Finger pickers can’t take over
the world until everyone on the planet knows Tommy Emmanuel. Tommy’s
workin’ on that. Steve Vai is too. Vai signed the Australian acoustic
master to his recently formed Favored Nations Acoustic label, the result
of which is the brilliant disc, "Only".
And Vai isn’t the only one to recognize how phenomenal a player is Tommy
Emmanuel. He has toured or worked with everyone from Eric Clapton to
Stevie Wonder, from John Denver to Bill Wyman, from Leo Kottke to Joe
Walsh. Late guitar legend Chet Atkins, who recorded his final album,
Day Finger Pickers Took Over The World, with Emmanuel in 1997, called
Tommy “the greatest finger picker in the world today.” We aren’t
going to argue with Chet, who bestowed the prestigious title “Certified
Guitar Player” on Tommy shortly thereafter.
In this in-depth interview, Tommy tells Guitar.com about his relationship
with the late, great “Mr. Guitar,” shares tips on warming up before an
important gig, and reveals how the former member of a rock band called The
Midget Safaries has built a solid acoustic solo career for himself. Keep
on pickin’ and grinnin’.
Guitar.com: Hello Tommy. You’re in Denver today?
Emmanuel: Hello. Yeah, I’m playing here in Denver
tonight, then Colorado Springs tomorrow, then Albuquerque, then I’ll be
in Ireland after that.
Guitar.com: How has your U.S. tour been going?
Emmanuel: It’s been great. It’s
been getting better all the time. It’s a slow build, y’know? I’ve
been coming here for years. I think things are really starting to move
along now, so I’m really pleased with that. It’s been an interesting
way to do this. I’ve pretty much done it the same way in every country
that I’ve toured in; I just start out in smaller places and build my way
up, build a crowd.
Guitar.com: I notice you’re playing tonight at a music school. I
imagine that performance is in part aimed at the students of that school
and meant to be an inspiration to them. Do you do a lot of that?
Emmanuel: I do workshops all over the
world, and I do play at music schools. Tonight’s show is at a music
school, but it’s also a good concert venue. I’m out there to play for
the public, and along the way I try to show students and the younger
generation that there’s a lot of great things about playing the guitar,
and a lot of great things about being in music in general. It’s a very
And of course when I do workshops I tell people about the realities of the
business and the realities of the kind of dedication and the kind of
sacrifice it takes from yourself and your family. And I do my best to give
people the absolute real deal on how it goes.
Guitar.com: How long have you been recording and releasing albums?
Emmanuel: Well, my first recording was
made in 1960, with my family. I was a very young little boy at that time.
We made an acetate recording at a radio station in Australia. We’ve
played it on the radio a few times. Unfortunately I dropped it and broke
it when I was about 25 [laughs], so it’s gone forever.
My first album that I made under my own name was called From Out of
Nowhere. It was Australia’s first direct-to-disc album, made in 1978.
And then in 1986 I recorded the album Up From Down Under. That wasn’t
released for awhile because I was trying to get a record company to
release it and of course they all turned me down and said there was, ‘No
market for what you do.’ So I went out and created one. I got myself on
tour with John Denver in 1988, and then EMI came through with a release,
and the album debuted in the Top 10 (Australia). That caught everyone by
And although I’d been in bands and playing on people’s records for
years the public perceived me as a new artist. It was a good thing. The
next two albums following that were both No. 1 albums in Australia. The
third album, Determination, was in the ARIA chart (The Australian pop
charts) for 111 weeks. And I won a lot of awards. That particular year I
won “Songwriter of the Year,” “Adult Contemporary Album of the Year,”
and “Best Male Artist,” at what we call the ARIA Awards – like your
Grammy Awards over here. It would be awfully nice to have a Grammy though.
It’s a goal of mine.
Guitar.com: You were nominated for a Grammy for the album you did
with Chet Atkins,
Day Finger Pickers Took Over The World, weren’t you?
Emmanuel: Yeah, I was. I went to the
Grammies, actually, with Alison Krauss and her band. And she won, and that
was wonderful. The track that they won with was just so damn hot!
Guitar.com: You’ve played in bands as well as doing the solo
Emmanuel: I’ve done that all my
life. I only started playing absolutely solo back in the late-’80s.
Guitar.com: What spurred you to go solo?
Emmanuel: I was playing in bands and I’d
do a little spot on my own. The crowd seemed to go nuts, and it just
seemed like something that was a natural evolution. And now I enjoy it a
lot. It’s challenging writing music that stands up on its own, and to
play the guitar just totally self-contained. Have you heard my new album?
Guitar.com: Yes, it arrived this morning.
Emmanuel: Well thank you so much for
taking the time to call after you’d heard something. I really appreciate
Guitar.com: I do also have
Day Finger Pickers Took Over The World album, I listen to that once in
awhile too. You were quite close to Chet weren’t you?
Emmanuel: Yeah. We were really like
father and son. Making that album with him was a pure labor of love. He
was wonderful. His health wasn’t very good and I had to really get
everything prepared so he could do his parts. The songs that we needed to
play together, that we actually had to do as a duo, we got those done
pretty quickly. And everything else he had a little time to work on. And I
kind of did all the backing parts and mapped out his parts for him, then
he just went ahead and did his solos and harmony parts.
Guitar.com: Did you perform live with him?
Emmanuel: Yes, we did the Grand Ole
Opry a couple of times, and we did a show called “Prime Time Country”
on TNN. And we did a lot of interviews and things together. Columbia was
actually very pleased with the album because it was more like his roots,
which is more what I wanted to do for him. I felt that that’s what he
should have been doing at his time in life, just playing fingerstyle
guitar, which is what he did best. And that’s why I pushed for the album
to go in the direction that it did, and wrote some of the songs. And we
had a whole schedule ready – the record company and myself had put
together a promotional schedule with a promotional company – for Chet
and I to….to bring him back to the public eye. But unfortunately his
health just wouldn’t allow it. And after he had the brain tumor
operation, from then on he had to stay home. He was all right. It wasn’t
actually that that did him in. I think he just ran out of steam. But he
was such a wonderful person.
Guitar.com: Was he a big influence on you throughout
Emmanuel: Yeah, right ’til the end.
It was more than just his guitar playing and his touch and things like
that. It was his sense of melody and groove and arrangement ideas – just
having an ear for good songs. And of course the way that he treated me
from the moment I met him was a very quality and human experience, to be
treated with such respect and love, being a total stranger. The thing
about Chet was, no matter where you went – whether it was in the
presence of the President, or a waiter – he treated everyone just as
Guitar.com: I suppose you’re involved somehow with the
Chet Atkins Appreciation Society?
Emmanuel: I’ve been attending each
time since I got the invite, which was 1996. I’ve gone every year since.
[Editor’s Note: The
Atkins Appreciation Society is an organization dedicated to the memory
and music of guitar great Chet Atkins. The CAAS sponsors an annual event
in Nashville that features hundreds of guitarists, famous and still
undiscovered, who gather to play and learn together.
I tell people all around the world about it. And I’ve been teaching
players in far reaching places like Borneo and Malaysia when I’m there,
and they end up coming to Nashville and playing. So it really is
fingerpickers taking over the world. There’s a couple of young guys in
the northern part of Borneo who have been so inspired by fingerstyle
playing, mainly by Chet and myself, and these guys are taking traditional
Asian music and making it into fingerstyle arrangements. It’s wonderful.
It’s just another side of it, and expanding it out into the world, and
giving people something good to focus on.
Guitar.com: I’ve spoken with Muriel Anderson about the gathering
a couple of times.
Emmanuel: She’s been a big part of
it too. And she’s a wonderful friend. I’ve played her All Star Guitar
Nights a few times. It’s good fun. [laughs]. In fact, the last one I
did, I was on the show with John Sebastian. And when you’re on the stage
with him and you do “What a Day for a Daydream” with the guy who wrote
it, it’s pretty extraordinary. And then I played “Dueling Banjoes”
with Eric Weisberg, who wrote that and did the original version. That’s
a pretty rare thing. At the Chet Atkins convention, in one night, I played
with Chet, Duane Eddy, and Arthur Smith. How good does it get?
Guitar.com: Let’s talk about you. Tell me about the hours you put
into playing guitar, and the dedication required to reach your level.
Emmanuel: When I was a kid – see I’m
one of six children, and most of us played music. So when we heard a song
on the radio, my brother Phil – who was older than me – had an
incredible ear. He would work out the melody and the chords and then he
would show me how it goes. Then I would work out a rhythm part and we’d
When I got older and heard Chet, I spent most of my waking hours after
school and homework playing guitar. I’d be in the room there with the
record player listening to things and trying to work them out. Then I’d
eat dinner and go back and do it again. So when I was younger I was
totally dedicated to it and totally obsessed with it. A little bit later
when I was a teenager and I had been on the road for some time with a
traveling show, and I had discovered Django and Les Paul and George Benson
and Joe Pass and people like that, and I started to listen to different
music – I then heard Jerry Reed – I think I went through a period
there where working out and learning songs in as many keys as I could took
up all my time.
I can remember when I moved to Sydney and I used to sit and play the
guitar all day until I couldn’t stand it any more and I had to eat
something. I’d get pizza or something, then play until 11 o’clock at
night. Then I’d go out and play with a band or something, get home at 4
o’clock in the morning, sleep an hour or two, then get up and do it all
again. I did that for years.
I didn’t need a lot of sleep; I needed to learn to play. And the thing
that intrigued me was that the first couple of weeks of doing that I
discovered that I could really do it if I just kept at it. And it excited
me so much that I just didn’t want to do anything else but that. I was
living in a tiny little place and my rent was like $9 a week. It was just
a little room. But that’s all I needed was a place to lay down and sit
and play. When I wasn’t there I’d be haunting the music shops, playing
guitar in the music shops, playing for people, teaching – whatever. That’s
what I did in those days.
Nowadays, because I play so much on
the road, when I’m home I tend to just play the guitar a little bit each
day, unless I’m writing something. When I’m writing something I play
all day, all the time. That’s really what it takes to work on things. I
always give people the same advice if they want to get better at what they’re
doing, apart from not quitting: Have a little cassette player and record
yourself, then listen back and hear how it’s going and what areas you
need to work on. When you’re just going at it all the time you can
become deaf to your own playing. You don’t want to do that. You don’t
want to let that creep in.
So record yourself, listen back, and get another perspective on it. It
also keeps you fresh with the songs that you’re playing. You might want
to change things, or work on certain areas.
Guitar.com: Do you have a routine of exercises or warm-ups?
Emmanuel: When I pick up the guitar I
tend to play tunes at a medium tempo, then maybe practice some harder
things. But the guitar is always with me, so I don’t tend to need a
warm-up type of thing – only if I really feel like it. If I’m feeling
a little stiff in the hands, I’ll pick some tunes, and play some scales
or chromatic exercises, backwards and forwards. But mostly, the thing that
gets me going the best, is playing a couple of tunes that you would play
on stage, then sing a song or a couple of songs, and get that creative
side woken up. Get that adrenaline in your blood, long before you go on
stage. I kind of get into stage mode before I go out there.
Guitar.com: Do you sing in concert?
Emmanuel: Yes I do. I do a little bit.
I’m not very good at it, but I do love it very much. Let me just say
this too, from a purely technical point of view: A good thing to do for
your motor skills and for your expression and your ideas, is to sit down
and play a 12-bar blues. I’ll pick a tempo that I like, usually a
shuffle, and start to improvise, and then at the end of each 12-bar cycle,
move up a fret and play in a different key. If I start in E I then play F,
F#, G, etc. And I keep improvising and I don’t stop. If I mess up, I don’t
stop. I just keep going and go for ideas. After you’ve done that for a
little while, you’ll find you’ve started to sweat and you’re a
little breathless, and you’ve tapped into what happens on stage. And
that also makes you create something. That’s a good thing, I think.
Guitar.com: Do you record your playing just to capture ideas, as
Emmanuel: Totally. That’s a good
idea because sometimes things only happen once, and then they’re gone.
Guitar.com: I know that all too well. I always remember the notes I
played, it’s the feel of the rhythm I can’t get back. It’s the
rhythm that goes away. That’s a really fleeting thing.
Emmanuel: That’s for sure.
Guitar.com: You use an Australian Maton guitar. Tell us about them.
Emmanuel: They’re made in Melbourne. I got
my first Maton in 1959. They’ve been around a long time. The one that is
on the cover of Only is my main touring guitar. They’re beautifully made
guitars. Mine is a 00 size with a real slim neck. They’re so comfortable
Guitar.com: What kind of strings do you use?
Emmanuel: I vary them. I don’t use the same
strings all the time. I discovered that when you use the same strings over
and over, the top end of your guitar slowly drops off. I think the guitar
gets used to those strings. To keep it real bright I change strings right
before every gig and I vary the brands. Sometimes I’ll use D’Addario,
GHS. Last night I tried John Pearse strings. I’m trying out the Everly
Brothers’ strings at the moment as well, so I put those on occasionally.
Elixir gave me some strings last week but they sucked a rotten egg. I put
them on and tuned up, then took them off immediately. Why put on a set of
strings that sounds like you’ve already played them in too much? It’s
such an individual thing.
There was a guy in the bluegrass band that opened for me last night that
had a beautiful sounding dreadnought, and he had Elixirs on them that
sounded like a million bucks. So people always ask me, ‘What’s the
best string?’ and I always say, ‘The one that your guitar likes.’ If
your guitar sounds great, feels good, and really tunes up well, that’s a
good string. For instance, my small-bodied Maton guitar, I can’t put
Martin strings on it. I can’t get it to be perfectly in tune, and the
third string always feels the wrong gauge. But I put Martin strings on my
other guitars and I love them. So the rule is: The best strings for a
guitar are the ones that the guitar likes.
And people always ask, ‘What’s the best guitar?’ and I always say,
‘The one that you really love to play.’ Who cares what name is on it
and how much it cost? If it works for you then that’s the one.
Guitar.com: That’s right. What gauge strings do you use?
Emmanuel: On the little guitar I use .012 to
.054, and on my dreadnought I use .013 to .058.
Guitar.com: Do you use picks at all?
Emmanuel: Do you mean fingerpicks?
Guitar.com: Either fingerpicks or flatpicks?
Emmanuel: I use a thumb pick and a plectrum.
And I can swap them around. Because of being a rhythm player for my
brother Phil who is mainly a lead player, and then taking solos, I had to
work out a way to flatpick with a thumbpick, and also fingerpick with a
plectrum. I can swap over and do either. Most of the songs I play I can
play with either one.
Guitar.com: What do you do in concert?
Emmanuel: I play some songs with a plectrum, some songs with a
thumbpick. And some songs I play without picks at all. It just depends on
what’s right for the song.
Guitar.com: But even when you’re playing with a plectrum you’re
doing hybrid picking using the other fingers on your hand, right?
Guitar.com: You’re not just strumming?
Emmanuel: Oh no, no, no.
Guitar.com: So what inspired you to do this new disc, Only, with no
Emmanuel: Well I’ve always wanted to
do that. I’ve always wanted to make an album of totally original music,
solo acoustic. Because I had been touring for a long time and playing a
lot of concerts just on my own, but the only CDs that were available were
the ones that I’d done with bands and with orchestra and stuff like
that. So people kept saying, ‘We just want to hear you on your own.’
So it gave me the idea in the first place about five years ago, and I
since started writing for that. Most of the songs for the Onlyalbum came
on the road and through real-life experiences.
Guitar.com: Actually I guess the question should have been, ‘Why
didn’t you do it sooner?’
Emmanuel: Yeah! [laughs] I was busy
trying to do other things. Everything evolves in life in it’s own way,
and you’ve got to go with it when it’s time. My next album will be
solo acoustic as well. I’ve got all the songs written and I just can’t
wait to get in and record them.
Guitar.com: Had you previously toured with other musicians backing
Emmanuel: I had a band in Australia. I
had a six-piece band, and I played electric as well as acoustic and
nylon-stringed. I did a bit of everything.
Guitar.com: This was recently?
Emmanuel: From 1989 through ’96. And
then I kind of just went totally solo after that.
Guitar.com: Well, I’ve known about you since around ’96, and I
always thought of you as a solo acoustic player. For you to say you were
fronting a band playing electric, that’s news to me.
Emmanuel: Right. That’s what I did.
It evolved from the band into the solo thing.
Guitar.com: What kind of stuff were you playing with the band?
Emmanuel: Original material. Stuff I
Guitar.com: But not along these lines…
Emmanuel: Some of them. I did a lot of
rockabilly type stuff as well – kind of country-rock. As a songwriter it’s
melody and a good feel that I’m after. I think as I wrote for the
electric I really tried to make sure that the melody was strong and it was
honed and it was always standing up there. And I always gave myself plenty
of room for improvisation on stage.
Guitar.com: When you are playing these solo pieces in concert, do
you play them different from night to night?
Emmanuel: Yes. A tune like “Those Who Wait,” the first
track on Only, that one kind of speaks for itself. I don’t feel that I
need to do anything to that. I feel that everything is where it ought to
be, so I play that as best I can, and I leave it as I originally wrote it.
But some of the other tracks, I’ll do little variations. I’ll vary the
verses or whatever. And some nights I’ll play them a little faster than
the records, or some other nights I’ll play them however I feel like.
That’s one of the joys of playing on your own. You do what you damn well
Guitar.com: Do you ever find yourself recording something that,
when you go out to play on the road, it presents a challenge to you? That
you really out-did yourself and you really have to work on that one to be
able to pull it off live?
Emmanuel: Oh sure. That happened years
ago with some of the things I had written, and I really had to knuckle
down and practice them. I nailed them in the studio ’cause I’d done
them over and over again. I nailed it and was feeling good; had headphones
on and so I didn’t have to push. The difference is, when you’re
playing live and there’s intensity and adrenaline, you’ve got to try
to slow your muscles down so they can perform properly.
It’s like a motor skill thing. If it’s too intense, you can’t pull
off something you know you can do in the dressing room quite easily. You
go out there and you’ve really got to concentrate. It’s a different
matter. I walk out there and I’m totally captivated by the audience and
so conscious to make a real good connection with the people, and talk to
them and play for them, and try to do my best. But sometimes you forget
about the motor skills and you find yourself in deep water. That takes
concentration and real effort to try to make everything nice and clean.
Guitar.com: What have been some of your favorite musical
experiences the past few years?
Emmanuel: Some of the things that I’ve
enjoyed over the past 10 years have been flying to places like Africa and
Thailand and Vietnam and teaching and playing at schools. That’s been
the greatest joy for me. To go to a place like Hong Kong and play in a
very cultural theater, and have the room half-full of Americans who love
Chet Atkins music, that again is yet another thing that I really love.
Playing over here in America to a lot of Australians wherever I go, it’s
Guitar.com: Do you find that Chet Atkins is a kind of international
Emmanuel: Sometimes. There are a still
a lot of people around the world for who I’ll play some of my
fingerpicking tunes that are deliberately written in that style, and they’ll
say, ‘Wow, where does this come from?’ And that gives me a chance to
tell them about the long line of players that goes back to Kennedy Jones
and Merle Travis, and Ike Everly and Mose Rager, and Chet Atkins, and
Jerry Reed and that lineage of players and people who influenced the world
Guitar.com: When you were young and first starting to play guitar,
did you ever imagine that at this point in your life you’d be playing
this style of music?
Emmanuel: I wasn’t quite sure when I
was a kid, because we were so enthralled with the Beatles and the Shadows
and Duane Eddy and people like that. They were big on radio and TV. But
when I heard Chet play for the first time, I’ll never forget that. And
when I wrote to him I was only a kid. My father had died when I was 10,
and so I really lived in my own world, even though I was part of a family
– a pretty big family. But I still sort of lived in my own world. And
when Chet wrote back to me, it really gave me hope.
Guitar.com: He wrote back to you that first time you wrote to him?
Emmanuel: Yeah, when I was 11.
Guitar.com: Where do you live now? In the United Kingdom?
Emmanuel: Yeah. I live in an area called Suffolk, north of
London. North-east of London, right close to the coast.
Guitar.com: Did you move there within the past few years?
Emmanuel: Yes, four years ago.
Guitar.com: How did that happen?
Emmanuel: Well, we wanted to be closer
to my in-laws, who are in Denmark. And I wanted to get going in England
and Ireland and Scotland. I’d been going over there for some time, and
just those long trips back to Australia were just too much. And I’d
really done about as much as a person could do in Australia, to be
blatantly honest. I could have just kept going around and had a
comfortable life, but I think my creativity would have went down the
tubes. And I’m the kind of person who needs new challenges and new
places all the time. I’m just so used to it. I’m thinking of calling
my new album The Endless Road, ’cause that’s the way it seems.
Guitar.com: How much of the year are you on the road?
Emmanuel: I do, on an average, around
300 shows a year.
Guitar.com: Wow, that’s a lot.
Emmanuel: It’s a lot.
Guitar.com: Why didn’t you move to Denmark, if that’s where
your in-laws are?
Emmanuel: I wanted to move here, to
America. This is where I want to be. But when you have a wife and family
who want other things, then you give them what they want…That’s the
way it goes doesn’t it?
Guitar.com: Yes, it sure does.
Emmanuel: Life is full of compromises
and sacrifices, and that’s just the way it is. Like John Lennon said,
‘Life is what happens to us while we’re making other plans.’
Amazon.com for Tommy Emmanuel
Find out more about
Guitar.com is one of the
premier guitar sites on the web -
when you think guitar, think Guitar.com!