When I was growing up in Australia in the 1990s, Tommy Emmanuel was a household name—and not just to guitar players. He was as synonymous with the instrument as legends like Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix and Slash. Early Emmanuel albums like Dare to Be Different (1990) and Determination (1991) were textbooks on guitar styles, melody, tone, and quality. They were predominately electric guitar outings with a band, but usually included one or two solo acoustic pieces, like “Blue Moon” and “Initiation,” that made me wonder if one person was really playing all that music or if studio tricks were at work.
Emmanuel appeared on our late-night, breakfast, and variety television shows almost weekly, it seemed. He could be seen playing songs from his latest albums or featured as the guest guitar player for a famous Australian pop star on his trusty Telecaster, or ever increasingly on a Maton acoustic.
By the time I was opening shows and touring with Emmanuel in Australia in the early 2000s, he was playing solo acoustic exclusively. These sets were absolutely annihilating, with Emmanuel delivering the impact (and almost the volume) of a full rock band with just one acoustic guitar. We would perform a couple of duets a night, usually “Determination” and “Working Man’s Blues.” Playing on stage with Emmanuel was—and still is—unbelievably daunting, but he is incredibly supportive and generous, with the focus always being about delivering the song to the audience.
It’s no surprise that Emmanuel has turned his hand again to collaboration with his Accomplice series of releases, bringing some of the finest acoustic musicians in the world—among them, David Grisman, Sierra Hull, Billy Strings, and Molly Tuttle—into the studio and making the songs the focus. Not long ago, I caught up with Emmanuel via Zoom and chatted about this exciting and collaborative phase of his long career.
How did Accomplice Two come about?
I had finished the Tommysongs project, and I got playing with Little Feat and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band on a few shows. It was exhilarating and fun, and just great to play with those guys. I got to know them really well and started thinking I’d like to do some things with them.
I also had a few tracks that carried over from the Accomplice One project. I had the Roy Book Binder song with Jorma Kaukonen, “Another Man Done a Full Go Round,” and I had “Mama Knows” with Jerry Douglas. I had “Seven Come Eleven” with David Grisman as well. Michael McDonald had also sent me three songs during Covid.
Then my manager and I decided we’d start a list of artists that we wanted to work with. So I quickly contacted Billy Strings, and he said he would love to do it. I got to play with Molly Tuttle on an Americana music cruise, and so I just rang her and said, “How about we record ‘White Freight Liner Blues’?”
Last year was busy, but things just somehow came together when I was off the road. Brian Penix, my manager, said, “Oh, Nitty are gonna be in town on that day; Little Feat are coming through on tour on this day. If we book the studios together there, then we can get them in.” And so he helped me mastermind the whole thing.
You produced the record. Was everyone stepping into your world, or the other way around?
I was totally going into their world. With Nitty Gritty we recorded with us singing vocals and me playing acoustic guitar all live. I got Mike Bub to come in and play upright bass because I wanted a real bluegrass sound on that. And that guy is smoking. He plays on everyone’s records here; he’s brilliant.
The track with Jorma was recorded with no click track—just the two of us sitting there. When you play a song like “Another Man Done a Full Go Round” with Jorma, he’s off to the races straight away! He’s playing and singing pretty much in the Robert Johnson style, serving the song and the words. So we got a good take on the vocals, and then I played drums on it with this kind of sloppy backbeat. When you listen to the track, it sounds like a bar band playing.
Were you playing with any of these artists for the very first time on these sessions?
Well, I’d never played with Michael McDonald before, but I played on some tracks where he was the singer. Sierra Hull and I did my song “Precious Time.” I went over to her house, and she recorded me playing the song on her phone. I came back the next day, and it sounded like it does on the recording. I just let her do what she does on her old Gibson mandolin, because she’s so good. She’s a great song player—she’s sensitive. She knows when to get into it and when to hold back. She’s like 100 years old, but she’s only 30 or something.
It sounds really deep on the recording in the way her mandolin fits with your guitar. She’s got that incredible touch.
I watch a mandolin player, and they just make it look so easy, with all this music coming out.I’ve tried many times to play the instrument, but I just can’t get my head around that tuning [like a violin, in perfect fifths, G D A E ].
Yeah, I suggest the ukulele when someone wants me to play mandolin.
I used to play mandolin on people’s records in Sydney, back in the late ’70s and early ’80s, but in ukulele tuning. I could fool you into thinking I was a real mandolin player.
How did you go about picking the songs for the record?
That’s the most important thing—you’ve gotta have the right song! It all came together pretty naturally. Michael McDonald, for instance, sent me three songs that were all good. “Somebody Like You” gave me a chance to play the hook lines around the piano, and then take a little solo, but still feature him all the way.
The last track on the album, “Far Away Places,” is with Raul Malo from the Mavericks. Raul and I met on a music cruise when he came up to me in a restaurant and said, “I love the way you play ‘Moon River.’ Would you like to do it on the show tonight?” He called me up in the middle of the Mavericks’ set; we did the song completely unrehearsed, and he nailed it 100 percent. I asked him right then to do a track with me. I said, “What do you like to sing?” And he said, “I like Sam Cooke songs.”
“Far Away Places”was to me an obvious choice, because I had enough up-tempo songs on the album and I needed something beautiful to give us a feel like we’re being serenaded. The way he sings is amazing, not to mention his diction. There’s no pitch control, none of that bullsh*t. This is a real guy singing into a real mic. I worked out the arrangement of the song, and I decided to go with nylon-string for the main rhythm part, steel-string for the melody, and then to just kind of fade into the background. I was fanning across the strings with my [picking-hand] fingers to give it this subtlety.
What about the tracks like your original composition “Mombasa” with Yasmin Williams? Was that your choice?
Yes. When I first met Yasmin about four years ago, our first conversation revolved around “Mombasa” because she loves the song. She doesn’t play anything like I do—she’s a completely unique guitarist—and I said to her, “You just follow me and we’ll just see what happens.” So I start the song off quoting the melody really slowly, and she plays a few things in response on her kalimba. Then I finally get to the point where I set the time up, and she joins right in on her guitar. She takes a solo at the end. I also did a little solo when we recorded it, but when I mixed the track I got rid of mine and made hers the featured one because it’s so different and unique. I kept the time whilst we recorded and added the drum loop afterwards.
What have you learned from collaborating with this variety of musicians?
I think I’m becoming a better listener with age. When I was young, I had ten ideas to throw at you, you know. But now I listen to it to make sure that whatever I play serves the music. When you’re producing something where you want another artist to be the feature, you have to give them the right platform. And that’s the song, and the choice of instruments on the song, and all that stuff.
How do you approach refining the melodies and parts in these songs? Does it happen naturally, or is it something that you work on?
I put my producer’s cap on. I’m thinking outside the box, stepping back and looking at the song. What does it need? That’s why with “Daddy Frank” I quoted the original iconic parts by Roy Nichols, but I did a kind of a slightly bebop- or Western swing–sounding lick that made it a lot different than the Merle Haggard original. Then I doubled it on the acoustic, and it’s just like a little hook thing underneath all the vocals.
You’re praised for your jaw-dropping technique, but I think the most amazing thing about you is your ability to interpret a melody.
On a song like “Daddy Frank” that has a great melody, I don’t stray too far from the original. But neither did Jamie Johnson, the singer, out of respect for Merle Haggard. He’s saying it in his way, but really close to the original. Same with the parts in the bridge; I wanted to stay faithful to the original but add something that was melodic and unique.
How do you prefer to record your acoustics?
With the right engineer! People all think that I must have a lavish house with a big studio, and that couldn’t be further from the truth. I have a very simple little home and I use my iPhone’s Voice Memo app for my studio—I just put the phone about a foot away from me, don’t play too hard, and the demos sound nice. I don’t want a studio; I don’t have time to go learning how to use all this new technology. I’m interested in working with someone who really knows how to record and make a sound that I really like. I can always hear a bad choice of microphone, or if they’re using too much pickup. All that stuff drives me crazy.
When I turn up at the studio to record with Rory Rositas or Brad Benge, they’ve already got their choice of microphones and where they think the best placement is. I come in with new strings on the guitar, put the headphones on, sit, and play, and it’s already beautiful. With Rory we use a matched pair of [Neumann] KMs or something like that.
They must be in the piano stereo configuration—getting the high and low strings separated.
You get the top and bottom, yeah. And then about a foot and a half back is an old ribbon mic, which gives an element of grit to everything. I don’t know how that works, but you take it away, and it sounds like there’s something missing. As soon as you add the old ribbon mic in, it’s just like everything is real.
Do you have any plans for future solo releases?
I’m about to start on the next Tommysongs project, which would be another double album of 24 original songs. I’ve also got a couple of new pieces that I’m really happy about, and I can’t wait to get in and record.
What He Plays
On Accomplice Two, Emmanuel used a wide range of acoustic guitars. On the tracks with Molly Tuttle and Billy Strings, he played his Pre-War 000-28. “It’s an exact replica of David Grisman’s Martin 000-28 from 1930,” Emmanuel says, “except it’s louder and more in tune.”
On “Precious Time” and “Mama Knows,” he used a Larrivée C10 that Jean Larrivée gave him when he was working with Chet Atkins in Nashville years ago. On many other songs, Emmanuel used his Maton TE Personal.
All of his steel-striång guitars are set up with his signature Martin strings: MA540FX Tommy’s Choice Authentic Flexible Core 92/8 phosphor bronze, .012–.054.
On the Accomplice Two tracks with Michael McDonald and Raul Malo, Emmanuel played a custom Kirk Sand nylon-string custom made with flamenco tonewoods—maple and other light-colored woods.
Onstage, Emmanuel’s main guitar is his Maton TE Personal, with Queensland maple back and sides and a spruce top. He has several other Matons in his stage arsenal, including a cutaway Australian, an experimental model built by former head Maton luthier Andy Allen with a carbon fiber–reinforced neck. Emmanuel keeps that guitar in G6 tuning (D G D G B E), which he learned from Chet Atkins.
“I also play a low-tuning guitar I call the Mega Mouse,” Emmanuel says. “It’s similar to the TE Personal, except it’s a jumbo size. That guitar sounds killer.” The Mega Mouse has heavy strings—D’Addario nickel bronze, .013–.056—and is tuned to dropped D, down a whole step to C G C F A D.
All his stage guitars use the Maton AP5 Pro pickup system.
“My only other gear,” Emmanuel adds, “is an AER Pocket Tools Dual Mix preamp and an Udo Roesner Da Capo 75 combo amp. And a tuner!”
This article originally appeared in the January/February 2024 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.