Fingerstyle Dynamo Tommy Emmanuel on Recording, Performing, and His New Album

Some folks choose to make a career out of playing the guitar, others follow a calling.
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Some folks choose to make a career out of playing the guitar, others follow a calling. In Tommy Emmanuel’s case, the latter is most certainly the more accurate way to describe his life with the instrument. Having started to tour throughout his native Australia with his family band at the age of six, Emmanuel, who turned 60 earlier this year, has never earned his living in any other way than playing the guitar. Hearing Chet Atkins on the radio somewhere in the outback as a child had a profound impact on his own playing, but his appetite for all kinds of music has led him on a crooked path toward becoming one of the most successful solo steel-string fingerpickers of all time. Settling in Sydney for much of the 1970s, Emmanuel became an in-demand session player, playing on recordings by Air Supply, Men at Work, and many other popular Australian acts, including the platinum-selling rock band Dragon, with whom he also toured during the ’80s. Fans who are only familiar with Emmanuel’s acoustic side may be surprised that even his early solo work was dominated by a Telecaster, and a quick YouTube search confirms not only impressive instrumental rock chops, but also the fact that it’s not unusual for him to still pick up an electric today, when gigging with his brother, Phil Emmanuel (with whom he played at the closing ceremony of the 2000 Olympics), or sitting in with a variety of other acts.

Without a doubt, though, Emmanuel’s solo acoustic work has become his trademark. Deeply rooted in Chet Atkins-style thumb-picking, Emmanuel has not only developed an energetic and highly original voice for solo guitar, he has also successfully broken out of the trappings of a fan base composed mostly of guitarists, allowing him to celebrate a level of mainstream success that is unheard of for a solo fingerstylist.

As a road warrior who averages 300 shows a year all over the world, Emmanuel doesn’t spend a lot of time in his current home base of Nashville. But he still manages to work on a variety of projects that don’t involve getting on a tour bus. This has been an especially busy year, the highlight of which has to be the birth of his daughter. But he’s also releasing a new album, It’s Never Too Late (and yes, the title was inspired by becoming a father once again at the age of 60!), and is launching his own label, CGP Sound (named after the “Certified Guitar Player” title bestowed on him by Atkins), which will be dedicated to re-releasing his earlier, currently out-of-print catalog and special projects (the first release will be a trio album that features Emmanuel playing mostly Gypsy swing material with guitarist Ian Date and violinist Ian Cooper).

Emmanuel spoke with Frets by phone as he was preparing to play the Variety Playhouse in Atlanta, Georgia. With baby Rachel audible in the background, Emmanuel was fired up to talk about the current stage of his life, his new album, his gear, and his approach to performing.

What is the concept behind It’s Never Too Late?

It’s almost all original songs. I did a version of one of Martin Taylor’s songs called “One Day,” which is one of my favorite songs of his. Martin’s a jazz player, but coming from Scotland, there’s a real Celtic undercurrent in all the things he does. I did a version of an old blues tune called “One Mint Julep,” which I kind of made like a Delta blues. But the rest of the tunes are my originals.

I recorded some of the tracks with Kim Person in Nashville, and then the rest of the album I did in LA with my friend Marc DeSisto. Marc and I mixed the album at his place, and he also mastered it.

What guitars did you use?

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Mostly my Matons, but I played a Larrivée on one track, and I used my Tom Williamson OM, which is a beautiful Brazilian rosewood guitar that I’ve used on lots of recordings. Tom was a builder from Maine that I became good friends with a long time ago, but unfortunately, he passed away from cancer. My guitar was the second to last he built, and it is like the best 1930s Martin you’ve ever played. But for most of the songs, the Matons sound great. If you listen to the title track, that’s my main Maton [EBG808TE] guitar with just one mic on it. We used an old Neumann from the ’50s and just found the right spot.

Is using a single mic a standard approach for you to record acoustic guitar?

It’s Marc DeSisto’s approach. Kim usually uses two to three microphones. She’ll use a pair of Neumann M 149s, and then a Neumann U 87, kind of like at eye level, about four feet back—sort of like an ambient mic. One of the M 149s is to my left, pointing down at the fretboard and the other one is about a foot in front me, pointing just below the soundhole. That’s how we get that sound. Marc has a different approach. He just uses one mic and that’s all he needs. Everybody has their own way of doing things—I don’t work with those people and then tell them what to do; I want the best they can give me from their experience. I remember when I was recording with Chet Atkins, he put up the mic, left it in one place, and then positioned himself around it.

Chet obviously influenced you greatly, and there are tunes on It’s Never Too Late that reflect that, like “The Bug,” for example.

That was on purpose. It’s a way of saying, “This music will continue into the next generation through this song.” I couldn’t have written “The Bug” if I hadn’t learned “Lover Come Back to Me” by Chet, or “Avalon,” or any of those great tunes. Chet handed us those great arrangements, and then we did something else.

“Hellos and Goodbyes” is a guitar duet where you’re overdubbing the second part. What made you choose that approach, rather than arranging it as a solo piece?

I just played a rhythm part and then I played the melody and the solo as if I was being accompanied. It doesn’t work as a solo piece. I wanted to do something totally different, and that worked so nicely. It would normally be guitar and keyboard.

You play mostly in standard and dropped- D tuning, but do you have any thoughts on playing in altered tunings?

I’ve experimented a bit with alternate tunings, but I try to stay away from that because so many other people are doing it, and I can’t really tell the difference between many of the players. They all start to sound the same, and everybody does the same thing. They slap harmonics because they’re easy to find and they play these beautiful chords because you just have to stick your finger on it and it sounds nice. People are not writing the melodies the way they used to. I don’t want to rely on playing gimmicky stuff. A song has to tell me a story and take me somewhere. You may be able to do that in an open tuning, but I can’t. People send me videos of themselves playing so I can give them advice, and nine times out of ten, people are playing in DADGAD and they’re doing what everybody else does. There are some people who can make the open-tuning stuff sound beautiful, but not many touch me in that style.

Given that you don’t read music, what is your approach for learning new music that’s not your own, like Martin Taylor’s “One Day”?

I listened to him play it a thousand times! And then I work out how I want to play it. I probably spent three or four days every afternoon at soundcheck playing, and then honing it some more back in the dressing room. I’ve got to find the right key to play the melody in, and then find a way of getting it sounding as beautiful as I can—getting the notes to ring around the melody, and all that sort of stuff. Even since I’ve recorded the song, I’ve changed the way I play the melody again, so it’s evolving. But as far as working someone else’s song out, let me give you an example of a well-known song, like “Close to You,” by the Carpenters, which was actually a Burt Bacharach song. I went looking for a good key to play that in and then I had to find a way of making it interesting at every turn, because that song could quickly get way too syrupy. I found alternate chords, so I’m still playing the melody, but I’m playing unusual chords underneath it.

You have a pretty loud stage sound, and I was wondering whether that was mostly for your own benefit, or for the experience that the audience is having?

My stage sound is big because I want to have weight to my notes. And when I mute with my right hand, I want it to be like “boom, boom, boom” down there in the bass. My main concern is getting it big out front—what the public hears. Then I get the stage sound how I like it.

And your setup is still basically the three Matons—two EBG808TEs and one TE1—going through an AER amp?

Yeah. My soundman, Steve Law, does all my effects, reverbs and delays, from the front, and I have a completely dry signal onstage. I’m using the AER Pocket Tools Colourizer preamp for one signal; it goes straight into the P.A. That’s a big, fat, juicy signal—the best preamp sound you’ve ever heard. And then I come out and go into the AER Compact 60 amp. And then we come out of the amp straight into the P.A. and add that in as well.

Are your pickup and internal mic signals blended in the guitar?

Yes. They’re both on 10. The mic and pickup are both flat out—that’s how you get the sound. You can drive a Maton pickup like a Ferrari. You can run it flat out, and it’s as clean as a whistle, and it’s got every frequency you need. And because the mic is there as well, when you’re in the audience it feels like your head’s inside my guitar.

You’re one of a precious few fingerstylists who have managed to break out of playing mostly for other guitarists.

I’m not interested in that. I love doing workshops and all that kind of stuff, but I’ve never been interested in just appealing to musicians. I’m out there to play for the public and I want to take what I do to a level that’s never been done before. I’m interested in making history. I’m not thinking small at all. I never have been like that. Anybody who works with me, my managers and everyone else, one of the first things I say to them is, “We are here to make history. Let’s find a way of being able to take what I do and bring it to the world on a level that’s unprecedented. Now, are you with me?” That’s my approach. I never have thought, “Well, I’m just a solo guitar player. I should just be playing small clubs.”

You’re a real entertainer on stage. What kind of advice can you give other solo performers?

The first thing is you’ve got to be thinking about the audience. Your audience is your reason for being there, so you don’t want to get too inward when you’re up there, too self-indulgent. But the truth is that underneath it all, I still always play for myself, because I’m hard to please. At the same time, I’ve had so many people say, “I just drove 500 miles and you didn’t play ‘Classical Gas,’” so there are certain songs that you can’t leave out if you care about people. When I was a kid, my father really drove it into us that when you go onstage, you’re an entertainer. So if you just want to be a musician, then go ahead and play in a jazz band, or in an orchestra, or whatever. But if you want to be onstage in front of people, then you better be an entertainer, and that’s what it’s about. I’m a guitar player first and foremost, but my job is to take you, the audience, out of your ordinary existence and totally make you forget everything and engage you in an experience that maybe you didn’t expect. If you really connect with the audience in a way that they suddenly realize they’re not thinking of anything else but what’s going on right in front of them right now, that’s what entertainment is all about. So I’m using everything I can to give you a good time. Why do I bang my head on the microphone and play the guitar with a brush? Because no one else does, and it’s something maybe you don’t expect. I may go from playing a Beatles song into “Classical Gas” or whatever, and just when you think you’ve heard it all, I’ll do something else. I’m always trying to use that element of surprise to give my audience a great time. That’s really what it’s all about.