An Interview with Tommy Emmanuel

Tommy Emmanuel Press Release

How much do you really know about the guitar? Better yet, who are the best guitar players in the world today? How about of the last thirty years? If your list doesn’t include one Tommy Emmanuel, then you simply haven’t been paying attention. I admit, at one time I was guilty too. Growing up, my exposure to guitar was mostly of the Rock variety. It wasn’t until I was older, and in my 20’s that I began to open myself up to other styles beyond the likes of Eddie Van Halen, Jimmy Page and Ace Frehley. While those men are fantastic guitar players in their own right, it wasn’t until I heard the lightening fast, Blues & Country tinged, percussive playing of Tommy Emmanuel that I truly began to understand that the idea of a guitar virtuoso extended far beyond my preconceived notions. Tommy Emmanuel is a guitar player’s player. He’s someone that perhaps not every average Joe on the street will know by name, but if you ask any major guitar player worth his salt, you can be sure that Tommy’s name will come up.

Tommy Emmanuel is a truly special talent when it comes to songwriting and instrumental guitar music. His complex, hybrid-fingerpicking style is second to none. With his signature sound, and endless energy, he has carved out a long and award-winning solo career, and has been named “Best Acoustic Guitar Player” in multiple readers polls over the years for Guitar Player Magazine. And so, today, we “sit down” with one of the world’s most truly gifted guitar players, and get the opportunity to learn a little about both his life and his career. If you would like to learn more about this incredible musician and his music (which is now available on vinyl), you can head over this his website here. Lastly, once COVID-19 finally calms down, I implore you to check Tommy out in the live setting. It is there where he truly shines, and I promise that you will never regret taking the opportunity to see one of the world’s most gifted guitar players doing what he does best – play. I hope you enjoy getting to know Tommy as much as I did. With that, let’s get started.

Andrew:
Tommy, thank you so much for taking the time to talk to us! Tell us about your back story. How did you start playing music? What was your musical gateway sort of speak?

Tommy:
I started playing the guitar because my mother inspired me to pick it up, and showed me my first chords, and made it possible for me to be a rhythm guitar player. So, it was her who started me.

Andrew:
Before you began your career as a solo artist, you were in many bands, and even appeared in some commercials. What was it like trying to find your way as a young guitarist in Australia?

I worked as a guitar player in many different situations. I worked in Country music shows. In variety shows. In Rock ‘n Roll events with my family. My brother played the lead guitar. I was the rhythm player. My sister played Hawaiian steel guitar, and my eldest brother played the drums. We traveled around Australia trying to make a living. We were not that successful, and always broke. That’s how it was when we were young!

Andrew:
You recorded your first album, From Out of Nowhere, in 1979, but didn’t release another album until 1987, when you put out Up from Down Under. Why was there such a long period between your first and second albums?

Tommy:
So, in 1979, I recorded a direct to disc album, called From Out Of Nowhere, with a pedal steel guitar player from Macon, Georgia. His name was Pee Wee Clark, and we recorded that album. In ’87, I released Up from Down Under, and people are often wondering why was there so much time between those first two major releases. Well, I was playing and producing. I was producing others for CBS Records, and I was busy playing on everyone else’s records. So, the album Up from Down Under was recorded in a few goes from 1am to 6am. That was the only time I could get the studio, and I had to try and get some free time. It was a very busy period for me.

Close To You | Songs | Tommy Emmanuel - YouTube

Andrew:
Since 1987, your studio and live output has been nothing short of prolific. What keeps you inspired?

Tommy:
I think, a songwriter waits patiently for something to happen to inspire him to write. That’s how it is for me. Some days, I pick up the guitar and try and write something, and nothing happens. Other times, I pick up the guitar and there’s some kind of magic, the sound of it, or someone says something, and it gives me an idea. I only write when I feel inspired. It’s different for live playing. I can do that everyday. I love it very much.

Andrew:
I wanted to dig a bit deeper into your picking style. While its true that you may be most well-known for fingerpicking, that’s not-all right? I’ve seen you use a flat pick, thumb pick and even a combination of both in your playing. How did you develop your picking style?

Tommy:
I have many different styles in fact. I play with a straight pick. I play hybrid picking with my fingers and pick. Sometimes I use a thumb pick, and play a cross between Chet Atkins and Merle Travis kind of style, which is like the left hand on a piano…it’s almost like playing stride piano, but it’s on the guitar, and that all allows me to do two and three things all at once. So, I practice just getting the bass and rhythm sounding good, and I put the melody on the top like a singer. I try to think like a singer when playing.

Andrew:
What’s always amazed me about what you do is how full your music sounds with the help of just one instrument. Your licks are obviously incredible, but I feel the harmonies are where you really shine. Your progressions are so complex, and your ability to play with different pitches brings so much depth and character to your compositions. Can you tell us more about that?

Tommy:
People often talk about my technique. The way I feel about technique is it really should be invisible. You really shouldn’t be looking at technique. You should be hearing the music. So, I practice the songs that I play, so I can get them smooth and effortless. If that’s possible. I’ve developed my style over many years of playing. I always look for the best, easiest and smoothest way to play things.

Tommy Emmanuel: In the Zone | Premier Guitar

Andrew:
You also have a sort of percussive style of playing the guitar. Did you develop that out of need (often having no drummer), or was it something that came naturally to you?

Tommy:
People say I have a percussive style, but it’s really about being confident that I’m in the groove. When I practice with a metronome, I can really feel my groove and my timing, and I know that it’s good for me to work that way, because I’ve got to get the groove really solid. It’s just as important when I’m playing a fast song. It’s got to remain in time, even when it’s really fast. It’s still important. So, being a drummer and a bass player as well, I tend to hear the whole band in my head when I’m playing, and if I play a little more percussively, that really accentuates the groove and statements that I’m making.

Andrew:
I’ve listened to great deal of your solo acoustic work, and there seems to be a throughline of both Country and Blues all throughout your music. Where those genres important to you growing up? Are they still today?

Tommy:
There’s a lot of Country, a lot of Blues and a lot of Jazz in my style. I play a sort of hybrid style of Pop goes County, goes Blues, goes Jazz. You know, I’m a songs player, and I’m a storyteller. That’s what I like. I also love using Blues ideas in songs. You know?

Andrew:
My understanding is you have no formal musical training, and cannot read music. Is that true? Has that ever hindered you?

Tommy:
I have no training whatsoever. I don’t read music. I play everything by ear. I can always get by that way by knowing and hearing what I’m doing. The only time it’s hindered me is when I was doing an orchestra date, and I was given a part to play on my own, and I had to get the piano player to play it so I could learn it by ear. It only took a few minutes, but it was a little embarrassing that in front of a hundred people I had to get the piano player to play it so I could learn it. I can pick things up by ear very easily. My ear is highly trained, and I rely on it a lot.

Do It: Tommy Emmanuel, Justin Willman, 'Ode to Joy,' Old Dominion |  Honolulu Star-Advertiser

Andrew:
In regards to your work in the studio, I’ve heard that you usually complete recordings in one take, and rarely go back over them. Do you like the spontaneity of that? What lead you to record that way?

Tommy:
I try to get my recording done in one take, if I can. Because I play live all the time, I don’t need to be dropping in cutting and pasting, and doing all that to make it perfect. I should be able to play it straight down as I go. So, I do that, so then I can go out and perform it, and deliver it on stage as it is on the recording. That’s the main reason I do it that way.

Andrew:
I know that Chet Atkins was a great influence for you. In 1997 you had the opportunity to record an album with him, The Day Finger Pickers Too Over the World. That experience must have been meaningful to you. Can you tell us more about it?

Tommy:
Chet Atkins was my hero. My mentor and like a daddy to me. Recording with him was the greatest honor for me. Chet was getting over some serious cancer operations at the time, and so, I did most of the work to get the songs and recording ready, and then I left all his parts ready for him to do when he was well enough to play. Some other songs, like ‘Waltzing Matilda’ and ‘Smokey Mountain Lullaby’ were recorded in on take with us sitting together, through our microphones, playing our guitars. It was a great experience. The first time I ever had a Grammy nomination was for ‘Smokey Mountain Lullaby.’

Andrew:
Chet Atkins once said that you are “One of the greatest guitar players I’ve ever seen.” In 1999, Chet Atkins even presented you with the “Certified Guitar Player Award.” I can imagine that must have been incredibly gratifying to you. What did that mean coming from him?

Tommy:
Chet was really complimentary of me, and said he never met anybody so fearless. I guess it’s because I’ll have a go at anything. Any style at all. I’ll have a go at it, and that’s just how I’ve always been, but affirmation from your hero is a wonderful thing too. It gives you confidence that maybe you are on the right track after all.

Tommy Emmanuel: The Endless Road (2019)

Andrew:
What type of guitars and equipment are you using these days?

Tommy:
When I’m traveling now, I use three Maton guitars. They’re made in Australia, and I use the new Udo Roesner De Capo amplifier, and that’s really it. I use a preamp as well, which is an AER Pocket Tools, and that’s what I travel with. The best part of my rig, is the man who’s getting the sound out the front, who is Steve. He’s the sound man, and he plays the songs along with me. He’s the reverb king. He’s the tone king. My sound man is a big part of my live shows.

Andrew:
Do you collect vinyl? Tapes? CDs? Or are you all digital now? If so, what are some albums that mean the most to you?

Tommy:
I go and buy old CDs sometimes because I do like the sound of them. I’ve got some of Merle Haggard’s early records, and I’ve got some of Don McClain, Gordon Lightfoot and Donald Fagan’s The Night Fly. I must have ten copies of that album, because they’re all over the world, that album. I always make sure I’ve got a copy of it. The Night Fly! What an album.

Andrew:
Last question. Over the years, you’ve been a part of some truly influential and special music. Looking back, what are some of your favorite musical moments over the course of your career?

Tommy:
I think recording with Chet Atkins was probably one of my most precious times, and precious things to be involved with, and doing the Olympic games with my brother Phil, that was very important to me, but that’s just some of them. Playing the Opry is always such a treasured thing for me too. I love doing the Opry, and a lot of my heroes are from the doing the Opry. So, there you go!

One for the road - Tommy Emmanuel: "If you're ready to go, don't waste any  time - get out there and start playing" | MusicRadar

Dig this interview? Check out the full catalog of Vinyl Writer Interviews, by Andrew Daly, here: www.vinylwritermusic.com/interviews

Published by Andrew Daly

Since he was a young child growing up on Long Island, NY, Andrew has always loved writing and collecting physical music. Present-day, Andrew is proud to share his love of music with the world through his writing, and the result is nothing short of beautiful: articles and interviews written by a music addict for fellow music addicts. Andrew lives on Long Island and works as a Horticultural Operations Manager by day and runs the Vinyl Writer Music website by night.

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