By Joe Holesworth
Republished from our “Perfect Pair” Issue
There are many virtuosos in many styles– singers, guitarists, producers, drums, etc., etc…
Very few people who are all of the above, at the same time, remain open-minded, approachable, genuine and glowing with an incredible amount of joy, happiness, and positivity to share.
Tommy Emmanuel is one of those amazing human beings with such a unique and fascinating life story. His unique style and comprehensive melodic playing combined with his percussion playing on the top and sides of his guitars makes him one of the most interesting musicians I have gotten to see live or hear on records. I hope you enjoy this interview as much as I did and make sure you don’t miss out on the opportunity to see him play live! It truly is a unique experience.
Guitar Connoisseur: Tommy you were born in ‘55, one year after the Stratocaster. We’ve read that you received your first guitar at age 4, and learned by accompanying your Mother who played lap steel. Was your first guitar a lap steel as well?
Tommy Emmanuel: No, my first guitar was a Col Joye guitar, probably made in Taiwan. It was a cheap little guitar with cowboys painted on it and a high action. My first good guitar was a Maton MS500 solid body electric. My brother, Phil, and I had one each.
GC: When you were very young, your family sold the house and hit the road to make music for a few years. Any key events from that period that still stand out for you today as a touring artist?
TE: I learned a lot from watching comedians and other musicians. I learned to look at the audience and to project myself and my playing to the back of the room. I think we, as a band, learned how to pace our set and to entertain and surprise the audience.
GC: It is said that you heard Chet Atkins for the first time when you were 7. Do you remember what the song it was and what emotions and reactions it triggered in you?
TE: Yes, I remember it vividly. The song was “Windy and Warm”, and I remember my heart thumping in my chest and my head spinning with excitement as I listened to that 3-minute song. I knew he was playing everything at once: bass, rhythm and melody, and I knew I wanted to do that too. When I heard Chet later, I was amazed at how good his recordings sounded. Nobody sounded that good on record at that time. I learned from his early recordings as much as I could with my limited experience and abilities.
GC: What other artist/genres do you feel connected to and why?
TE: I feel connected to all facets of the entertainment industry. I love music, drama, comedy, film, TV…but most of all, live entertainment. I love watching artists who perform with such commitment behind everything they do, whether it’s country, jazz, blues, rock, R’n’B, pop or classical. I have always thought that we should have an open attitude towards all genres of music and entertainment, and look for the soul and the art in it.
GC: What was your main instrument when you moved to Sydney in the late 60’s?
TE: I moved to Sydney in 1975 and I was playing my Telecaster and a Maton acoustic. I also had a Maton nylon-string that I loved and eventually gave to a student. As my workload got more demanding in studios, so my guitar collection grew! I had a variety of electric guitars to choose from and some good acoustic 6 and 12-string guitars, also mandolins, a couple of banjos and a uke.
GC: During the 70’s in Goldrush, you played the drums? What’s it like for you playing drums or percussion vs playing the guitar and other stringed instruments?
TE: I played bass first in Goldrush, then when the drummer left, I took over. Goldrush was a demanding gig for the drummer, as you had to play very fast 2/4 tempos for long periods, and sing harmonies as well as talk to the audience between songs. I loved working with those guys and I quickly built up my arms and legs to a point where I could play full out for many hours and not get tired.
GC: How and when did you decide to bring a percussion aspect into your guitar style? Are you using different pick-ups /strings /electronics for this? Does it drive your luthier crazy?
TE: I’ve always played fairly percussively on acoustic anyway, but I really start to do the drumming thing on the guitar, back in the mid-80s. You’ve got to remember that electronics in acoustic guitars in the 70s and 80s were limited to mostly under-saddle pickups. I had a Takamine with a good pickup for its day, and I noticed that when I was plugged in, if I boosted the mid-range on the pre-amp, the pickup would amplify the sounds of me banging on the body of the guitar. Then when we got the great Maton 808s with the AP5 system, the mic and pickup amplifies everything and allows me to make the sounds of a drummer and a percussion player together. I also started experimenting with a plastic brush about 10 years ago, and that has grown into an important part of my show.
GC: Electro-acoustic on board systems have come a long way, and keep getting better and better. Do you feel confident that they can translate your emotions and nuances vs a recording mic set up?
TE: The Maton system with the mic comes the closest to satisfying my desires as a player and a performer. Of course, I love playing straight into a microphone, but I don’t like being static on stage. That’s why I love being able to move around with my Maton and being able to have the mic and pickup wide open. I cover the sound hole with a feedback buster and turn the mic and pickup to 10. That’s how I get the sound.
GC: Speaking of recording, how do you approach working in Studio?
TE: I love recording, and I love playing with headphones on. It’s a beautiful dimension for me and sometimes brings out the best in my playing.
We usually use 2-3 mics, typically KLM 184s and Neumann U-87 or U-47s. I also take a line from the pickup in the Maton and go into a DI box and then into my AER amp, which is isolated in another room. When we mix, we usually leave the mics dry, no reverb, and use the amp signal to trigger the reverb. It’s subtle, transparent and does not color what the mic hears.
GC: What lead you to get your first custom guitar built?
TE: My first custom guitar was a nylon-string with a cutaway and a mother-of-pearl inlay of a vine going up the fretboard. I was inspired by Chet’s Hascalle Halle classical guitar, which was literally covered in mother-of-pearl!
GC: Did you already have an accurate vision of what it should feel and sound like? Specific woods, neck shape, bracing and nut width, etc.?
TE: No, I simply wanted a nylon-string with a cutaway that sounded less middy than a normal classical. The builder was Robin Moyes, and he used rosewood back and sides, a spruce top and an ebony fretboard. The year was 1977.
GC: What did it feel like the first time you put your hands on the finished instrument?
TE: Heaven! It tuned up so perfectly, and everywhere I went on the fretboard, it was in tune and sustained. I used it on so many recordings, and I still have it.
GC: Today are all your guitars very similar or do you prefer to use different wood selections, shapes and scales for different situations and moods?
TE: I tour all the time, so I usually only take Maton guitars on the road. At home and in recordings, I quite often use my Larrivee or my old Martins if they suit the track better. I also love to record with my Tom Williamson OM model and my David Taylor OM as well.
GC: Do different shapes, woods, necks inspire you to play different things, and bring up different emotions?
TE: Choosing the right guitar for the song in recording is very important. I especially love old guitars because they have such character, and usually a mid-range that inspires me to play more melodically and choose my phrases carefully.
GC: Playing several instruments, do you ever experiment with 7, 8, 10, 12 stringed guitars or other “out of the ordinary “ guitars? How about harps, passive resonating strings, etc.?
TE: I don’t experiment with oddly-stringed or oddly-tuned guitars. I try to do everything from a regular guitar with regular tuning. I have played and written some songs in open tunings, like G6 or low C, but mostly I use regular tuning with the occasional dropped-D. I’ve never written anything with a drone-stringed instrument, but I do have some songs where I drone anyway!
GC: Finally meeting Chet Atkins must have been pretty overwhelming. Tell us about it.
TE: I first met Chet in person in 1980. We had corresponded by mail quite a few times, and I was anxious to meet him and play for him. He was very kind and encouraging to me, and later in our relationship, we became like father and son. I could write a book on my experiences with him, but what I remember the most was his love for the guitar and his dedication. He was a very quiet person but quite open to me, and we had many wonderful conversations in the early hours of the mornings when I was staying at his house. If you want to hear his voice, just play one of his songs in his key and you’ll hear him.
GC: Did you play some of his original Gretsch guitars? How do you connect (or not) with these old 6120’s that played a major role in Chet’s sound.
TE: I played some of Chet’s guitars, but I never got to see them all. There were too many! *Paul Yandell could have told you much more about them, as he took care of them all. I played some of Chet’s Gretsch guitars and they felt and sounded just like my Gretsch guitars! No surprise there. Actually, Chet loved to play my old Maton TE1 with a cutaway so much that I used to leave it on a stand in his kitchen for him to play. That guitar has beautiful action and a sweet tone, and he loved it a lot. One of my favorites of Chet’s was his Martin D-41 that he used on the album with Merle Travis, and also on Twitchy and Nashtownville. That guitar has a classic Martin tone with lots of mid-range.
GC: As a musician, do you have an affinity for vintage guitars in general?
TE: I love old guitars – they all have a story and a history. Ricky Skaggs has some great old guitars, and I’ve had the pleasure of playing a couple of them. I have a Martin from 1865 and a Gibson Kalamazoo from 1934. These instruments have a particular voice, and I only use them on special occasions, but I play them at home.
GC: Do you feel that instruments that have been played for decades, have something “special” vs a brand new one?
TE: Of course. The wood is drier, the tone is more open and complex.
GC: For many, you are now an amazing source of inspiration and have your own signature models like Chet and other legends did. How does this feel? Tell us about your personal involvement in the process and development of your signature series with Maton.
TE: Maton have been building good guitars for a long time, and my signature models came about through me testing them on the road and giving them feedback about the feel of the neck and the ruggedness of the electronics. I really haven’t had a lot to do with the construction or the finish of my signature models; Andy and the team at Maton have come up with that and gotten my approval along the way.
GC: If there was one thing you could share with someone considering having a custom guitar built, what would it be?
TE: Know what you want, and why. Don’t go overboard with electronics and aesthetics.
GC: Social media has been good for you! Back when Myspace was still very popular, your profile (fan pages) seemed to show up in the “Top Friends” of more musician pages than nearly anyone, regardless of genre. Are you aware of the effect you have on so many different people, and why this might be?
TE: I personally have never been on MySpace, and have never seen it! I occasionally go on my Facebook fan pages and try to answer questions when they come up. The internet has been such a wonderful tool for me and so many artists – that’s how we get ourselves out into the world.
GC: Well Tommy thank you for taking the time to share your vision with us and answer our questions. I hope you enjoyed it as much as we did.
TE: Thank you for your interest in what I do, and I hope that somewhere in my answers lies an answer for someone’s need.
*Paul Yandell, who passed away in November of 2011, a great guitarist and prolific Nashville session player in his own rite, was Chet Atkins’ music/band director for 25 years.
To keep up with Tommy Emmanuel please visit: tommyemmanuel.com
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