Certified Awesome: Tommy Emmanuel Comes Alive at the Ryman

“I’m so excited!” exclaims Tommy Emmanuel. “I’ve only been waiting for 35 years to get on the cover of this magazine [laughs].”
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“I’m so excited!” exclaims Tommy Emmanuel. “I’ve only been waiting for 35 years to get on the cover of this magazine [laughs].”

One of only a handful of guitarists dubbed a “Certified Guitar Player” by the legendary Chet Atkins, Emmanuel was the clear choice for the featured spot among this issue’s Top Acoustic Players. The über-talented fingerpicker has earned a pair of of Grammy nominations, as well as a pair of the Australian equivalent ARIA Awards. He even represented his homeland by performing at the closing ceremony of the 2000 Olympics. Emmanuel’s melodic mastery extends his appeal far beyond guitar geekdom, but those zealots—which include many of the readers of this magazine—are at the core of his huge fan base.

“I remember when GP had a poll about a dozen years back for the readers’ favorite acoustic albums of all time,” recalls Emmanuel. “Of course, Leo Kottke’s 6-and 12-String Guitar came in at number one. Doc Watson got the second spot, and my album, Only, rounded out the top three. I was truly honored. It doesn’t get any better than that.”

Photo Credit: Alysse Gafkjen

Emmanuel is an electrifying entertainer, and he bottled acoustic lightning earlier this year in his adopted hometown of Nashville. Live! At The Ryman [CGP Sounds] features inspired tributes to guitar heroes including Atkins, Doc Watson, and Merle Travis, as well as a pair of performances featuring two other CGPs, Steve Wariner (“Sails”) and John Knowles (“San Antonio Stroll”). (Atkins named four CGPs during his lifetime—Emmanuel, Wariner, Knowles, and Jerry Reed. Paul Yandell was added by Atkins’ daughter Merle in 2011.)

Live! At the Ryman kicks off with an outrageous reading of Emmanuel’s “Tall Fiddler,” then features his stellar reworking of “Classical Gas,” and includes a Beatles medley where Emmanuel practically covers all Fab Four parts simultaneously. His harmonic cascades on “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” are as musically beautiful as they are technically intense.

Thank goodness Emmanuel is as dedicated to educating players as he is to thrilling audiences. The affable Aussie was happy to detail in great depth the Jedi-like regimen it takes to become and remain a force of nature on guitar.

You once said, “If I take a day off, I can tell. If I take two, my friends can. Three or more, and the audience starts noticing.” Can you elaborate?

At the level I work, I always need to be playing in order to keep my sword sharp, so to speak. I use the flesh of my plucking fingers to get a big part of my tone, so I need to keep up my calluses. I try to practice sincerely—as if I’m onstage with people listening—in order to keep up my intensity, strength, and control. I’m always running over tunes, but I mix it up. For a few days in a row, I’ll play “Cannonball Rag” at breakneck speed several times, pushing myself to break new skill levels. On other days, I’ll purposefully play only straight-pick stuff. I won’t do any fingerpicking, and I’ll improvise completely differently. I try to break up my skill set—opening every bag to ensure each is where it’s supposed to be. But I’m like everybody else. I have good days when the flow is unbelievable, and nights when it’s not flowing. You have to play through those nights.

Got any tricks to getting back on track?

I’ll play songs that I think I play well, even on my worst night. I’ll try something such as “Guitar Boogie,” throwing caution to the wind. The other night I was playing “Guitar Boogie” where I always play it, in the key of E, and then I decided to do the improvised part in G. The sudden key change was to slap myself about a bit—get out there, and take some risks. When I’m in the midst of “Guitar Boogie,” I try to think like a big band. Every now and again, I’ll throw in piano or horn lines. I’ll try to imagine all that while I’m actually playing it.

There’s a blistering performance of “Guitar Boogie” on Live! At The Ryman. What was the flow like that night?

It was my first show under my own name in that famous venue, and it was a great emotional rollercoaster. The Ryman used to be a church, and there are still pews for seats, so soundcheck sounds unbelievably amazing. When you come out to play in the same room full of people, it practically sounds like the P.A. is off. It’s so hard to get used to. I had to concentrate on playing well, and force myself to stay in the groove. The audience was great, but I wasn’t really getting what I needed, because I couldn’t feel the sound in the room. When my engineer played the performance back, I was surprised by the fantastic sound, and that I’d actually played better than I expected. We cut the first song, but from that point on, it all worked.

What gear did you use to get such an immaculate acoustic sound?

Photo Credit: Janet Spinas Dancer

It was similar to what I’ve been using for years—three Maton guitars and AER amplification—but with a few updates. My new signature AER amp is based on the Compact 60 I’d been using, but with key modifications in the form of smoother-sounding circuitry, the direct output being post-effects, and then the effects themselves. The reverbs in positions 1, 2, and 4 are based on Lexicon reverbs, and the single-repeat echo in position 3 is an exact replica of the echo I used to get from an Alesis MidiVerb II. In addition, rather than using AER’s external Colourizer preamp in conjunction, I’m now using their Dual Mix preamp, which is essentially the tone circuit of an AER amp in a little box. It sounds nice and natural with everything set flat. I don’t need the Colourizer anymore, because the new pickup system in my Matons sounds fantastic going straight into the Dual Mix, which sends a fat signal to the P.A. I send another output from the Dual Mix into the amp, and from there a second direct signal goes to the P.A. My soundman, Steve Law, favors the Dual Mix signal because it’s so big and smooth, and then he adds the amp’s signal in around it. He’s a reverb master, and he adds effects in the house. I only use the amp’s effects when I’m doing a small gig, such as a workshop or an in-store appearance. It’s the perfect amp for a throw-and-go situation in conjunction with a Maton.

What’s the hallmark of a Maton?

Maton is the best-sounding, plug-in-and-play acoustic guitar by far.

Can you describe why?

Each guitar has its own individual voice. Some of them are not as loud or as big as a Martin or a Gibson. All three of my Matons sound fantastic acoustically, as well, so when I’m in the studio, I take the feedback buster out, and put a mic on the guitar. Then I’ve got the best of both worlds. They’re all handmade by Andy Allen at the Maton Custom Shop. All three have Maton’s new proprietary AP5-Pro pickup-and-mic system. I use a feedback buster onstage so I can turn both the pickup and the mic all the way to 10. That’s the key to my tone, and you can only do it if you cover the soundhole. You can be seated several rows back in the auditorium, and it will still sound like your head is inside my guitar.

Two of the guitars are prototypes, and the other is a new version of my signature EBG808TE. Mine says “TE Personal” on the inside. I’ve had it for about two years. It has Queensland maple back and sides with a spruce top, and rosewood for the fingerboard and saddle. The more I play it, the bigger and more open it sounds. Last week, I was recording with Mark Knopfler at his studio in London. We played an old-timey blues song that he wrote but never recorded. It’s going to surprise the hell out of everyone when it comes out on my next album, because we sat down with two acoustic guitars, singing and playing together, and it’s beautiful. He played a gorgeous 1930 Martin D-18. When he played my Maton, he said, “Man, this guitar is wonderful.” I said, “Yeah, and it’s only two years old.”

On your new live record, is that guitar mostly tuned standard?

I only ever use it in normal tuning, because I won’t risk a guitar going out of tune mid-song. Many players do that, and it annoys the hell out of me. First of all, people don’t want to hear you tuning all the time, so you’re in a hurry. You get to this fancy schmancy tuning—DADGAD or something like that—and then the guitar slowly goes out of tune during the song, because all the strings aren’t stretched enough, and the tuning hasn’t had a chance to settle. That’s why I carry three guitars. I don’t want any tuning problems, and I like the sonic variety.

You don’t like listening to players in DADGAD making pretty chords and slapping harmonics?

Well, everyone’s doing it, and it’s like, “Come on, play me some melody.” Any player can put a guitar in an unusual tuning, place a finger wherever, and sound lovely. They play chordal ideas with little harmonic ideas and slaps. It looks like a science experiment, and I don’t want to watch that. Tell me something. Take me away with music. When I used to tell Chet Atkins that I’d written a new song, he’d almost interrupt me saying, “Can you hum it?” He’d want to know that you could sing the melody.

What guitar and tuning do you use for “Somewhere Over the Rainbow?”

One of the prototype Matons is thinner in depth, and it accommodates heavier strings well. I put Martin Phosphor Bronze SP Flexible Cores, gauged .012-.058, on it instead of my usual .012-.054s. I tune it to standard, but with every string a whole-step down. It sounds gorgeous—like a grand piano—so I try to play like Ray Charles on the guitar. I play the melody like a singer, and I try to play the chords and the harmonies underneath in a gospel style. I normally run my guitar EQ flat, but I bump the mids on that one, because I play a lot of harmonic stuff on it, including “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” I play it really gently, and it delivers a big sound.

What’s the third guitar and tuning?

It’s the new, prototype Maton cutaway model—the Traditional. The cedar neck is unusual. It has two rows of very hard material under the fretboard to strengthen the neck and to help deliver the sound. He used a different bracing system on the Traditional that’s quite light. It’s a bit of hybrid building.

I keep the Traditional tuned to dropped DD, A, D, G, B, E—to play songs such as “Blood Brothers,” or to dropped G, which is a G6 tuning that Chet Atkins taught me years ago when we recorded “Smokey Mountain Lullaby” on The Day Finger Pickers Took Over the World. It’s D, G, D, G, B, E. To get there from dropped D, all I have to do is drop the fifth string a whole step to G. That guitar has a sweet low-midrange spectrum that suits those tunings, and it holds them well. I played the Traditional in G6 tuning for the first two songs on the new live CD—“Tall Fiddler” and “The Mystery.”

I tried to play along with “Tall Fiddler,” and it was in the key of A. Do you use a capo at the second fret?

That’s right. If you want to play bluegrass, you’ve got to put that capo on the second fret. Then, you sound like you’re from Kentucky.

What kind of capo do you use?

I use a Kyser because I can move it quickly and accurately. It takes practice to master that motion so you don’t pull your guitar out of tune. The CD sequence is a perfect example. “The Mystery” is in B, so I move the capo up the two frets, and let it go gently. Next, I push down on the strings with my right thumb over the soundhole to take up any little stress that might have happened during the move. Finally, I check the tuning, and away I go. I’ve got it down to a science. I can move that capo, push those strings down, and go straight into the song dead in tune.

That’s a good little capo lesson.

It’s extremely important. You’ve got to go through a bunch of capos to find the right one for you and your guitar. Some of them are too stiff, and they’ll always pull it out of tune. You’ve got to find one with a bit of give.

I also like Paige capos, but I can’t flick them on and off, so I only use them on certain things. I play several songs that require key changes, and the Kyser is definitely best for that. I can flick the Kyser capo off, throw it up in the air, and do a key change mid-song.

What about picks and picking techniques?

Photo Credit: Matt Mac

I use my own signature-model pick now. It’s based on David Grisman’s Dawg mandolin pick made by D’Andrea. It’s big and thick with a great tone, and a great feel for straightpicking a bluegrass tune like “Tall Fiddler.” The main melody on that is straightforward alternate picking. For the breakdown section—the payoff bit in the middle after the fast bluegrass-style tempo shift—I use a full bag of tricks. David Copperfield’s got nothing on that lick. I’m sliding, pulling off, hammering on, and all that sort of stuff. That’s the part that I need to practice solidly to get every note clear. I worked it out all very slowly. “Tall Fiddler” is one of those songs I’ve practiced a million times with a metronome, gradually increasing the speed. By this point, I am a metronome. The key is being able to play everything at the same intensity regardless of the tempo. You can’t play that kind of stuff if your plucking hand is rigid, stiff, or struggling. You’ve got to be super relaxed for it to all feel good.

You’re also a thumbpicking fingerstylist, which is less common.

It gives you a real anchor when playing tunes where the thumb is doing the accompaniment, like a left hand on the piano. The idea is to keep the bass groove with the thumb while spelling out the chords and playing vocal-like melodies over the top. The freedom of being your own accompanist at any tempo while improvising on top feels wonderful.

Do you have any tips on developing that technique?

To get started, put your plucking-hand fingers down on the face of the guitar, and don’t let them do anything. Position your thumb in line with the strings, and then slightly mute them with your palm. Now, go “boom-chick-boom-chick” with just your thumb. Say you’re in they of C. Form an open C chord, and try playing C-E-G-E with your thumb in the bottom end—the G being at the 3rd fret of the sixth string. Then, change to an F chord, and start the bass pattern down on the low F at the 1st fret of the sixth string. Try playing different chords and different bass-note patterns starting on, say, the fifth, for example. Focus on keeping the groove. Eventually, try bringing in the fingers to pluck the top end of the chords while keeping the thumb going. The final step is to incorporate a melody with your fingers that works over the top of the whole thing.

Would you say that “Windy and Warm”—popularized by Chet Atkins—is a textbook example?

Yes, and it was the reason many of us wanted to play that style. It belongs in the fingerpicker’s encyclopedia. I played it as a nod to Chet because of being at the Ryman, and because the next generation needs to hear “Windy and Warm.” It’s the definitive fingerstyle song—just like “Cannonball Rag” is the thumbpick-er’s anthem. I put “Cannonball Rag” on the album as a tribute to Merle Travis, who is one of the most important players in the fingerstyle chain. Merle wrote so many great songs that set a standard for the genre in the early days. Chet Atkins took it to another level.

How does that technique compare to the Doc Watson style you cop on “Doc’s Guitar?”

It’s exactly the same technique of thum-picking and fingerpicking at the same time. It all falls under what I consider fingerstyle guitar. I like to take famous riffs and melodies by artists such as the Beatles that the public knows and loves, and show them that you can actually play both parts at the same time. Even the non-musicians realize, “Oh, my god. There are two separate things going on at once.”

Laurence Juber does an amazing job with fingerstyle Beatles arrangements. He claims it’s not that hard to figure out if you break it down frame by frame.

That’s exactly right. You’ve got to learn everything bar by bar, and slowly piece it together. This is most important. You’ve got to learn a new piece carefully bit by bit, and with the understanding that it’s not music yet—it’s new skills. You have to go through the practice experience over and over. Eventually, you’ll start to focus on the melody. And then, all of a sudden, you realize, “I’m making music.”

What’s your thumbpick preference?

I love Jim Dunlop mediums.

I suppose you figure out whether the thumbpick or flatpick is best for certain techniques, and break out whichever one depending on the tune?

I do, but I can play everything I do on a thumbpick with a straightpick, and vice versa. I’ll even tremolo pick using a thumb-pick. I’m not going to let anything get in the way of what I want to do.

Your take on “Classical Gas” is chock full of tricky twists and turns. How has it developed over time?

I learned it exactly as written when I was a teenager—just like everyone else. But gigging in pubs around Sydney where you’ve got to play everything loud, fast, and hard to keep people’s attention, I quickly realized that the song in its original form didn’t work as a solo piece. It didn’t get to the point quick enough, and it lost people’s attention straight away. I changed it to get to the iconic parts quicker, and then I changed the bridge so that it first went to C, and then incorporated a winding run trying to keep every second interesting and unpredictable as it goes up to E. It became a very entertaining piece of music that blew people’s minds. I always tell people to start by learning the original as the composer Mason Williams intended, and then make the decision if you want to play it more like I do. He always comes out when I play where he lives in Eugene, Oregon. We have a laugh about my version. He says, “I love it, but you sure did massacre it.”

The harp-like passages you play on “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” are beautiful. What’s the key to that technique? How do you reach your right hand over the fretboard, pinch out harmonics by placing your index finger at a harmonic location on the same string as a fretted note below, and pluck with your thumb—all the while incorporating natural notes on other strings that blur together with the harmonics?

Photo Credit: Alysse Gafkjen

Chet Atkins totally pioneered that sound, and he was the first to record it. I was 16 when I first heard it, and I couldn’t figure out the technique. But then I had a dream where Chet came out with his red guitar, and he showed me how to do what you just described. When I woke up the next morning, I got my guitar and I figured it out by remembering the dream. It was as if my subconscious worked it out, and told my conscious self how to do it. Then, I heard Lenny Breau. Lenny took it to a level that no one else has reached ever since. It is a beautiful technique, and the key is making sure the harmonic and natural notes ring out with bell-like qualities together. When you do it at speed, the ear shouldn’t know which one is which. They should all blend together.

The further your thumb is away from your index finger when you pluck down, the more note you’ll get out of the harmonic. You want the string to speak, but if your index finger and thumb are too close together you’ll choke the sound out of the harmonic. You’ve got to concentrate. It requires great strength in your left hand to hold down positions with real control and clarity. You’ve got to practice until your hand aches like hell. Many players don’t sound clear, like a bell. They sound fuzzy from being too focused on the right hand without having a strong enough foundation from the left hand.

How did a kid from Australia wind up being mentored by Chet Atkins in the first place?

I wrote to him when I was 11 years old. My father had just passed away, and I would live inside Chet’s albums. He was my world. I wrote a letter telling him that I was his big fan in Australia, and that I was trying to play like him. He wrote back and sent me a nice photograph, and we stayed in touch. When I was about 18, a friend recorded me playing in his lounge room, and sent the tape to Chet. I got a mysterious letter out of the blue from Chet that included his office address and phone number. It said, “When you come to America, call me, and we’ll get together.” I couldn’t believe it.

Are you mentoring anyone?

I’m doing guitar camps everywhere, and John Knowles and I have a thing called Young Thumbs. We’re mentoring a lot of young players around the world through Facebook, and through the Chet Atkins Society. I’ve got my CGP Sounds label set up, and I’m going to help produce and market young players.

Upon whom would you bestow the honor of Certified Guitar Player?

I’m not allowed to do that, so it would only be imagination, but two players come to mind. Joe Robinson is a brilliant young player, and Richard Smith is probably the most deserving.

What makes a great acoustic player?

You’ve got to play the sh*t out of it. Otherwise, get out of the way and let me up there. That’s my attitude. It’s such a beautiful instrument, and so challenging. Chet always said to me, “Don’t stop looking for all the mysteries on the fretboard.”