Unfortunately, it was tragedy that put Emmanuel on the path to virtuosity. As a young boy, his father passed away, leaving a gaping hole in the youngster’s life that he found could be partially filled by his favorite hobby: playing the guitar. Emmanuel immersed himself in Chet Atkins records, playing them incessantly and learning the music inside and out. During this time, he struck up a letter-writing friendship with the legendary guitarist that would culminate years later in a duet album appropriately titled The Day Fingerpickers Took Over the World.
Emmanuel has since toured the world playing both electric and acoustic music, but on his new album, Endless Road [Favored Nations], he strips the instrumentation and production down to the most basic elements. The result is an honest, lively album that showcases the musician’s raw emotion and amazing chops.
The record sounds very intimate—almost like being in the room with you.
With Endless Road, I really scaled it down to just the bare bones of me sitting in front of the microphone. No big reverb—no this or that. Just the guitar and the mic, as pure as I could get it.
Reviewers have a difficult time pinning down your music. How would you describe it?
I’m a songwriter who happens to play the guitar. Songwriting is my main passion in life, and my music is very diverse. There are elements of blues, rock and roll, jazz, and pop music. My music is melody based—I grew up being drawn to strong melodies. I try to write music that is memorable, so that when people hear it they want to sing something to it.
What is your guitar setup?
I use Maton acoustics—they’re made in Australia. My guitars are made for me, but they have the same pickup system you’d get if you bought one down at the shop. For this album, a friend of mine named Tom Williamson made me a beautiful guitar that’s a bit like a 1930s OO Martin. Also, Jim Merrill in Virginia made the guitar I used on the songs “Endless Road” and “Sanitarium Shuffle.”
How did you, as a kid, sit down and learn tunes off of Chet Atkins records? That seems like pretty advanced stuff for an 11-year-old.
Well, I think I probably played it pretty badly. But I kept searching for it. Once I got an idea of how it physically worked, then I could get a handle on getting the bass and the melody going at the same time. When I was young, I’d work out rhythm parts for my brother to play lead on, and, at the same time, I played the bass part. I just assumed that was the way it had to be. I didn’t know there was a bass guitar on there!
What advice can you give guitarists who want to work on those types of skills?
The problem with folks is that they get impatient. You’ll hear someone playing, and they’ll kind of skip over a part, and you’ll know that they didn’t put in the time to do it thoroughly and properly. You need to work out both parts very slowly. It takes dedication. You do it section by section, and it’s really about not giving up. Your hands have never done it before, and they’re not going to want to do it, so you have to make them do it. But then, after a while, it comes naturally.
One of the songs on Endless Road is called “Chet’s Ramble.” What can you tell me about Chet Atkins?
Nobody recorded better arrangements for the guitar than he did back in the ’50s and ’60s. He was amazing and incredibly prolific. He was a great producer, and if you wanted to get a melody, you could always go and get Chet’s version of it, and you’d know you’d have the true melody.
Talk about your interpretation of “Windy and Warm.”
Oh, yeah. I take a whole lot of license with that song. I don’t hear many people play it the way I do. When I was younger, I played it more like the original, and I played it a little faster. Then I picked up the guitar one day and it was tuned down low. I started grooving on that song real slow and I said, “Maybe that’s where it’s meant to be.” It’s one of the things that earned me a lot of respect from Chet Atkins and Jerry Reed. When I first played for them, they both said, “Well, it’s obvious that you’ve been listening to us, but you’ve got your own thing. And that’s what we look for in other players.” I was playing some of Chet’s tunes to him, and he kept saying, “I didn’t do that.” But he really encouraged me to go on my own road.
“Son of a Gun” starts out as old-school bluegrass, and then takes a dramatic turn. How did you come up with that juxtaposition?
I try to write things that have their roots in that Merle Travis/Chet Atkins school of playing. You can trace that kind of style back to coal mining area of Muhlenberg County, Kentucky. So I wanted to write something like that, but add my own things to it. When the bridge comes up, it goes to a Stevie Wonder-style change, and that’s my way of keeping the roots in the old style, but bringing in new things all the time. I’m trying to capture the ears of younger people and show them where the roots of this music come from at the same time.
How many takes did you have to do to get that controlled bend in the beginning of “Mona Lisa” in tune?
Oh, I did that song in one take. I never do many takes, and I recorded the whole album in two days. If you have a guitar with a good microphone in front of it, the sound is so great that you feel like you can play anything.
Recording songs in one take is definitely not the trend in today’s music. Your tracks are not computer-edited to perfection. What are your thoughts on today’s Pro Tools environment?
I think Pro Tools is good if you’re working with someone who knows how to use it well. For me, it’s roll the machine and let’s play. We’ll just use the computer to get rid of any noise. I think that if you’re worth your salt, you should be able to sit down in front of a mic and play the song. You’ve got to do it onstage, so do it in the studio, too. I think recording is about capturing a performance, not manufacturing one.