What happens when two acclaimed Chet Atkins fingerpicking disciples get together to record an album of guitar instrumentals? If you assume the answer is “acoustic shred,” you’re dead wrong. Heart Songs (CGP/Thirty Tigers), the new collaboration by Tommy Emmanuel and John Knowles, is a collection of melodic masterpieces, such as the Bee Gee’s “How Deep Is Your Love” and tearjerkers like Hank Williams’ “Cold, Cold Heart,” delivered with utmost respect for the composition. Throughout most of the affair, Emmanuel plays the lead role with lyrical grace accompanied with harmonic brilliance by Knowles.
Emmanuel needs no introduction, as he graced the cover of GP’s August 2016 acoustic special issue and consistently ranks at or near the top of any acoustic-oriented readers’ poll. Contemporary readers may be less familiar with Knowles, but his storied career as a player and writer is complemented by extensive work as an educator and journalist, including with his own publication, FingerStyle Quarterly, and in the pages of Frets and GP.
“I used to write for Frets and Guitar Player back when I was doing Chet’s columns,” Knowles says. “We’d have a conversation with a cassette recorder on, and then I would write down what he said and transcribe any music.”
Atkins bestowed his “Certified Guitar Player” distinction on Knowles and Emmanuel in the late ’90s, but the two honorees figured that the other’s style was too different for them to fit together as a duo. They finally connected for some quality picking at the Chet Atkins Convention in Nashville circa 2008 and soon discovered that their differences were actually an advantage when they performed at Emmanuel’s guitar festival in Germany.
“We realized that we actually had a beautiful chemistry and a nice dynamic with his nylon-string and my steel-string,” Emmanuel says. They developed it on his 2011 album, All I Want for Christmas, and went on to make a video of “How Deep Is Your Love” that blew up on YouTube in 2014, leading directly to the Heart Songs album and tour.
How crazy is it that two Certified Guitar Players took such a long route to becoming a bona fide duo?
John Knowles Well, I wandered off into the classical thing, and Tommy wandered off into being a band player and a rock and roller. But we’ve both got Chet in our roots, and that enables us to be a good duo, even though we are so different. That’s what makes it natural. We’re not in each other’s way. I think like a song accompanist, and he thinks like a singer on this project. It varies, but that’s kind of the general framework for how we play together.
Tommy Emmanuel: We sometimes swap roles, but I’m essentially the lead singer, and John’s unique knowledge greatly influences the arrangement. When we decided to do Billy Joel’s “Lullabye,” John honed in on Billy’s piano part. Melody is the name of the game for me, and I listen carefully to singers. That’s why my melody playing sounds almost un-guitar-ish. Listen carefully to any track and notice how I blend notes into one another on purpose to sound like a singer.
Knowles: Chet taught us to learn the words when you play an instrumental so that your phrasing sounds vocal, and Tommy’s really got that down.
What are some tips and tricks for playing melodic instrumental acoustic?
Emmanuel: First, you’ve got to find the right key to make the guitar sing. If you did “How Deep Is Your Love” in D, it would sound a bit morbid. As soon as you put it in E, it lifts off and you’ve got all these open notes available. You’ve got to reach for some things, like where you play a note on the second string, hold it, and then play the semitone up on the first string, letting those two ring into one another. If you then move the index finger up a tone, it sounds almost like playing with a slide.
I play with a pick when I’m focused on an intimate, vocal-style melody. My D’Andrea Pro Plec pick is 1.5 millimeters thick, with a rounded tip so you don’t hear the pick, you hear the guitar. It looks like a big beautiful piece of tortoiseshell, but it’s actually made of plastic. When you use a thinner pick with a sharper edge, you hear the pick and then the guitar.
And when I sit in front of a microphone, I milk every bit of mojo possible out of my guitar sound. I play really gently, and use the microphone to help me be more expressive. There’s a science to maneuvering around the mic, knowing when to move up on it a bit, and when to back off. In this case the mic was an AKG condenser. We were at EastWest Studios in Los Angeles in the old room with the Trident desk. The Beach Boys and the Mamas & the Papas used to record there a lot.
How did your sessions go down?
Knowles: It happened in a bang, like two and a half days. We sat down facing each other with a baffle between us. Many tracks were simply cut on the first take. Sometimes we had to punch in and start over. One or two had a click track to guide us. I normally record with a small-diaphragm condenser mic, but in this instance it was a pair of ribbon mics placed about a foot or so out from the 12th fret.
What were your primary acoustics?
Emmanuel: I played a Maton TE Traditional, the prototype for a new signature model with a cutaway. Its back and sides are made of Queensland maple, a beautiful figured wood that looks almost like flame maple. On the one track where I play solo, “Eva Waits,” I used a pre-war 000. It’s a replica of David Grisman’s 1934 Martin 000-28, and I’m in love with that voice.
Knowles: I played my signature nylon-string made by Kirk Sand. I remember introducing him to Chet, and he came up with the thinline nylon-string guitar that Gibson made [the Chet Atkins Studio Classic]. This is the third or fourth guitar that Kirk has made for me, and this model came about around 2009. It’s patterned after a Kohno, a Japanese classical I liked, but my guitar has a cutaway and a Rich Barbera pickup in the saddle. The neck is kind of a standard classical size but with a little less wood in the back to make it more comfortable. The fingerboard also has a slight radius. There’s a bit more room at the edges, so the string spacing is a little less than a full classical, but I do a lot of vibrato playing and plenty of pull-offs, so it keeps me from pulling the first and sixth strings off the edge. I also had the headstock moved back a bit, because sometimes I’ll keep my first finger behind the nut prepared for whatever’s coming next while I play with the second, third and fourth. I have somewhat mushy fingers and, even though I play with my nails, I have a rather dark tone. To balance that, I had the guitar made of Brazilian rosewood back and sides, and a Sitka spruce top. Cedar’s delicious, but a little dark for me.
What’s the extra piece of wood attached to the top?
Knowles: It’s an armrest that Kirk shaped out of ebony and then fit to float above the top by an eighth of an inch. It’s attached right there where the binding would be, and it keeps me from muffling the top.
“Cold, Cold Heart” kicks off the album with an all-encompassing intro played by John. Can you share some insights?
Knowles: When you grow up in Nashville, you learn all the Hank Williams songs, and I always liked Norah Jones’ version, where her accompaniment moves up and down the major scale in parallel 10ths, which is like a third with an extra octave in there. I started the melody with 10ths, and then added some other notes in-between that were influenced by Lenny Breau and Bill Evans. I do it in the key of D, with my guitar in drop D tuning. Tommy is tuned standard, and he comes in playing the melody after my introduction. It’s a very simple melody that runs right down the major scale: 5-5-4-4-3-3-2-2-1-1.
Do you execute those repeated notes on the same string, playing a note with the third finger and then sliding the first finger up into the same spot?
Emmanuel: No, I do it on different strings. For example, I play the first A note on the fifth fret of the first string, and then I slide up with my third finger on the second string to the A at the 10th fret. I learned that from listening to Chet as well. When you’re playing such a simple melody, you’ve got to find a way of making it really sing with tons of feeling. For the very end, I asked John to keep playing B minor to E7, so it never resolves, and I’m free to improvise. Sitting in B minor is a beautiful place to be in that situation. When you’ve got lots of open notes to work with, you can create beautiful flourishes.
Your version of “Walkin’ My Baby Back Home” is fun for how you pass the melody back and forth with some interesting key changes along the way. Can you explain what’s going on?
Emmanuel: Nat King Cole made that song popular when I was a kid, and we both love James Taylor’s version.
Knowles: Ours starts out in the key of A.
Emmanuel: John came up with that A-to-E augmented introduction. I made the verse melody as bouncy and fun as possible by taking a bit of license with it. And then I suggested a change of the key to C and that he take a solo. John got some nice phrasing going, and I was doing a Freddie Green kind of chunk-chunk-ca-chunk underneath. When the verse melody ends on a C, we pivot back to the original key.
Knowles: Right. That C becomes a B# in a G#7 chord, which takes us back to the bridge in the key of A. It’s the second time we’ve played the bridge, so we simply took the arrangement a bit further before bringing it back home.
Will you play the same instruments live?
Emmanuel: No, when you plug in, it’s a different world, and most of my playing will be on the latest version of my signature Maton, the TE Personal. It’s a bit thinner in depth, but it’s got a particular voice suited to playing single-note melody lines live with John.
Knowles: I’ll be playing my same Kirk Sand Signature model that I used to record Heart Songs but relying on the Barbera pickup instead of a mic. I like how the Barbera responds to my touch.
How about amplification?
Emmanuel: I use an AER Dual Mix preamp that sends one signal to the house and another to my signature AER amp, which sends a second signal to the house via its direct output.
Knowles: I’m thinking of using one of Tommy’s AER amps for this tour as well.
What do you hope players will take away from this project?
Knowles: I hope that whoever gets dragged along with a guitar player to our show thinks, Wow, I really like those songs! And I hope that players are curious enough to ask me about some of the concepts behind my parts when I’m out doing guitar camps and such. You are not going to find out what I’m doing in chord books, because I’m thinking more like a piano player would think harmonically, at least in different voicings.
Emmanuel: I hope our arrangements inspire others that play together to be more thorough in their arrangements and realize that it’s okay to just play the melody. Don’t feel pressured to try to impress people with your million-and-one ideas. Play the melody, be in the song, and be true to the song.