“It’s called practice,” says Emmanuel.
Okay, maybe that was a silly question. After all, the guitarist has been gigging professionally since—no kidding—the age of six. And he was personally mentored by the guy who was arguably the greatest solo guitarist—and, speaking of practice, one of the most devoted guitar students—of the 20th century, his dearly departed friend Chet Atkins. “It’s called striving to get the melody and everything to ring in such a way that it’s a beautiful sound,” continues Emmanuel. “It’s about striving to get the most amount of sustain possible out of your fingers so that fretted notes ring organically, so that the melody doesn’t sound like you’re jumping from one position to another, but instead just flows.”
There are more than a few great solo acoustic players out there. Some players’ strength is a griot-like ability to perform a vast catalog of their culture’s most important songs. Others have blazing technical chops that leave audiences slack-jawed in amazement. Some excel when the red light turns on and lead fruitful lives as studio musicians, while others have a natural charisma onstage and seem most at home under the limelight. But only a rare few have all these qualities and more rolled into one. Tommy Emmanuel is one such guitarist, and, with all those talents at his disposal, he can connect with multiple generations of people on multiple levels. One reason he’s able to do so is because he’s devoted his life to conjuring from his guitar the timbre of the only musical instrument every person on the planet can relate to—the human voice. He makes the guitar sing.
“When I write and play melodies, I don’t think like a guitarist, I think like a singer,” says Emmanuel. “I’m always looking for that ‘vocal’ sound. I play like a singer in a vocal group, letting the harmony notes act as backing voices singing along with the lead voice. That involves finding ways to make a melody ring as fully as possible—ways to play things that sound as if they’re being played in an open tuning but are actually performed in standard tuning.”
Emmanuel cites his composition “Those Who Wait” (from his 2001 release, Only)—which is performed in dropped-D tuning—as a good example of a guitar piece that rings so vibrantly it sounds like an elaborate open tuning is required to play it. “It’s based on this ringing D minor voicing,” shares Emmanuel, playing Ex. 1 on one of his favorite Maton steel-strings. “All I’ve done is lowered the low-E string a whole-step to D.”
The jangly sound of the Dm11 grip inspired the song’s introspective and lyrical sounding main section [Ex. 2]. Though Emmanuel uses a thumbpick on some pieces, he performs this song and many others using a hybrid pick-and-fingers approach. When two notes sound simultaneously, he picks the low note and plucks the higher note with either the middle [m] or ring [a] finger.
“I use two different picks hand-made by Michel Wegen [wegenpicks.com],” says Emmanuel, “and pluck with my picking-hand’s fingertips. I don’t use my nails. I can get a wide range of sounds—even the sound of a pick—using just the calluses on those fingers.”
“I don’t like when people take a song as precious as ‘Mona Lisa’ or ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’ and make it a cabaret act or a cocktail lounge version,” says Emmanuel, who views such desecrations of timeless standards as sacrilege. “But if you play songs from the heart, and for all the right reasons, people will be very moved.”
Whether Emmanuel is performing the compositions of others or his own material, he tries to let his heart sing through both the lead melody and harmony, transforming his guitar into a small choir of sorts. “This is a melody from the next section of ‘Those Who Wait,’” says Emmanuel, switching to D major for the simple motif in Ex. 3. The melody’s emotional impact is intensified tremendously with the harmonies added in Ex. 4.
“When I harmonize a melody like this, I think of the lower parts as background singers,” says Emmanuel. “I often do stuff I learned from Chet Atkins—subtle but effective things like sounding the harmony a fraction of a second behind the melody, which really makes the main melody stand out and puts that much more emotion into the playing. One way to do that is by strumming up instead of down.”
To demonstrate, Emmanuel plays the single-note theme in Ex. 5, based on the melody to the Evans/Livingston classic, “Mona Lisa.” (“I always try to remember how Nat King Cole sang it, and phrase it like that.”) He then plays it again, this time adding a harmony melody a third below [Ex. 6], using gentle up-strums of the pick to shift the parallel phrase slightly behind the beat. “Fretboard exercises and things that build up your strength are a good idea,” says Emmanuel, “but there’s nothing better for you than playing songs as much as you can, rehearsing them over and over. That’s why people would watch Chet play and say, ‘It looks so effortless.’ It’s because he practiced so much. That kind of dedication really pays off.”
A Tommy Emmanuel performance is a full-spectrum acoustic guitar experience, and one of the many sparkly timbres you can expect to fill the air at the guitarist’s shows are harmonics. Emmanuel is extremely adept at Chet Atins/Lenny Breau-style false (or “harp” or “octave”) harmonics, and though he infuses these gleaming partials into his shimmering version of “Over the Rainbow,” that song’s approaches are a lesson that will run in an issue of GP soon to come. We first need to get you in, as they say, on “the ground floor” with harmonics by detailing Emmanuel’s scintillating approaches to standard harmonics, particularly those struck at the seventh and twelfth positions [Ex. 7].
A great exercise for getting your plucking hand up to speed with harmonics is Ex. 8, which uses a repeating, easily identifiable downward banjo roll to sound each three-harmonic cluster. Pick/pluck each with a “hybrid-style” pick-middle-ring pattern. Or, use a thumb-index-middle fingerstyle pattern—or, like, Emmanuel, take the thumbpick-index-middle approach. (“I don’t need the thumbpick to handle any specific technique. I just use it when it seems to suit the song.”)
Once you become nimble at playing standard harmonics melodically, pleasing runs like the cascading closer in Ex. 9 will start flowing from your hands. “Chet played this on the end of a version of ‘Cannonball Rag’ he recorded in the ’70s with Jerry Reed,” says Emmanuel, who notes that the
G-Em7-C-D-G accompaniment makes a great closing cadence behind the harmonics. Essentially reversing the notes, Emmanuel shares a descending run that lands your ears peacefully on an open G chord [Ex. 10].
The thing to notice about this last example is how its phrase morphs from harmonics to fretted/open notes (starting with the final note of bar 1). Blending the two timbres so smoothly helps Emmanuel give his solo pieces that cherished vocal quality, as he’s able to move nearly seamlessly from one to the other, much the way a trained singer steps gracefully from her chest voice into her head voice. A stellar example is Emmanuel’s gorgeous intro and verse sections to “Antonella’s Birthday” [Ex. 11], a lively piece from his latest album, The Mystery [Favored Nations]. Drop your sixth and fifth strings down a whole step to D and G, respectively; slap on a capo at the second fret; notice that the standard octave and fifth harmonics are now located at the ninth and fourteenth positions; and you’re ready to get this birthday party started.