“I DON’T THINK OF MYSELF AS JUST A GUITAR player,” says Tommy Emmanuel, “I’m a song player. Sure, I love improvising and playing way more than I should, but playing melody and grooves—that’s my bread and butter.” It’s not very often that a guitarist comes along bearing the 6-string holy trinity of scary chops, songs, and performance skills—but when they do, oh baby, it’s a beautiful thing. Tommy Emmanuel undeniably possesses all of the aforementioned attributes: a guitarist’s guitarist who composes memorable tunes delivered with a charm that would get Mark Twain’s attention. A road dog of epic scope (the past few years have found the restless Aussie averaging nearly 300 dates a year), Emmanuel’s 20th album, Little by Little [Favored Nations], is a double-CD set that shows the guitarist to be in absolute peak form.
You have an amazingly varied repertoire that includes originals, jazz standards, country, and rock. How important is it for guitarists to learn a wide variety of material?
I always tell people, if you want to learn more about the guitar, don’t just settle for learning modes and scales—you have to play music. And that invariably means learning songs. Learning tunes will automatically force you to learn new things about the instrument and the fretboard, and give you a bevy of new positions, chords, and ideas that will help build your vocabulary. Learning scales and modes is good, although I know nothing about them and I play by ear—but if you think about it, you’re not inspired by the Mixolydian mode, you’re inspired by a song that can use the Mixolydian mode in an expressive, musical way.
You were close to Chet Atkins both personally and professionally. Surely he had some knowledge to impart.
Definitely. He told me that nothing is more important than playing the melody. I’ll never forget working on a song with Chet in his studio. I was really wrestling with a particular improvised solo, and I asked him if he had any ideas. As he turned to walk out of the room he said, “Well, you can’t beat the melody,” and he left it at that. So I started the solo by quoting the melody and bang, I got the take on the next try. Chet would also say, “Don’t take it too far out—you have me so don’t lose me—don’t get too weird.”
When writing, do you ever have a hard time separating something that’s an impressive guitar part from something that’s a cool song?
No. With songwriting I don’t think about chops; I think about music and expressing it. There are two songwriters inside you: the one in your head that wants to be clever, and the one in your heart that wants to be moved. For me, the heart always wins. I try to write as if I’m writing for a singer, and I try not be boxed in by guitar things. I try to tell stories without words. If people ask me if I have lyrics for a certain tune, which occasionally happens, then I know I’m on the right track, giving the listener an image with music.
Is there a tune on Little by Little that began with a particular imagery you were trying to convey?
Yes, the track “The Fingerlakes” was inspired by the group of lakes of the same name in upstate New York. I tried to imagine being in a canoe skimming through the fog on top of the glass-like water. That was how I came up with those chiming, liquid-like harmonics.
Your playing on record is always stellar, but live you take everything to another level of intensity. Do you ever worry about playing too much?
Never. I don’t really care. I’m in the entertainment business and my job is to entertain and move people, look them in the eye, surprise them, and totally fly my kite—that’s what people want to see and be entertained by. You have to live in the moment and get out there. That’s why I beat on my guitars and play all sorts of crazy s**t on them—because that’s what playing live is about. If someone says, “Man, you played a lot on ‘Nine Pound Hammer,’” I say, “Damn right, and I had a lot more to go!”
You’ve been playing Maton acoustics a long time. What do they do for you that other acoustic don’t?
The Matons have the best pickup system for what I do. It’s my voice. The real key to my sound, however, is the fact that I do what most acoustic players don’t—I cover the soundhole. Doing that allows me to crank both the internal mic and the piezo all the way up. I want as much as I can possibly get out of a plugged-in acoustic, and with the internal mic wide open, I get all of the boxey-sounding overtones from the body while the piezo gives me some singing high end.
Do you adjust the preamp controls on your acoustics for different sounds during a show?
Yes, all the time. When I play a ballad, I’ll goose the midrange a bit because it makes the melody poke out and speak a bit more. The other thing I’ll do is boost the bass on a Merle Travis tune so that the low notes on the Travis picking really boom out.
Your sound is always super zingy. Do you change strings before every gig?
I do. My guitars are fairly bright already and new strings really make them sing. New strings not only give me sweeter high end, but I get more overtones, which I feel make a plugged-in acoustic sound more acoustic. My trick, however, is that I change the brand up all the time.
I believe that if you use the same brand over and over, as much as I change strings, the guitar gets too used to them, and all of the brightness and brilliance starts to go away. I don’t know why that is but it’s something I noticed when I was using D’Addarios every night. They stopped giving me that sheen so I put a set of Martin strings on and bam, there it was—the guitar was crystal clear and singing at me. So now I rotate between Martin, GHS, D’Addario, Cleartone, and Everly brands, gauged .012-.054.
You’ve stressed the importance of learning songs. Is there anything you do purely to work on your technique?
I do stuff that builds strength. I’ll play really slow tunes with challenging chords and hold the chord positions with my left hand—almost until it hurts. That’s how I build strength in order to play with clarity and accuracy, allowing me to draw out all of the beauty of a piece. There’s an exercise I do where I play an Fmaj7add 9, with my first finger on the sixth string, 1st fret for the F, and my second finger for the C on the 3rd fret, fifth string. Then I use my little finger to cover the rest of the chord on the remaining four strings at the 5th fret. You hold that for a while and your little finger will start hurting like hell! That’s what I do to build the strength in my little finger. That exercise really helps on a tune like “Mombasa,” where the melody is seven frets away from where the chord is.
Your groove and ability to convey it as a solo guitarist is a huge part of what you do. How did you cultivate that?
I always tell players, time is not just a magazine—it’s the most important thing. I’ve worked on groove and feel my whole life and I still work on them because they are so important. I was lucky because when I was young and learning, I had to back up my brother, who is also a guitarist, and be able to cut a groove that he could play over. That’s a big responsibility without drums and bass. Also, don’t ever underestimate the power of the metronome. A lot of people might think that they’re above using one, but I use it a lot, just to check myself and make sure I’m playing a solid grove.
What is the first step for a player who wants to work on their groove?
The first hurdle is simply being aware of time. A lot of people just play their guitar and have a good time, not being aware of meter, and I’m not saying that’s bad. Youthful exuberance and excitement about playing guitar is great. But sooner or later you’ll find that no one wants to play with you because your time is all over the place. I always tell players to really concentrate and try and feel the groove, then record yourself and listen back. Be critical and see if you can actually feel and tap your foot to what you just played. When I teach at workshops, I remind everyone that they wouldn’t be there listening to a word I say if I didn’t groove. Because at the end of the day, no matter what you’re playing, groove is the name of the game.