‘I can play like crazy in my bedroom, but the moment I have to walk onstage I crap myself.’ Then you have to find a way of overcoming that. The first thing you gotta know is that the audience is not the judge and jury. They are not against you. The audience is with you. It’s hard to believe that when you’re terrified, but one of the best things that you can do is go out and say something like ‘Hello, I’m nervous as hell. Look at my hand. You should see the other one.’ Find a way of telling the audience that you’re gonna do your best but you’re very nervous. And you’ll find a surge of emotion will hit you from the audience, and it will make you feel a bit better. Practice being in front of an audience and it will slowly disappear.”
The veteran performer says the key to feeling comfortable onstage is to be prepared—know the material inside and out.
“Choose your songs wisely, and get out there and give ’em all you’ve got,” Emmanuel says.
TOMMY EMMANUEL’S GUITARS & GEAR
- ACOUSTIC GUITARS (STAGE): Maton EBG808 TE small-bodied 14-fret flattop with a Sitka spruce top and Queensland maple back and sides, tuned to A-444 (4 cents higher than concert pitch) for slightly stiffer string tension. Maton TE1 Artist cutaway dreadnought with a premium Sitka top and Indian rosewood back and sides, usually tuned a whole step or more below concert pitch.
- ACOUSTIC GUITARS (STUDIO): Larrivée custom 12-fret cutaway. 2010 Maton custom shop jumbo with a Sitka top, mahogany back and sides, rosewood fingerboard. Wayne Henderson dreadnought with a spruce top, mahogany back and sides, and rosewood fingerboard. 2006 Gretsch Synchromatic archtop made in Japan, which Emmanuel says “sounds just like Homer Haynes’s 1940s Epiphone.” 2010 Collings 01 with mahogany back and sides. Custom 2008 Maton EGB808 (“The Yellow Mouse”). He sets up all his guitars with the neck completely straight (no relief) with low action.
- AMPLIFICATION: Both Matons are equipped with Maton’s AP5 Mic system, which combines a bridge-mounted pickup and an internal mic with an onboard preamp. Emmanuel closes the soundhole of each guitar with a rubber Feedback Buster to help eliminate feedback in the monitors so he can run the piezos and the mic at full output volume. He uses an AER Compact 60 amp and also runs his signal through an old Alesis Midiverb II (splitting the signal into the amp and the PA).
- STRINGS: Martin SPs and FX, Everly, Cleartone, D’Addario, and GHS.
- CAPO: Shubb, Jim Dunlop, and Kyser.