Producer and guitarist Rick Beato recently sat down with legendary guitarist Tommy Emmanuel for an hour long conversation where they discussed melody, practicing guitar, playing complicated songs, sources of inspiration and much more.
This interview is filled with insights that any guitarist can benefit from. In this post I’d like to surface a few insights that stood out to me. Let’s get started.
Throughout the interview Tommy stressed the importance of slowing things down and learning them properly before adding your own embellishments. When learning to play a melody in a song, or coming up with an arrangement, you should first learn to play the melody in its original form. Here’s Tommy: “If you want to learn a song and come up with an arrangement, you have to learn it as the composer intended…“.
Then once you are comfortable with the melody in its original form, you can begin to add your own embellishments.
Tommy also discussed how he thinks about melody and dynamics. Dynamics are a big part of his playing, and he attributes this to playing melodies like a vocalist. “What I’m trying to do is express it in a singing way, because I love singers, I love trying to do things that make the guitar more like a voice…”. Tommy doesn’t view himself as “playing the guitar”, instead he views himself as playing music on this instrument that happens to be a guitar.
The concept of surprise also came up in various forms throughout the interview. In essence surprise moments are those moments in a song that can surprise the audience. It could be through unconventional harmonies, or a particular note in a particular place. In Tommy’s case it could be through his addition of sophisticated jazz harmony in his arrangements. Here’s Tommy:
They are the surprise moments, we need to be surprised, because surprise equals entertainment, surprise to me is a beautiful thing…Tommy Emmanuel
Tommy also described a scenario that will be familiar to many up-and-coming musicians. When playing in a bar where the audience may not know your music, the audience has very short attention spans. You have to grab their attention through surprise. Read the room and keep it rocking. You have to keep things moving and grooving to keep their attention. Tommy: “I always judge how something is going by the audience’s response. Because that’s my job. My job is to play for people…”.
3. Learning complicated songs & practicing with a metronome
If you’re learning a complicated song, your focus should be on just that song. Tommy: “You don’t play anything else, only that song, until you can play it well…”. It’s about getting to a baseline comfort level with the song so you don’t need to think about it when playing it. This will unlock your ability to play the song freely, properly and to be able to add your own embellishments. You’ll no longer feel as though you are wrestling with the song, and by developing the skill of playing it your skill will turn into music.
Tommy also discussed the importance of practicing with a metronome. A metronome will help you slow down and get comfortable with a part. It will help you develop your ability to listen and get in the groove. Tommy: “I work with a metronome a lot, it’s good for me. It shows you areas where you pull back or learn forward. If you can keep the pulse going, you can move it around for the cause of emotion…”.
Throughout the interview Tommy named both guitarists and non-guitarists that have been sources of inspiration. His use of the cascading harmonics technique was directly influenced by Chet Atkins who was one of the first guitarists to make that sound on a record. Lenny Breau then took it to another level. On the topic of improvisation Tommy named Jack Pearson, Larry Carlton and Robben Ford as major sources of inspiration. He described Jack Pearson as one of the greatest improvisers he’s ever heard.
Tommy also stressed the importance of drawing inspiration from non-guitarists, “I’ve never been a guy who only studies guitar players, I couldn’t care less, the world is full with great players…”. He gave an example of watching legendary drummer Steve Gadd for inspiration, “I want to be influenced by someone as good as him, take his influence and put it to the guitar…”. This is a wonderful lesson for guitarists looking to develop an original sound. What non-guitar playing musicians can you be inspired by? Can you take an idea or technique from such a musician and re-apply it to the guitar in your own unique way? Listen to everything out there and get inspired!
Andrei Kryssov is the founder of Modern Guitar Hub, a site that publishes concise guitar-related articles and lessons for guitar players who have busy schedules. A guitarist for over 20 years, Andrei has recorded and performed with various Rock and Jazz bands.