Tommy Emmanuel is nothing short of an enigma. He's one of the most sublime guitarists I've ever listened to and that's probably because unlike most guitarists with technique to die for, Tommy chooses to use his powers for good (music) rather than evil (self indulgence). You could think of him as a superhero, setting an example for us all and reminding us why we started playing in the first place. Perhaps Tommy is the hero Jerry Reed was singing about, he's our swinging little Guitar Man! Tommy's skills haven't gone unnoticed though and he's one of only 4 players given the title C.G.P. (Certified Guitar Player) by the legendary Chet Atkins.
I recently caught up with Tommy as part of our series on Australian greats, we talked about his new album, upcoming projects, music and life, so read on for some really inspirational words, then use the Youtube video provided to learn the wonderful Antonella's Birthday.
There's certainly a lot we have to talk about, so why not start out with your current CD "Little by Little". There's so much here for fans (TWO discs!) and plenty of gold on there - what can you tell the readers about this record?
Of all the projects I've thrown myself into, this album took the most work as I recorded it between tours and would go away on tour and listen to what I'd just done...and not be happy with it and would come back and do it again.
I also wrote quite a lot of the songs on the road. The duets with John Knowles and Doyle Dykes were something that I'd wanted to do for some time and it just seemed that they were meant for this album. When I got Victor Wooten, J.D. Blair and Daryl Tibbs in the studio, we cut Haba Na Haba pretty quickly and had some spare time to jam. We ended up playing Moon River and Guitar Boogie, and I recorded both tracks. They ended up turning out so fresh and spontaneous that I wanted them on the album as well. I also had some wonderful singers on the album.
Why don't you tell us the story behind the Welsh Tornado and all about "that" key change?
Gareth Pearson is the Welsh Tornado and I gave him that nickname the first time he came to the Chet Atkins Convention. He went through the place like a whirlwind and impressed everyone who heard him. As for the key change, I play the song in A minor with the capo over the nut. When I come to the key change, while playing the strings open with my right hand, I grab the capo and drop it on the second fret, creating the perfect key change up a tone and finish the song in B minor. A lot of people will think I dropped it in the recording but I actually did it live, as I do on stage.
In about a week the preorder of "All I want for Christmas" will be shipping, Christmas albums are always such a tough sell but I'm certain your fans will be lapping it up. What made you decide to record such a specialized record?
I didn't think Christmas albums were specialised, I thought they were for enjoyment! I never cringe about Christmas music - I've always loved those beautiful melodies. Over the years, many people had asked me when I was going to make a Christmas album and I finally decided we should do it. It was fun playing Christmas music in the middle of summer!
It was also a pleasure for me to have John Knowles helping with all the arrangements. His ideas always had just the right amount of quirkiness for my taste and I enjoyed the richness of the chords that he came up with underneath the melodies.
It would also be worth mentioning your limited edition 3 disc best of set; how do you go about picking songs that best represent you from such a huge repertoire? (and how do you miss out Antonella's Birthday??? haha)
This three album set was put together by Sony and my manager Gina Mendello. I think it is a good cross section of my compositions and represents well parts of my career.
It appears that the big thing going on in your world right now is the fantastic Tommy TV - why don't you tell the readers a little more about that? Where did the idea come from and what does the future hold for it?
TommyTV was an idea brought to me by TrueFire, and we are trying to bring good instruction to people and create something that will be a good tool and a good place for people to go to learn and enjoy the benefits of our hard work. I like the idea that we can not only offer instruction, but also philosophies and ideas for people to get inspired by. I also appreciate the chance to show people a glimpse of our life on the road and show some of the magical moments that occur in the life of a musician.
Your music is never short of divine; a wonderful blend of melody, harmonic interest and technical wizardry - how on earth have you found yourself here? Because there are some obvious influences like The Beatles, but at the same time there's flash elements and picking flurries that you'd never see from George or John. I'd love to hear a little bit more about your musical journey and influences.
Thank you for that nauseating sentence of boasting! But I really take the influence of so many artists and songwriters, and sometimes I try to think like them. For instance, I'll take a song and try to make every chord a little bent or alternative just so it's interesting for my ear...and in that case, I'm thinking to myself, "What would Lenny Breau do?" or "How would George Harrison phrase that?". I am constantly inspired by people whose work is so consistently great. They make me try harder to make my arrangements interesting and my choice of songs more powerful. At the same time, I always make room in my shows for lots of fun and jamming.
Which areas of your technique did you find the hardest to develop and how do you maintain your chops?
My technique is still evolving and I notice it goes through changes from time to time, where I become much more sensitive. I go through periods of working on my physical strength and dexterity which, I must say, varies as well...some days are good hand days and some days can be a struggle. I look at the importance of technique as the vehicle to help me express myself...but a lot of times it a state of mind. Some days are diamonds, some days are stone.
What can you tell us about your latest instructional package with Truefire?
It's very thorough. If you follow it and be dedicated, you will be able to play the songs that are on there. I did my best to lay everything out in a straightforward manner.
You also always seem to come up with something to grab the audience, which of your songs do you feel always entertains the most, and which do you find the most challenging to play today? I've always loved "The Hunt"!
Classical Gas seems to be the universal crowd favourite, but I don't always play it. Cantina Senese is quite a challenge to get every note perfectly and clearly. I enjoy the light and shade, the peaks and valleys in a show. Sometimes, when you are exposed the most musically, that's the time to remain the most calm. When I play Somewhere Over The Rainbow or Secret Love, I always make a conscious effort to really focus in on each note and try to get as much clarity and purity into each note.
And for us mortals - which of your pieces do you think are pretty easy to pick up?
There are people all over the world playing Borsalino, Angelina, Papa George, Since We Met...so they must be doable!
This interview is part of my running series on the Australian greats, and who better to talk with than the man voted the best Guitarist of all time by Guitarist magazine. Which of your countrymen are you particularly fond of?
There are many Australians doing great work in the world. Some that I am proud of are Joe Robinson, Keith Urban, Anthony Snape, Rick Price, Bruce Matiskie, Jed Hughes, Troy Cassar-Daley, of course my brother, Phil, and some of the finest players that I know are Frank Gambale, Stuart French, Brett Garsed, Simon Hosford and Rex Goh. There are many more like John Butler, who are creating huge followings around the planet. Go Aussie, go!
And lastly, would you mind running through your current rig?
Glad you asked, as my rig has just changed. I'm now using the new AER Pocket Tools Colourizer instead of the Alesis MidiVerb and I'm still using an AER Compact60 or Alpha amp. I use two separate channels for these two signals: Colourizer and Amp. I don't use a lot of effects...I like to get a good, big, acoustic sound. For vocals, I like the Heil microphone. I carry one with me everywhere.
Well, thanks very much for your time Tommy, it really means a lot and is a great honour. Is there anything you'd like to leave the readers with?
Happy Christmas to everybody!
So there you have it people, some wise words indeed. I really do hope there's something here to inspire you to pick up your guitar and play some music. Next in our run of Australia we have the one and only Frank Gambale