TOMMY EMMANUEL has achieved enough musical milestones to satisfy several lifetimes. At the age of six, he was touring regional Australia with his family band. By 30, he was a rock n’ roll lead guitarist burning up stadiums in Europe. At 44, he became one of five people ever named a Certified Guitar Player by his idol, music icon Chet Atkins. Today, he plays hundreds of sold-out shows every year from Nashville to Sydney to London. He’s piled up numerous accolades, including two Grammy Award nominations, two ARIA Awards from the Australian Recording Industry Association (the Aussie equivalent of the Recording Academy) and repeated honors in the Guitar Player magazine reader’s poll including a cover story for their August 2017 issue. A noted fingerstyle guitarist, EMMANUEL frequently threads three different parts simultaneously into his material, operating as a one-man band who handles the melody, the supporting chords and the bass all at once.
Caroline: Hi Tommy, it’s a honour to interview a real guitar legend today. It’s not often that I get to talk to someone who has literally breathed and lived music from the day they were born! Was it an expected right of passage to join the family band? Could you have imagined yourself doing anything other than making music? Lets find out…
As a child and touring with your family from the age of 6 you must have some indelible moments etched into your memories. Is there one or two that have stayed with you that you can share from your life on the road as a child?
TE: I like to remember the game Phil (my brother) and I used to play. We used to sit with our backs to each other and guess the names of chords we were playing. Like that’s B to B minor to G. It was just a game to us, but we actually trained our ears. I also remember finishing our set with me playing a drum solo, and then 5 minutes later I would go to bed in the car.
I read somewhere that you never formally learnt to read/write music but just learnt to play & compose naturally as you grew musically. Is this true? If it is, would you recommend this alternative method of learning their instruments to aspiring guitarists/musicians? I like the idea the music is driven by feelings other than following a formula of notes written down!
TE: That is true. I think being in a musical family and games like the one Phil and I played is how I was able to do it. We didn’t have any other options really. There really wasn’t a place to go get guitar lessons. I don’t recommend anyone doing it my way, because I didn’t have much of a choice. Now people have loads of options to learn guitar, and they should take advantage of whatever works best for them.
At what point did you decide that you were going to become a solo artist? Do you miss performing as part of a band?
TE: I love playing in a band, and I love playing my electric guitar. I would do that anytime. When I did tour with a band back in Australia, people used to always say to me that their favourite part of the show was when I played acoustic. That’s what got me started to think about playing solo.
I believe during your live shows you like to improvise a chunk of stage time. Is this something you do regularly? How do you gage what to play and is it led by the feel of the show/audience?
TE: I never write a set list and I do improvise a lot. I just see what I feel like playing and go with it, because there lies the adventure. Sometimes the audience has requests and I’ll play four of them in a round and have a bit of fun with the crowd, and that becomes a different part of the show. I try to keep it interesting for me and my audience.
Tell me about your idol Chet Atkins and how you came to meet and play guitar with him?
TE: Chet was everything I expected him to be and more. Not only was he my main source of musical inspiration, but he was also a great example of that type of person I wanted to be. Before I met him, Chet was already aware of me from other people saying there is this kid from Australia who plays a lot like you and brags about you all the time to the press. When I finally got to Nasvhille and play together, it absolutely amazed me. I just couldn’t believe it was real. That amazement always stayed with me throughout our time together. I couldn’t believe he would share the stores he shared or that he really wanted to make a record with me.
Are there any other guitarists that you can say you were influenced by or look up to?
TE: There are plenty of great guitarist who I have influenced me throughout the years – Chet, Jerry Reed, Merle Travis, Eric Clapton, Steve Lukather, Larry Carlton..there really are so many. But these days I am more influenced by great songwriters like Stevie Wonder, Carole King, Paul McCartney…..people who know how to construct a great song and a great melody.
Your career is an incredible tribute to your versatility of genres. Rock, pop, jazz, country…do you have a favourite style to play? Or if I said you could only play one in genre for the rest of your life – could you choose and why?
TE: I just like to play good music. I try not to get hung up on styles or genres. If it has a good melody or groove, let’s give it a go.
Congratulations on your new double album ’The Best of Tommy Songs’. I see it features your best original songs and a handful of new material. Why did you decide to re-record the original songs for this new album?
TE: I think there are a younger generation of fans that I don’t think have heard a lot of my earlier stuff. I wanted to make the songs sound bigger than ever. Plus, I don’t own the rights to one of my earlier albums called Only. There are some real gems to me that I wanted to re-record like “Those Who Wait”, “I’ve Always Thought of You”, “Luttrell”, and “Train to Dusseldorf.” I also play them better now!
We’re looking forward to your UK tour next March and hearing the new material live. How do you find audiences in the UK compared to the rest of the world and where is your favourite place to play ie large arena or intimate venue?
TE: UK audiences listen better than some that’s for sure. I like playing everywhere – arena, theatre, club…it doesn’t matter. I do like playing to large audiences, but the sound has got to be right. If the room sounds good and the audience is into it, that’s all that matters to me.
Have you any things left on your musical bucket list that you haven’t ticked off yet? Any collaborations or projects?
TE: When I made my duet’s album a few years ago, I purposely named it Accomplice One, so I would make an Accomplice Two. There was some great duets on Accomplice One, but there were a lot of duets I would like to do that we couldn’t get done like Alison Krauss, James Taylor, or Stevie Wonder. I’d like to work with Martin Taylor again. The list can go on and on really!
I can finger pick a little! I managed to achieve Grade 4 in classical guitar before faltering and taking up another hobby. What words of advice could you offer to young (and older!) aspiring guitarists out there?
TE: Get to work and practice, practice, practice and practice. And just when you think you got it, practice it some more. I really think that anyone can play anything as long as they’re willing to work hard at it.
The Best of Tommysongs, his new double-album is out now on Cruzen Street Records.
ABOUT TOMMY EMMANUEL:
TOMMY EMMANUEL has achieved enough musical milestones to satisfy several lifetimes. At the age of six, he was touring regional Australia with his family band. By 30, he was a rock n’ roll lead guitarist burning up stadiums in Europe. At 44, he became one of five people ever named a Certified Guitar Player by his idol, music icon Chet Atkins. Today, he plays hundreds of sold-out shows every year from Nashville to Sydney to London. He’s piled up numerous accolades, including two Grammy Award nominations, two ARIA Awards from the Australian Recording Industry Association (the Aussie equivalent of the Recording Academy) and repeated honors in the Guitar Player magazine reader’s poll including a cover story for their August 2017 issue. A noted fingerstyle guitarist, EMMANUEL frequently threads three different parts simultaneously into his material, operating as a one-man band who handles the melody, the supporting chords and the bass all at once. His talents, which translate in any language, carry him to the far corners of the globe, but EMMANUEL never plays the same show twice, and he improvises big chunks of every date. That leaves him open to those technical imperfections, though they also provide some of the humanity to an other-worldly talent.
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