A Few Minutes With Tommy Emmanuel

Tommy Emmanuel talks about his craft. “I have to be honest and say I’m a selfish guy,” the guitarist extraordinaire told Pollstar.  “I only play for myself.  Everybody else gets a chance to listen.”

Thankfully, Emmanuel gives fans plenty of opportunities to listen.  The two-time Grammy nominee has a hefty touring schedule with dates planned from now to late November.

Emmanuel’s first Grammy nomination was for his work on the album he recorded with his hero Chet Atkins – 1997’s The Day Finger Pickers Took Over The World.  “Smokey Mountain Lullabye” was the track that caught The Recording Academy’s attention, resulting in a Best Country Instrumental Performance nod.  Atkins was so impressed with the Australian guitarist that he honored him with the title “Certified Guitar Player,” a citation given to only four other musicians.

Almost 10 years later he his recording of “Gameshow Rag/Cannonball Rag” from his 2006 album, The Mystery, earned the guitarist another nomination for Best Country Instrumental Performance.

Emmanuel’s 2014 release brings new fans up to speed.  Released in 2014, The Guitar Mastery of Tommy Emmanuel draws from his albums Endless Road, Little By Little and The Mystery. The double CD set also contains a few live recordings of “Mombasa,” “Questions” and his popular “Beatles Medley.”

While preparing for his 2015 tour, Emmanuel spoke with Pollstar about his love for performing, what he looks for in a venue, and what he plays to entertain himself. 

Photo: Allan Clarke

What do you enjoy about touring that keeps you coming back year after year?

I’ve always done it.  I’ve never done anything else but tour and play ever since I was a kid. I did live in Sydney for 15 years but I went out on tour during that period and I was a studio player.  I enjoyed the road.  The reason I tour so much nowadays is, firstly, you never look a gift horse in the mouth and I’m so thrilled with how things have gone.  A lot of hard work has gone into creating a touring situation for me where I have built an audience very slowly.  I really enjoy playing concerts and … meeting people.  It’s in my blood and I never wanted to do anything else.

When I was a kid, playing concerts and playing music was my dream.

Because of the amount of touring you do, are you a ghost to your neighbors?

No, because I know all my neighbors.  They’re lovely people.  We don’t see each other that often because I’m always away.  In fact, I wouldn’t see them unless I went and visited them.  When I come back they kind of leave us be.

Times are different nowadays.  When I was a kid, all our neighbors got together, all the kids played together, we all went bike riding, fishing, did all that kind of stuff.  These days, if you don’t go knocking on the door and talk with people, you don’t see them.  People lead quite sheltered lives nowadays.  I guess some of it is out of fear … they got what they want and they’re comfortable.

How do you approach covering a song?

It’s got to be good enough for me to want to pursue.  If I’m doing a cover of a song, then I’ve personally got to love the song.  I’ve got to know and feel that it’s strong enough for me to make it into my own kind of thing and make the arrangement really work and stand up on its own without anything else.  The funny thing is, people say they like the way I interpret Beatles music.  Well, you really can’t go wrong with Beatles music. It’s so laid out, so beautifully written.  But that doesn’t mean that every Beatles song makes a good instrumental.  I’ve carefully chosen the ones I felt really made strong arrangements and I can put my own kind of stamp and personality on it.

People are often saying, “Why don’t you play ‘Blackbird’ and why don’t you play …” And it’s like, “That doesn’t work for me.  It may work for you but it doesn’t work for me.” I have to feel absolutely 1,000 percent confident that when I play this song that it’s all going to work and I can play it to any audience, anywhere.  I’m pretty fussy when it comes to that kind of thing and I think that kind of quality control came to me early through people like Chet Atkins, who did a lot of covers in his life and had some good success with that.  But he carefully chose the songs and the arrangements. 

As a composer I try to do the same thing with my own songs, that when you hear them you want to hear them again, and they get into your psyche.

Has a song ever stumped you?

Thousands of them (laughs). Like [Dave] Brubeck’s “Blue Rondo.” … tthat thing, I’ve tried many times to work it out. … If you ask me to play it, I can play it for you but I’m not going to run out there and show off with it.  It’s one of those songs that’s so demanding.  I feel that I need too much concentration and everything to be able to relax and enjoy playing it.  I can play “Take Five” and all that kind of stuff, but it’s not one of those things I would spend a lot of time on.  Whereas, a song like “Old Man River,” I’ve listened to everybody sing it, from Paul Robeson to Frank Sinatra to … you name it.  I love playing that tune.  I’ve never played it on stage but I may start doing that because I’ve worked up an arrangement of it.

I get attached to a song, usually, through the person.  I read the story of Paul Robeson, which moved me greatly.  And I thought, “I’m going to give this song a go. There’s a story behind it.  There’s a soul behind it.”

Are there songs that you play for your own enjoyment but have never played on stage?

Probably Django [Reinhardt] songs.  When I’m jamming I love to play his tunes just for fun. Especially with other players who love that kind of manouche jazz music as well. 

I love the blues as well, Stevie Ray Vaughan’s stuff, Albert King, Albert Collins, B.B. King, I like all that kind of music as well. [But] when I’m playing, I’m usually trying to write something.

It sounds like, when you’re not writing, recording or performing,  you still play just for the joy of playing music.

I always play for my own enjoyment.  I have to be honest and say I’m a selfish guy.  I only play for myself.  Everybody else gets a chance to listen.

When working on new material, is there someone who acts like a sounding board or is it strictly a solitary experience?

It’s mostly solitary.  I’ll write a song and record it on my iPhone, listen back to it and use my instincts. Everything I’ve learned along the way, the craft of songwriting, so to speak.  I use all the tools that I’ve gathered through my lifetime to make sure that everything about what I’m doing is right and that I think it’s strong enough. I very rarely labor over things too much.  I think it’s why I need to be inspired.  I use the feeling of being inspired to kind of push me through making decisions on where the song should go.

How do you discover music that might be candidates for your interpretations?

I like all kinds of music.  I listen to the radio, I listen to CDs, I listen on my computer. I listen to music through movies and all that sort of stuff. 

A guy asked me about some music for a TV series that’s going to be made soon.  He sent me the script and I found three songs of my own that I thought might really suit [it].  It was interesting going back to the stuff I did in the ‘90s.  I found one song that I thought might be perfect for that.  I’m trying to expand myself into all areas and see the challenge of coming up with music that suits film as part of what I do as well.

Do you walk around the room before the show and size it up for sound?

My soundman and I are like one.  We work together really closely.  Generally, if there’s something to note, he’ll tell me.  He’ll tell me, “This room has a lot of echo.” Or, “this room has a slapback.” And you gotta know I’m going to make it sound right out front.  When I come on the stage I play through my equipment and then he turns the P.A. on and we have a kind of feeling of how it is, and if I need something I’ll tell him.  Then we bring the monitors up last and we get a good balance between the monitors and the house and I try to find a place where I have a good feeling to play.  I walk around a little. I’ll talk to him and say, “Am I giving you everything you need?  Is the house a midrange?”  Stuff like that.

When you’re playing a big hall and it’s full of people, it’s usually fantastic.

When you’re performing, it always looks as if you’re having the most fun in the room.

Absolutely.  I have the best seat in the house.

Does it sometimes seem as if the Australian music world and the music scene in America occupy different universes?

I think they’re fairly similar, actually.  I think Australia is a lot more like a rough diamond and America is this kind of polished gemstone. … There’s a lot of everything in both countries.  There are a lot of singer/songwriters, pop music, rock ‘n’ roll music, grunge music, heavy metal, classical, country music.  Australia’s a small country as far as population goes, compared to the United States.  We have 24 million or something and you have 300 million here.  I’ve lived here for 14 years and it still amazes me how many people are here and how much room there still is.

What’s the best thing about being Tommy Emmanuel?

Getting to play music every day is the best thing.  Having that opportunity to play for people and make a difference in their lives. … When people say, “You’re such a hero to so many people” – that’s bullshit.  I’m not [a hero].  I’m a guitar player giving people a good time.  A hero is a guy who runs into the burning building and saves a baby.  I look at it that way. But it’s my way of serving humanity, by doing what it is I was born to do. Show up and do your best, that’s kind of my attitude.

Upcoming Tommy Emmanuel shows:

Feb. 5 – Northridge, Calif., Plaza del Sol Concert Hall
Feb. 6 – Fresno, Calif., Tower Theatre
Feb. 7 – Modesto, Calif., The State Theatre Of Modesto
Feb. 8 – Santa Cruz, Calif., Rio Theatre
Feb. 10 – Arcata, Calif., John Van Duzer Theatre
Feb. 11 – Redding, Calif., Cascade Theatre
Feb. 13 – San Francisco, Calif., Palace Of Fine Arts Theatre
Feb. 14 – San Francisco, Calif., Palace Of Fine Arts Theatre
Feb. 16 – Salt Lake City, Utah, Kingsbury Hall
Feb. 17 – Boise, Idaho, Egyptian Theatre
Feb. 19 – Seattle, Wash., Moore Theatre
Feb. 20 – Portland, Ore., Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall
March 5 – Fort Myers, Fla., Barbara B. Mann Perf. Arts Hall
March 6 – Clearwater, Fla., Capitol Theatre
March 7 – Clearwater, Fla., Capitol Theatre
March 8 – Orlando, Fla., Plaza Live Orlando
March 12 – Harrisburg, Pa., Sunoco Performance Theater
March 13 – Glenside, Pa., Keswick Theatre
March 14 – Hartford, Conn., Infinity Hall Hartford
March 15 – Alexandria, Va., The Birchmere
March 16 – Alexandria, Va., The Birchmere
March 24 – Oslo, Norway, Sentrum Scene
March 25 – Aalborg, Denmark, Musikkens Hus
March 26 – Copenhagen, Denmark, Koncerthuset
March 28 – Linkoping, Sweden, Konsert & Kongress
March 29 – Goteborg, Sweden, Konserthuset
March 30 – Stockholm, Sweden, Cirkus
March 31 – Malmo, Sweden, Palladium
April 1 – Malmo, Sweden, Palladium
April 13 – Vladivostok, Russia, Fesco Hall
April 14 – Khabarovsk, Russia, City Palace Of Culture
April 15 – Krasnoyarsk, Russia, Grand Hall Siberia
April 17 – Kiev, Ukraine, October Palace
April 21 – Moscow, Russia, Crocus City Hall
April 22 – Samara, Russia, Samarskaya Gosudarstvennaya Filarmoniya
April 23 – St. Petersburg, Russia, Palace Of Culture Gorky
April 27 – Riga, Latvia, Congress Centre
April 28 – Vilnius, Lithuania, Congress Hall
April 29 – Tallinn, Estonia, Concert Hall
May 15 – Victoria, British Columbia, McPherson Playhouse
May 16 – Vancouver, British Columbia, The Vogue Theatre
May 19 – Edmonton, Alberta, Myer Horowitz Theatre
May 21 – Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Broadway Theatre
May 23 – Winnipeg, Manitoba, Garrick Centre
May 25 – Montreal, Quebec, Salle Pierre Mercure
May 26 – Toronto, Ontario, Bluma Appel Theatre
May 27 – Toronto, Ontario, Bluma Appel Theatre
June 18-22 – White Castle, La., Nottoway Plantation (Tommy Emmanuel’s Guitar Camp)
Sept. 18 – Las Vegas, Nev., Railhead At Boulder Station
Sept. 19 – Las Vegas, Nev., Rocks Lounge At Red Rock Casino
Oct. 31 – Singapore, Singapore, Esplanade Concert Hall 
Nov. 15 – Charleston, S.C., Charleston Music Hall

For more information, please visit Tommy Emmanuel’s website, Facebook page, YouTube channel, Twitter feed and Flickr page.