Interview: Talking Story with Tommy Emmanuel

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Tommy Emmanuel is one of Australia’s most respected musicians. With a professional career spanning five decades, Tommy has garnered hundreds of thousands of loyal fans worldwide. His catalog includes over twenty musical recordings of solos, duets, ensembles, cover tunes, originals, utilizing both electric and acoustic guitar.

Country-Western guitarist Chet Atkins honored Emmanuel with the title of “Certified Guitar Player” for his contribution to guitar music, a very rare distinction shared by only five other people in the world.  After an amazing performance with his brother Phil at the Sydney Olympic Games Closing Ceremony, the world wanted to know who this mysterious Australian guitar virtuoso was.

This previously unpublished interview with Tommy Emmanuel was conducted on February 14, 2015, backstage at the Palace of Fine Arts Theater in San Francisco. .

For those not completely familiar with your work, how long have you been recording and releasing albums?

Oh, the world’s full of people who haven’t heard my work [laughs]. I made my first album in 1979, and it was an experiment. It was a direct-to-disk album. The first one in Australia. It was a Country Swing album with the pedal steel player from Georgia by the name of Peewee Clark who was living in Australia, and so that was my first real product. And then in the mid ‘80s mid to late ‘80s, about ‘87, I started writing more songs to play, and I got some free studio time at a studio starting at 1AM finishing at 5 because that’s when I could get it for free. So, I recorded these tracks and I sent them to a label here in America who wrote me back and said we really love this stuff and we’d like to put it out. So, I then approached EMI in Australia, and they virtually turned me down. They said, “There’s no market for this music, you may as well forget about this kind of thing.” And I said, ‘If you just put it out, I’ll build a market. I’ll do the rest, you just put it out and get it distributed.’ So, I gave it to them for free. The week the album came out I started a tour as the opening act for John Denver, playing to 15,000 people, and I came out as a new solo act in Australia. And I had a thirty-minute spot and the people loved it, and my album debuted in the Top 10.

I was lucky. In 1990 I got the opening spot with Eric Clapton. By that time, I had a band and I was playing half-electric and half-acoustic [sets]. I toured Australia opening for Eric and got an amazing response. My crowds tripled overnight.

And that’s why sometimes being the opening act is a great leg up for you… a great way of getting to a lot of people because it’s a new audience, and people come along to see Eric, and they’re guitar nuts or they’re real Clapton fans, and then they see someone else that they like, and they go out and buy you stuff, and away you go.

What gear do you bring with you on the road?

My set up is really simple. The most important thing is my sound man. I have the sound come out of the guitar and go into a tuner, which mutes it. So, people don’t hear you tuning, and you can just look down. If the [tuning]light is red, that’s bad. If it’s green, that’s good. It’s one of the simple tuners. I come out of that and go into a preamp, which is called Pocket Tools. It’s a preamp made by a German company called AER, and it basically is just a big signal. Instead of using a DI, it’s a direct box that has a lot of technology in it, and it’s a big sound. Then I bypass that and go into my AER amplifier, and then I come out of the amplifier into the P.A. as well. So, I have two signals: direct and amp.

What are some of the guitars that you use in concert?

I use three guitars that are the same brand and made in Australia, they all have the same pickup system. So, yeah, it’s six individual piezo’s under the saddle and then a little microphone near the hole, and I cover the hole and crank it flat out. I have the mic on 10, and the pick-up on 10, and that’s how I get my sound.

Who are some of the contemporary players you’re listening to today?

I’m listening to everybody now. Well, but, actually the truth is I don’t listen to guitar players that often. I mostly listen to singers and songwriters and don’t want that influence in my music. The world is full of better guitar players than me. I’m a songwriter, you know? I write songs and tell stories with my instrument and that’s what I try to do. I’m very devoted to the instrument and to trying to further it and take it to the world.

What about early musical influences?

When I was a kid I heard there was a band from England called The Shadows who were like the Ventures. And they were my first big influence. So, there was The Shadows, The Ventures, Duane Eddy, and all Hank Williams records. I learned all the solos, and all the rhythm parts when I was little, and my mother was into Hawaiian music, and I learned all the rhythm parts, so I learned chord structures, song structures, and I learned how to memorize everything, and work it out, because I had no training. I still don’t read music, I play everything by ear. I had no [music]education and I’m making this stuff up. I’m the Indiana Jones of the guitar world anyway. [laughs]

I think James Burton playing with Ricky Nelson was probably the next influence [for me]. And then along came Roy Nichols playing with Merle Haggard, and Buck Owens… Don Rich playing with Buck Owens. It was country music that was in my blood, and I didn’t get into jazz or the blues until the mid to late ‘70s. Up until then, I played country music… Rock and roll music as well… The Beatles and all that sort of stuff. When I first heard the Rolling Stones… I loved the Rolling Stones, but when I was young I didn’t like it at all because it all sounded out of tune to my ears because I was so used to the pristine tuning of Chet Atkins. He was so in tune. And when I heard other players, I thought, ‘they sounded out of tune, or out of time.’ I didn’t get that. “It’s got to be a little dirty” sort of thing. I didn’t get that until later.

Thank you for your time.

My pleasure.

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