By: Rick Landers
Australian guitarist, Tommy Emmanuel, has gifted the world with some of the finest acoustic guitar playing to adorn the planet. He’s an itinerate touring musician who sparkles on stage with his ability to caress, cajole and occasionally slap beautiful acoustic arrangements out of his beat up Maton guitars. Emmanuel captivates his audiences with his humorous patter, world-class guitar playing and the percussive antics he unleashes on his six-strings.
Back in the studio, Tommy pushes out album after album of his own wonderfully imaginative playing. His latest album, Little By Little, is a double-CD that offers his fans a mix of pop music, ballads and other tracks, with soft explosions of instrumental guitar work.
By the age of 10, Tommy had already crossed his native Australia as a touring musician. Soon, he would hear a guy out of Nashville named Chet Atkins play guitar and Tommy found his mission in life. And by 1985, he would power up with a rock group called Dragon that would release Dreams of Ordinary Men, an album that went platinum.
Along with his Grammy nominations, he’s been honored with an induction into the Thumbpickers Hall of Fame, being named as the Best Acoustic Guitarist in both Guitar Player and Acoustic Player magazines, and recognized as one of only three recipients to be named a “Certified Guitar Player” by his hero Chet Atkins.
Emmanuel’s solo albums and DVD releases are exceptional, and in many respects magical. He has released three live performance DVDs, three guitar instruction DVDs and tours tirelessly, as many as 300 days a year.
When Guitar International caught up with Tommy Emmanuel, he was beginning a 2011 tour and was about to perform at one of his Tommyfest shows. Whether Emmanuel shows up near your town or you come upon one of his recordings or a download, you can’t go wrong digging into your pocket and shelling out some coin – you’ll be delighted.
Rick Landers: I saw you at the Carnegie Hall, Les Paul’s 90th birthday tribute a few years back.
Tommy Emmanuel: Yeah. Oh, what a night, eh?
Rick: Wasn’t it something?
Tommy Emmanuel: Wow. I have a great memory of sitting in the dressing room with Jose Feliciano and Bucky Pizzarelli and Luke and everybody was in such a good frame of mind, being there with Les. It was a beautiful night.
Rick: I spoke with Rusty Paul recently. He said that you and Les really hit it off and “Dad flipped out” over you.
Tommy Emmanuel: He was such a daddy to me. He used to kiss me on the lips every time he saw me.
Rick: [Laughing] Did he?
Tommy Emmanuel: [Laughing] He’d say, “Give me a kiss, son!”
Rick: He was a wonderful guy. I interviewed him a couple of times and he was funny. He was kind of mischievous.
Tommy Emmanuel: He had a caustic kind of wit. But, what a beautiful-hearted guy he was.
Rick: I know you’re kind of a road dog and you’re always traveling.
Tommy Emmanuel: Tomorrow and up until Sunday night I’ll be in Elizabethtown, Kentucky, with TommyFest. Monday I fly to California, pick up the bus, and away we go from there.
Tommyfest, it’s actually my manager’s name. She said, “Why don’t you call it TommyFest because people are coming to get a big piece of you every night?” How it came about was, we started selling out multiple nights in the same place. I came there and I played one night and I sold it out, so I said for the following year, “Let’s try for two nights. If it sells out, we’ll keep it at two nights. If it keeps going we’ll go for three, and so forth.”
What we do in E-town is sell out three nights. We’d do Thursday night, Friday night and then Saturday morning from 9 to 12 I give a workshop, like a master class kind of thing. Saturday night is the concert, then Sunday morning again I give another workshop. Sunday night I have dinner with all the sponsors and just a general get-together with everybody there. Then I jump in the car and drive home. That’s what we do.
Rick: So, where you going after Elizabethtown?
Tommy Emmanuel: I’ll play two nights at the Balboa Theatre. We’re really thrilled about this. I’m about to make a new television special for the PBS network and produced by them, and it’ll be at the Balboa Theatre in San Diego. It’s going to be a Tommy and Friends: Live in Concert DVD thing. That’s gonna be used this year from June onwards in the PBS pledge drive.
Rick: Oh, that’s wonderful.
Tommy Emmanuel: Yeah. I think it’s gonna be a real good kick along for myself and also my wonderful guests.
Rick: Anybody that you can tell us about, or are you gonna leave us hanging?
Tommy Emmanuel: Oh, sure. Frank Vignola is my guitar guest. He and Vinnie are playing and we’ll do some trio things together. Frank and I will also do a couple of duet things. I’ve got the brilliant singer-songwriter, Pam Rose, from here in Nashville.
She’s gonna sing some songs that people will know because they’ve been monster hits. She’s the writer on them, but now she’s gonna sing them. And I have a brilliant young Australian singer-songwriter named Anthony Snape, who really, really deserves to be heard. He’s incredible.
Rick: Yeah, I saw that she’s on your new Little by Little CD.
Tommy Emmanuel: That’s right. She sings “Haba Na Haba.”
Rick: Yeah, that’s a cool song.
Tommy Emmanuel: Thank you.
Rick: How’d you find her?
Tommy Emmanuel: She lives here in Nashville. We did some songwriters-in-the-round nights here. You go to the Bluebird here in Nashville, the famous place, and we used to do songwriters-in-the-round, and I think I’m the only instrumentalist who’s ever done that.
Tommy Emmanuel: Yeah, it’s all singers, of course, songwriters. I write songs, too. I just don’t write any words. [Both laughing]
Rick: I saw that you did “Moon River” with Johnny Mercer and Henry Mancini. How was that?
Tommy Emmanuel: Oh, my God. What a beautiful song. I love that song.
Rick: Have you ever thought about doing anything with some Jimmy Webb songs?
Tommy Emmanuel: I love Jimmy Webb songs. I hadn’t thought about that. This conversation could have more meaning than I thought. You might have inspired me.
Rick: Good. [Both laughing] He’s got some beautiful songs.
Tommy Emmanuel: I know, just “Wichita Lineman” alone. There are so many great songs of his.
Rick: One of my favorite songs of yours is “Lewis and Clark.” It’s just a wonderful, wonderful tune.
Tommy Emmanuel: Oh, thank you. There you go. It’s an inspired work. That’s what a songwriter waits for patiently, is inspiration, something to give you an idea, a good idea that you can really go with. I read the Journals of Lewis and Clark and was so inspired.
But, let me tell you something; that song didn’t come easy because it’s so simple and so exposed and I absolutely was trying my hardest not to try and get fancy and clever with it, just tell the story and leave the space. The chorus had to say everything that I needed it to say.
I got the verses pretty quickly, but you think I could get that chorus? Not on your life, and it took me ages to get the chorus just right. Once I got it, I knew it. I just didn’t fall for the trap of trying to do too much to it; just leave it and tell the story.
Rick: On Little by Little, I see that you’ve got a few what I’ll call “Emmanuel standards,” like “The Jolly Swagman,” which is a fun little romp, “Finger Lakes,” and I particularly liked “Countrywide.” There are 24 tracks on this album, and your last CD, Center Stage, I think you also had 24 tracks on that. My question is, do these labors of love eventually become just labor at some point?
Tommy Emmanuel: [Laughing] For this album I really wanted to get those songs out there, and I didn’t want to leave any of them off. I didn’t want a record company to come along and say, “We only want 12 songs.” I wanted to do it this way, and I’m so glad that Sony in Australia hung in with me and agreed to let me do it as a double.
Favored Nations is thrilled about the album. In fact, my label manager is Steve Vai. He sent me a beautiful e-mail with his take on each track. He really carefully listened to everything, just his feelings and his view on each track. It was really thorough and wonderful.
Rick: Will your set list on this tour be primarily from Little by Little or are you gonna have some change-ups?
Tommy Emmanuel: I’m gonna play as much of the album as I can, because I want people to hear a lot of the new songs. I think it’s important for people to know I have been writing new tunes and stuff [Chuckling]. I’m always trying to update everything that I’m doing and work on it.
I’ve just finished a long tour in Australia with my brother [Phil Emmanuel], playing electric music in a band, so I’ve been doing totally other things. This is gonna be really interesting for me to come back to playing solo acoustic again. It’s gonna be real challenging and fun.
Rick: Have you added any new guitar techniques during the past couple of years, things you might have discovered or figured out that our readers might find worth learning?
Tommy Emmanuel: I think if you listen to the last track on the album, “The Trails,” there’s some interesting intervals between the notes, especially in the first part where I try to emulate the sound of a native flute.
Rick: I know that you beat up your Maton guitar quite a bit, the one that I’ve seen you with. It looks like at some point it’s almost gonna look like Willie Nelson’s “Trigger.”
Tommy Emmanuel: Yeah, I’ve got a couple of those [Both laughing]. A Rosewood one and it’s done a lot of gigs; thousands and thousands of gigs. I play it with a brush and I bang on it and slap it and scratch it and rub my hands all over it. I do different things with it and that’s what I like to do.
Rick: Is one of those your favorite Maton guitars?
Tommy Emmanuel: Yeah, the one that looks the oldest. That guitar is just heaven to play.
Rick: How long have you had that one?
Tommy Emmanuel: Since 2003, when I got the guitar, the first thing I did was take the finish back. I ripped the scratch guard off, sanded back the finish.
Rick: That’s interesting. I know that John Lennon, when he first got a Rickenbacker, he took all the paint off. I don’t know if he was trying to get a different sound out of it or not.
Tommy Emmanuel: We all have our own little ways of doing things. I remember years ago when I got divorced and everything and I was still kind of sad about all that, I started writing on my guitar and it made me feel better. I don’t know why. I started writing things on my guitar. Eventually my guitar started looking a bit too busy, so I took it all off with sandpaper and started again. [Both laughing]
Rick: The last time we met was at the Birchmere in Alexandria, Virginia. I think you had just gotten a nice old Gibson that some fella gave you. Are you taking that on the road still?
Tommy Emmanuel: I have been, yeah. I’ll be bringing that with me.
Rick: What year was that?
Tommy Emmanuel: 1934 Kalamazoo.
Rick: That was a nice little instrument.
Tommy Emmanuel: Oh, yeah.
Rick: Any other new additions?
Tommy Emmanuel: Let’s see, I’ve got a new Collings, but I’m not taking that on the road at the moment. I’ve got a brand new Maton exactly the same as the old one. It’s built by the same guy. It’s got the same woods and it’s even better. It’s amazing.
Rick: What other instruments do you play besides guitar?
Tommy Emmanuel: I play bass and drums. I’ve had a go at other things like piano and mandolin. I’m just awful at it.
Rick: Do you have a 12-string?
Tommy Emmanuel: I have one 12-string. It’s an old Maton. It’s a good guitar, but I don’t really play 12-string that much. It doesn’t interest me that much.
Rick: Being on the road’s got to take a toll. Do you have some long-range strategy that you’ll end up as a squatter somewhere at some resort and let your fans come to you?
Tommy Emmanuel: [Both laughing] You know what I noticed? I was driving into town today from my house here in Nolensville and I noticed they’re building a new town hall. I thought, I wonder if that’s a sign that this is where I should be playing every Saturday night and have the world come to me like Les Paul used to do [Both laughing].
Rick: That’s what I was thinking. And I know some artists go out to Las Vegas and squat for a while.
Tommy Emmanuel: I’ve been offered a residency in Palm Springs. All I have to do, I would be part of a musical presentation and all I’d have to play is 20 minutes every night. They offered me a wonderful deal with a condominium and a car and all that. I don’t know whether I can accept it or not, because it’s six weeks in the same place, I don’t know whether I’d go mad or whether I’d really love it.
But for now, I’m young and brisk and I’m up on my toes. I’m ready to rock. As long as I’m feeling good in my body and in my spirit, then I want to play for people all over the world. I just want to get out there and keep playing.