The legendary acoustic guitar player talks guitars, gear, practice, advice for young players, and some great stories from the road.
I recently had a chance to interview Tommy Emmanuel while he was in the L.A. area to play a series of concerts – first Orange County, then Malibu (where I caught up with him), then up the coast to Santa Barbara and beyond. The man just doesn’t stop moving.
I thought I would get him for 10 minutes – he sat and chatted for 45. I thought he would discuss guitar techniques – he shared about his life story. I thought I would enjoy his show – I was blown away.
With Tommy Emmanuel, you get more than you expected.
20 Questions (Give or take…)
TGJ: How are you feeling for tonight, ready to go?
TE: Ready to rock.
TGJ: Seems like 2008-2010, your solo career hit critical mass…
TE: Did it?
TGJ: Well, following you… the Guitar Player voter polls, the YouTube views…at least in the US, it suddenly felt like, “He’s everywhere!”
TE: Actually, that’s more relevant to Russia and China, than it is to the US. I didn’t start going to Russia till about 2008. I didn’t know if they knew me or not, and it was like being in the Beatles.
TE: Every time I pulled up in a vehicle, people would rush over, and it was, it was…they knew every song. The same thing happened in China, and it was because of the internet.
TGJ: Did you consciously try to adapt your playing, your touring, or anything, or were you just like, “Cool, I’ll roll with it.”
TE: No, I was trying to get everywhere. I was building an audience in Europe and in America. I already had a good following in Australia and New Zealand and Asia. I was trying to break into China and Russia. And the very first time I played in Russia, we sold out two shows at a thousand people a show. And that doesn’t just happen in other countries.
I started here at the Baked Potato to thirty people, you know what I’m saying? That’s where I started, here – in Los Angeles, playing the Baked Potato. And you gotta do two shows a night to fit enough people in, you know, to pay the bills and all that.
TGJ: That’s a great venue to see some great musicians. Larry Carlton, all those guys….
TE: I remember in the late 70s, musicians from Australia would come over here, go see Larry, or Lee Ritenour, or whatever, and record it and give me the tapes so I could listen to what he was doing right now!
TGJ: So your tour schedule is relentless, and has been for a long time. Is there a secret to keeping that alive?
TE: It’s not easy, but I just don’t do so well with a lot of downtime. Unless I’ve got projects to work on, then it’s easy for me to… not play enough, or find a lot of other things that I could do – hiking, fishing, swimming.
So I start going off into vacation mode, then all of a sudden I know I’ve got to go on tour. And if I’ve had a break and I know I’ve only practiced a bit every day, the first four days… sore hands like hell.
I don’t want that anymore, so if I have days off, I still pick up the guitar and play “the show”. You have to play full out to keep up what I’ve got going here.
JP: Full volume, full intensity…
TE: Yeah, yeah… because if you practice without that intensity, then things aren’t sharpened and your callouses will get softer, all that sort of stuff. Especially this callous that I play with here [points to fingers on right hand, i.e. the fingerpicking hand]. My nails, they don’t sound any good, so I’ve got callouses that are real strong. But because it’s flesh, you gotta keep doing it, all the time.
And what I find, is that it’s better for my playing anyways.
TGJ: To keep the routine up?
TE: Yeah, I remember when my brother and I lived together, I’d get up and I’d watch news programs and all that. And I’d have my Telecaster in my hand and I’d sit there watching TV, just playing stuff over and over. Just to have my hands do that, right? And then I’d go out and do something, and mow the grass or whatever, go visit somebody. When I’d come back, there’d be my brother with his Strat sitting on the couch watching Ironside or something doing the same thing!
TGJ: You’re known as a Maton guitar guy, but IF you had to buy another guitar, what would you consider?
TE: Pre-war. I’d buy a Pre-war. Not a Martin “pre-war”, but the brand: “Pre-war“. Which is a company in South Carolina. I have a 000-28, which is a replica of David Brisbane’s 1934 000-28 Martin, which I used on our album together. It’s a beautiful guitar. But they built me a replica of it with Brazilian rosewood and the whole thing, and it’s even better. It’s incredible.
Larrivée guitars I love very much. I love the Larrivée family as people, anyway.
But there are so many good guitars. But the Maton guitars, I’ve been playing since 1960, and I don’t really look for anything else. These new ones, you stick a mic on ’em and they sound amazing!
TGJ: It’s not just the pickups, it’s the whole thing.
TE: It’s not just the pickups, no. But the guitar is beautiful to play, it tunes up perfectly, and you know, I drag those things all the way around the world and they’re just never a problem.
TGJ: How do you travel with them?
TE: I just put them in that case there.
TGJ: Are they going in the airplane cabin with you?
TE: No, just check ’em in as baggage.
TGJ: And, fingers crossed, they show up at the right place?
TE: I’ve had just about every guitar broken by an airline. But you just get ’em repaired and you keep playing them, that’s the thing. And you know, there was a guitar I had before this one, I called it the “yellow mouse”. It had like a yellow face.
There’s a young boy from Croatia that I gave that guitar to. His name is Frano Zivkovic. He’s a brilliant guitar player, and he had a mini-Maton that we got him. And now he’s grown up, he’s 15 or 16, and I gave him the Yellow Mouse. That guitar was the loudest one I ever owned.
I flew from Australia to L.A., and then up to Santa Cruz. Got in, I got ready, did the soundcheck, ready for the show. I got that Yellow Mouse out and put it on the stand, and my sound man said “There’s a hole in that guitar.” I said, “What?!”
And it had cracked, right around the bottom, from being dropped that way [motions the ‘butt’ of guitar straight down to the ground]. Cause the shoulder part is where the most pressure it. And the face was lifting up, you could put your fingers inside it.
So we squeezed it down and we taped it with gaffe tape. I played the show, and it sounded fine. And there were two guys from Santa Cruz guitars, in the audience. They said, “Give us the guitar and we’ll fix it for you.” I said, “I have to go in the morning”. They said, “We’re gonna fix it right now.” They disappeared, went off. Came back to my hotel at 9 the next morning – you wouldn’t have known it was even broken. They did such a great job.
TGJ: That’s amazing! Can you talk through, like for tonight’s show, what’s your signal-chain – all the way from your guitar to what I hear in the seats?
TE: I come out of the guitar into a tuner. And the tuner is just a BOSS tuner that mutes. Cause, when I’m changing guitars, I want to mute it so that there’s no sound. And then I can talk a bit, whatever, and then I can hit the pedal and go straight into the song. Or if I want to check my tuning, I just hit it and you can’t hear it but I can see. You don’t want to hear people tuning, and you don’t want to be out of tune either, so…[laughs].
So I go into the tuner, out of the tuner into an AER Pocket Tools Colourizer, it’s a pre-amp. I go into one channel, it’s just set flat, and that’s one signal to the PA. Then I come out of that and go into the amp on the floor. And so it’s amp and direct.
TGJ: So when I’m sitting in the seats, am I hearing a mix of both, or is your amp pretty much just a monitor for you on stage?
TE: You’re hearing a mix of both. Steve, my sound man, says that in the PA, the direct signal is slightly bigger and warmer, and then brings the amp in around it, for mids more than anything.
TGJ: How do you keep from feeding back?
TE: Cover the hole – just use a feedback buster. No one hears what’s comes out the hole. They hear what comes out the PA. So cover the hole and crank the mic. If you crank the mic, the mic picks up the whole thing. The way I play – mic on 10, pickup on 10, flat out. That’s all you need to do. And all the dynamics come from my hands.
TGJ: And your sound is very powerful, it’s not tentative or reflective.
TE: I play with a lot of dynamics, there’s a lot of front on my note. But there are some songs that I actually just play really, really gently. If I sat here [grabs guitar] and played for you acoustically, to give you an idea of how loud I play something, and this is performance level. Here’s a bit of “Rachel’s Lullaby”… [Plays a few bars].
TGJ: I know there’s some stuff you’ll do with dymanics, and even take the capo off in the middle of the song – do you ever take the thumbpick off and change his right hand style in the middle of a song?
TE: No. I play some songs, like “Lewis and Clark”, “Since We Met”, songs like that, I play without a thumbpick, cause I don’t need it. It’s a ballad. With a song like “Lewis and Clark”, I’m trying to get a feeling of movement. And then the melody’s on top.
TGJ: Does it feel looser to you without the thumbpick?
TE: Well, it’s just a certain sound. And other songs, like “The Man With the Green Thumb” or something like that, where you really want to lay the groove in, then you gotta find the right thumb pick. And if I want to play single-line, I’ve got have this thing [gestures at thumb pick] to hang on to.
TGJ: Any techniques that you’re practicing right now?
TE: You know, the thing I noticed, is that I’m different every day. Some days, I can play faster than the day before. Other days, I’m thinking about other songs. Like, I already started thinking about what I want to play tonight, and yesterday I didn’t do that. I just said, “I’m gonna start with this,” and away I went. It was totally spontaneous.
But today I got in here, I changed strings on one of my other guitars and thought, “Ah, I’d like to do that with these new strings on and it’ll sound great.” So, first song, BANG, big tone and all that. So, I’m gonna do that.
TGJ: So it’s true, you don’t play to a setlist really.
TE: No, I don’t. Some nights, I can’t make up my mind what I want to play first until the lights go down and the people start yelling and clapping and I go, “Uhhh, I’m gonna start with… uhhh.. Mombasa!” you know what I mean?
I thought today what I’ll do. Last night, I started with a brand new song, which I wrote in Poland. And it’s like a prelude, it takes the listener on a bit of a journey which ends up in “The Tall Fiddler”, it’s the same tuning. But it’s this melodic introduction, which is a whole song, and then that leads into “The Tall Fiddler”, so it’s a bit of a red herring. It’s a nice opener, cause the whole thing is 8 minutes long, so it sets up this groove and then eventually ends up in “The Tall Fiddler”, which starts at a faster tempo, then I double the tempo, and then BANG, you finish it like that, all the lights go out, I quickly change guitars, and by the time the lights come back on, I’ve got the next guitar on, ready to go.
TGJ: I love it!
TE: Yeah, I’m trying to think of ways to keep it interesting. If I played the same set every night, I’d be bored after the, by the time I got to the third night, I’d be like, “Oh, this again…”.
There are certain things that I know. Like I know when to move it along and not do that. When to give it a break, and talk a bit more, or whatever. Like, I don’t plan what I’m gonna say. Everything I say is usually, if I’m telling a story about a song, then I have a way of doing that. But, a lot of times, if I feel I want to talk about something, sometimes personal stuff, you know? I’m happy to talk about it with my audience because I feel that there shouldn’t be any mask, or barrier. I’m not wearing a mask. Who I am is who you’re seeing, and that’s it.
And some nights, I’m crazier than others. Like, last night, I was in a great and funny kind of mood, so I was having a ball. The sound was really good for me, the audience were right with me. So, I felt free to be a total lunatic on stage. And that’s fun!
But the night before, I felt a lot more serious. And I came off, and one of my friends said to me, “It’s ok to be serious.” And I said, “I wish I’d have been in the mood for more…” But I’m not gonna fake it. I’m just gonna do what I feel tonight. It’s the only way I can live my life and make this work in the sense that, when you play as much as I’ve do and you come back “Oh, I’ve played here!”…, I mean I’ve played in this particular hall probably 30 times and it’s always people come back and have a great time because it’s different every time. If I did the same thing and told the same jokes in the same order, people would be like, “We heard that last time, he played that last time.” You don’t want that!
It keeps it interesting for me too, you know? That’s why I improvise in a lot of my songs, especially early in the show. I’ll do like, “Nine Pound Hammer”, or something like that. And I’ll wail away, and I’ll play way too much, because that’s what the audience loves. My musical taste, if I had to critique my show, like a critic would, I’d say, “Oh, you’re playing too much.” And then me, the artist, would say, “Exactly. And that’s what the audience wants.” So I walk that line.
So for instance, when I play “Angelina” or something like that, I don’t to anything to it but try to put my heart totally in it. There’s no reason for me to go crazy on that song. Just play it, as the composer intended. But when I play “Guitar Boogie” or something like that, it’s like, “Where do you want fly your kite tonight? How high do you want to go?!” You gotta do that! That’s what people love to see.
I don’t really care to impress musicians, I’m out there to totally disarm the audience, so they totally forget everything, and the show’s over, and they’re like, “I feel great, I want that again!”.
TGJ: Outside of guitar, what instrument would you recommend for getting inspiration, grabbing solo licks, learning melodies?
TE: Bass and drums. They’re the two most important instruments. As far as learning licks, listen to some great singers that have good bands and have some great playing. You can always reference “The Night Fly”, Donald Fagan – go back and listen to Larry Carlton’s tasty stuff. Listen to what he did on that track. Listen to “Kid Charlamagne” -it’s 70’s music, we all know that, but listen to what he’s playing. Go back to Chuck Berry and play along with it. There’s just so many great players out there.
I know, when I was making my album, “Only”, back in ’99, we came into the studio the first day, and we only had two days to get that whole album done. I had four 3-hour sessions booked, and I had to cut the whole album in that time. I had 7 main songs. But what did we do? We came in and put on Michael Hedges “Aerial Boundaries” and just sat and listened and just let it wash over us, and got used to the sound of the room, and his playing beautiful playing… and then we started work.
TGJ: So you actually took studio time that you booked, out of this really tight schedule, and put it to that use?
TE: Yeah, absolutely. And, people think I sit and listen to guitar playing all the time. And nothing could be further from the truth. I could care less about studying guitar. If I want to get really blown up by a guitar player, I always go to Django. If I want my heart rate to go up, Django will do it for me every time. I just very rarely listen to guitar records.
TGJ: Is there anything inspiring you right now? Music or otherwise?
TE: Well, today I was playing Farrell Williams “Happy” about four times, just cause I wish I could write something like that, you know? How can you write something that captures the imagination of young and old, and has a great message, and goes all around the world? Now there’s a challenge!
But the other thing is, I’m always trying to take in inspiration from all sorts of different places, but you have to be yourself. You know what I mean? I can’t play like George Benson, or write like Larry Carlton, or blah, blah blah. I have to play like me and write like me, and that’s what makes me different from everybody else.
I try to tell young people, if you can stick out of a herd, great! Cause everybody else is looking at the herd, saying, “We wanna be like them,” and they’re just getting lost in the herd. But you gotta stand out.
You can do that with developing your style and writing your own songs.
TGJ: So you’d recommend that as an early practice? Go right to writing?
TE: Oh, definitely, get writing as soon as you can, if you’ve got any talent for writing. You can learn it. Just take in everything.
I didn’t learn composing on the guitar from other guitar players, I learned composing from great composers.
Stevie Wonder, Elton John, Billy Joel, James Taylor, Gordon Lightfoot, Hank Williams, Merle Haggard. I learned all their songs, and some of those unforgettable melodies and thought, “How can I write something like that?”
I listened to Alison Krauss a lot, and that’s where I got the idea for one song. It’s a simple thing, but the simple stuff is the hardest stuff to write because it’s much more meaningful. So, you know, trying to write something simple is what it’s all about. And trying to tell a story with a few notes.
I’m not trying to write songs for guitar players, I’m trying to write songs – full stop.
TGJ: Is there any process to your songwriting?
TE: I’m using all the skills I’ve learned over the years from working with other songwriters, and coming up with ideas, and “Is that interesting enough”, and “Does that move enough?”. When I first wrote one particular melody, as soon as I wrote that I went, “I gotta hear that again!”, and there – that’s when I knew I was on to something. If my instincts tell me, I gotta hear that again, then great.
I figure I’m a reasonable soundboard. I’m hard to please. But I know what a melody is that touches me. And if it’s touching me, I’ve got a feeling that it’s gonna touch you.
Now, a song like that….be careful. Cause it’ll get in your head! You’ll be humming it in your head and you’ll be doing it for days!
TGJ: Do you name your songs first? Or after?
TE: Well, “Lewis and Clark” I knew was going to be that because I had just read the journals of “Lewis and Clark”.
But this other song is called “Song for a Rainy Morning”, cause I was sitting in my hotel room in Italy, window up and the rain pouring down. And I’d had a dream about my brother and sister, that I lost last year, so I felt like I had a visit or something. But I had that melody going in my head and it wouldn’t leave me.
Same with the song I wrote for my brother I loosely based on Crocodile Dundee, He was like that, he was that kind of character.
TGJ: Do you set goals? Like, “I want to write this many songs, or “I want to play in this country”?
TE: There’s always goals. I’m always wanting to write every day, so I don’t worry about it. It’s one of the first things I learned, is not to worry. When I was younger, I would fret – if I wasn’t writing, then I was thinking, “I’m dried up, I’ve got writer’s block.” And then all of a sudden, something would happen, I’d see a movie and get a movie and, bang!, I’m off.
It just tells me that I need to be inspired to write.
So, my main issue today was practicing, and thinking about the show tonight. I didn’t feel like I needed to write anything else, or do anything else but that. That was my goal. I got here, I got settled, changed strings, started playing, and got myself in the zone for the show – and that’s where I’m at.
TGJ: It almost sounds like there’s more of a daily check-in with, “Where am I at today”, and then go with that.
TE: Even sometimes…, you know, somebody put a video of me playing back in ’98 or 2000, around that time, and my abilities were red-hot. And I”m thinking, holy sh*t, I can’t do that anymore, I can’t play stuff at that tempo anymore! So I gotta be happy playing the way I play right now.
And then there are other nights where I’ll play something and it just seems effortless. And I’ll hear it back and it’ll be like, “My God!”, I either really nailed that or it was really fast. And then the next night I go to do the same thing and… can’t do it at all. It’s a daily thing.
TGJ: What is playing on your phone or Spotify or however you listen to music right now?
TE: I don’t have music on my phone, for a start. My phone is for making phone calls and taking photos of my kids, that’s about it.
TGJ: Wait, I want to hear about this! Is this a personal discipline thing?, or “I just never get around to using the other stuff on it…”?
TE: [laughs] Nah, if I want to listen to music, I’ll put a CD on. If you went and started my car, Merle Haggard would come on. That’s the CD’s that are in the CD player, Merle Haggards’ “Hag” and “Let Me Tell You About A Song”.
TGJ: Even traveling on the road, you’re taking CD’s with you?
TE: Well, I don’t listen to music a lot on the road, I try to give my ears a rest, cause I wear hearing aids. I was born with yellow fever. So my hearing was burned out before I came into the world.
TGJ: How much ‘burned out’?
TE: 75%. I’m operating on about 25% hearing. But when I put these in, I can hear the molecules in the air.
TGJ: How did you do that early on? When you were young?
TE: I didn’t know that I was half-deaf. I had no idea. What it really is is voice frequencies. So, your voice would sound like that [puts his hand over his mouth and speaks muffled] if I took these out. They’re compensating for the frequencies that are missing.
And I found out through having a specialist test my hearing and he said, “Ask your mother what was goin on when she carried you.” And I was like, “What the hell?!” And this is when I was about 35, and I’m nearly 65 now. And I rang my mother and said, “What was going on when you were carrying me?” And she said we had yellow fever and you were born with it, and then you got pneumonia, and you were in the hospital for three months and we almost lost you. I didn’t know anything about that!
Apparently, I’m pretty lucky to be here.
But anyways, it’s tapering off. It’s getting worse as I get older. And, you know, I used to love drinking wine, and I had to stop doing that, too, because it would make me almost completely deaf. It takes all the edge off your hearing.
I’m better off without alcohol anyways. You know, my health is a lot better since I stopped drinking. Holy smokes, a LOT better.
TGJ: What would you tell an upcoming musician?
TE: Learn good songs. Make sure that you’ve got an arsenal of good songs. You’ve got to have some good ammunition to fire at the audience, that you can really pour your heart into. Because if you’re not having a great night, and you’re struggling with either the sound or the “sh*tty committee” up here [points at head] or whatever, then you better have some good songs to play.
TGJ: The authenticity approach that you have, would you recommend that to a starting out player?
TE: To the starting out player: have some good songs to play, but don’t go way beyond your abilities and be on stage struggling.
Your better off playing songs that you can play well, even if they’re not too complicated – that you can play with good feeling. That’s more important than trying to impress people with all this sh*t going on.
Learn some good songs, and practice them with a metronome. Understand what REAL time is. It’s so important. Without a groove, no one moves. You’ve got to move people, and you do that with groove.
There are enough people out there who will blow your mind who can play rings around you. But if you’re serious about having a life in music and a career that has longevity, then always play for the people. Put them first. Cause they’re the ones buying tickets. My audience is my number one priority, that’s all I care about when I go out there.
Tommy Emmanuel is a world-renown guitar player and composer, famous for his versatile thumbpicking technique, songwriting excellence, and incredible performances. To learn more about Tommy Emmanuel, visit https://tommyemmanuel.com/, or follow him on Instagram, Facebook, YouTube, Spotify, or Apple Music.