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Tommy Emmanuel

October 20, 2008
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FINGERSTYLE SUPERSTAR TOMMY EMMANUEL won’t give himself a break. Despite having to stop touring in 2007 due to exhaustion, he’s back on the road again, and is booked solid through mid-2009. At these one-man guitarfests (not to be confused with his Tommyfests, where he throws down with other virtuosos), Emmanuel dazzles the crowd with his command of the instrument, effortlessly playing chords, bass, melody, and mind-blowing singlenote runs—seemingly all at the same time. But far from being some staid display of technique like an Olympic gymnastic performance, his gigs are first and foremost entertainment, with Emmanuel dancing, grooving, and mugging for the camera as he plays compelling originals and classic cover tunes, all the while making it look way too easy.

Damn, Tommy! Give us a break. Emmanuel did take a moment out of his insane schedule to talk about his new live album, Center Stage [Favored Nations Acoustic], before his soundcheck in Rome.

Is it challenging to hold a crowd’s attention when you’re just one guy with an acoustic guitar?

Absolutely. Believe me, you’ve got to pull rabbits out of hats all the time when you don’t have a voice like Billy Joel or someone. I’m just trying to do things that I think are fun, and it’s all about the element of surprise. I’m an entertainer, who entertains people with my music and my musical abilities, whatever they may be. I’ll use whatever I can come up with to surprise people. That’s all part of the gig.

In your version of “Nine Pound Hammer” you do a breakdown that sounds like brush snare and walking bass. Is that one of those “rabbits”?

Yes. I get that brush sound by rubbing my right hand on the face of the guitar. The finish on the front of my guitar is totally worn down and it makes a swooshing sound. Then, with my left hand, I hammer on and pull off to get the bass line. That bass line uses the cycle of fifths to really make it sound like a bass. That bit is musical and a nice dynamic shift, but it’s also a good performance trick.

How do you play the fast harmonics in the intro to “Finger Lakes”?

It’s pretty easy, really. It’s just a forward finger roll. I’m spreading my hand so the 1st finger is on the third string seventh fret, which is a D harmonic, and my little finger is on the 12th fret on the B and E strings. Then I move the shape over so it’s on the next three strings. It’s a beautiful sound and I fooled you, because you thought it was more intricate than it really is.

You get a lot of sustain out of your steel-string lines, and “Papa George” is a great example.

I approach playing these songs as a singer would approach the melody. I do everything I can to make the melody feel natural and sustain through. That sometimes involves using open strings, like in “Papa George.” Sometimes, when I’m playing melody and harmony, I’ll hold the harmony and move the melody. That’s what vocalists do. A lead vocalist might sing the line and the backing vocalists just sustain oohs and ahs.

Talk about how you wrote “Train to Duesseldorf.”

I had finished a show in ’99 about midnight, and I sat up drinking beer and playing guitar with some friends until about four in the morning. I didn’t go to sleep because I had a train to catch in about an hour. It was one of those incredibly fast ICE [InterCity Express] trains and, at five in the morning, there was no one on the train. So we were flying across the countryside and I wanted to write a soundtrack. That’s why it has all that fast playing in it. What you’re hearing is a Chet Atkins/Jerry Reed thing that I took and made up my own licks with. It incorporates a lot of hammer-ons and pull-offs and both hands have to be really in sync. It takes a while to get used to that technique. I was so excited about it that when I got to the city of Hamm, Germany, where I changed trains, I played it for this old Indian lady right on the platform there in the station.

Walk through how you’ll arrange someone else’s tune, like “I Go to Rio.”

The first thing I do is find a good key to play it in and with that song, E works perfectly for that first line. Then I’ll try to find all the positions that correspond with what the singer is doing. I knew Peter Allen’s version pretty well so I made it fit into my style.

How do you approach the bass line?

It depends on how interesting the song is, how much scenery the song needs to make it interesting. For a song like “I Go to Rio,” there’s constant movement in the melody so I don’t need to move the bass around a lot. What I do with a song that has a repetitive melody, the second time around I’ll play the melody the same and change the bass and chords underneath.

Is it as simple as just going to the relative minor in the bass?

I just like to throw a little harmonic curveball in there. Plenty of times I will go to the relative minor, so if the song is in A I might play the melody in A and put an F# in the bass, then through F into an E in the bass. That sort of thing.

Your live tone has a really full low end, but it never sounds woofy and it doesn’t feed back. How do you do that?

I’m playing loud, too, believe me. I use a Feedback Buster to cover up the soundhole, because no one hears what comes out of there. They hear the P.A. There are some people who prefer sitting in front of a mic and that is a beautiful sound, but I like to move around and dance when I play. I can’t be stuck in front of a microphone. It would destroy me. The pickup in the Maton guitar is one of the finest you’ll ever hear. You can play ten times as loud as anybody else with one of those guitars and it sounds big and natural. There’s also an internal mic and that mic and the pickup feed my Midiverb II reverb unit and my amp. Then I have a separate internal mic—a Danish mic that Ricky Skaggs recommended—and that has its own line out. That way the soundman can blend a direct sound from my guitar with the amp.

When you jam with others, you seem to be a really sensitive listener. What are your thoughts about being an accompanist?

When I accompany another artist, whether it be an instrumentalist or singer, I usually hear what they want to do first then work out how I can enhance that in the best way. As a general rule, if you can’t hear every detail of what the other musician is doing, you’re playing too loud.

Which of your tunes might be a good starting point for budding fingerstylists?

When I teach fingerstyle, I always start with “Freight Train” in C and “Windy and Warm” in Am. Those melodies are a good way to get started playing tunes in a selfcontained style. Keeping it simple from the start, being aware of the separation of the melody to the backing, and also being aware of the groove are some of the often overlooked— but very important—aspects of playing fingerstyle tunes.

What other advice can you give to guitarists who want to develop more independence between multiple parts?

Understanding that the thumb must be independent from the fingers is one of the most important ingredients of playing separate parts with a natural feeling. Once you train your thumb to be a steady groove machine, it won’t be long before you’ll want to have a go at pieces like “Lady Madonna,” where you play the moving bass part and the moving melody part at the same time. There are so many good arrangements available to learn by people like Stephen Bennett, Pete Huttlinger, and of course a treasure of songs and arrangements by Chet Atkins, Jerry Reed, and Merle Travis, just to name a few.

Are you ever surprised that, after all these years, a simple acoustic guitar is still such a bottomless pit of fun and inspiration for you?

The acoustic guitar is a never-ending source of pleasure and challenge. Sometimes after a gig, I’ll sit in my hotel room and look at my Maton and marvel at the sounds that come out of that little box. Jerry Reed said it perfectly when he said “The guitar is always the same ... beautiful!”

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