Tommy Emmanuel’s story is an inspiring one, to be sure, but it’s also a story about inspiration. He is one of the very select few to have been designated a “Certified Guitar Player” by the late, great Chet Atkins—the very man who had been the greatest source of inspiration to him as a young boy. When Emmanuel speaks of those who inspired him, his tone is one of gratitude, but it is also clear he is thankful for the opportunity to inspire others. It seems that some of us go through life wondering what we'll be when we grow up. For Tommy Emmanuel, there evidently was no doubt. He was exposed to all kinds of music even though he lived in outback, or bush country, of Australia. He recalls never even seeing a city until he was 15 years old. Tommy's older brother Phil began playing lead or "melody guitar,” and when Tommy was four years old his mother bought him his first guitar.
It was a Maton brand, the Aussie equivalent of America’s Fender. Bill May and his brother Reg formed the Maton company (from the words “May tone”) to make guitars for the land down under shortly after WWII. Tommy still plays a Matone guitar to this day. His mother showed him a few chords, and soon he was playing with her, then he began playing rhythm chords to support brother Phil’s lead playing. Tommy’s mother and father both encouraged the development of musical talents in their kids. Tommy recalls his father, an engineer and mechanic, as a man who could fix anything—but he was crazy about music, too. From him, Tommy learned that life was about work, and about keeping things going, maintaining the things they depended on and making sure they didn’t break down.
Tommy and his siblings, Chris on drums, Phil on lead guitar and Virginia on lap steel, went on the road when they were very young. In the beginning, their father was their tireless promoter and stage announcer. After he passed away, Australian country music legend Buddy Williams took the kids under his wing, until the child welfare department put a halt to it. At age 15, forgoing more formal education, Tommy went to Sydney to pursue his musical career. He began playing in clubs and working on recording sessions, playing on jingles and eventually doing session recordings for Air Supply and Men At Work.
For the last four years, he’s played about 340 concerts a year, all over the world—a rigorous schedule, but his love of performing and experiencing other cultures keeps his spirits up and his life an adventure. It’s the playing, he reports, that keeps him going and rejuvenates him. “When the going gets hard,” he says, “you drag your ass to the finish line, because you have the faith that that’s whereyou belong.” When asked why he plays and tours so much, he responds, “I have calling. I need to play; I’m driven to play. And when I play, something good happens to all who listen to it. I don’t know what it is… I haven’t a clue, but I do know that it’s the most important thing in my life…. and of course, like every other player on the planet, I’m trying to get good. But at the same time, it’s much deeper than all that.”
When did you start playing the guitar?
How old were you?
How did that come about?
Well, I was already into music. My mother said that when I was a baby, she couldn’t get me to sleep unless she put music on near me. In those days, it was probably the record player. So, that was my destiny, I believe, and music did something to me, and it still does… it moves me in such a deep way. It’s not just a sound, or any one thing—it’s a deep experience for me.
By the time I was three and four years old, I was listening to music and wanting to play… and we attracted musicians to us, the whole family, because we were all mad about music, all of us. The good thing was that we had parents that encouraged that. So my mother bought me a little guitar, and she showed me how to play D and G and A7 and E and C… and my brother was already doing pretty well playing music—listening to records and working out how to play the melody. It was my job to be the rhythm player. That’s how I started in music, but the first person I played with was my mother.
In those days, we were into Hawaiian music. Back then there was just as much instrumental music around as there was vocal music. Living in Australia, we got to hear Hawaiian music on the radio. We got to hear a band called The Shadows… a great band, and similar to The Ventures in America. So we had powerful, powerful, beautiful music. That was our first influence. And of course country music, that’s what we listened to as well—Hank Williams, Marty Robbins, Jim Reeves, Jimmy Rogers, and people like that. That’s the music we grew up listening to. And typical Australian music… stories about Australia, poems that had been put to music, things like that.
This guitar your mother got you when you were four, was it small like a ukulele, or was it more like a normal guitar?
We did have a uke for a while, but it was… like a three-quarter size guitar. On my website, there are some photos of us when we were kids. There’s a band, and you’ll see we’ve got electric guitars. Those guitars were fairly small size, and they weren’t quite as long as a Strat or something like that. Those were Australian-made guitars, which is the brand Maton that I use still. Same brand.
How would you describe their sound?
Oh, it’s bell-like and real, and it has a character to it… it has enough depth but it’s not too deep, and it has enough high and midrange so that it’s not too nasally. It’s right in the middle; it’s really nice. When I plug my guitar in, it’s another world.
What sort of a pickup do you use?
The pickup comes with the guitar; it’s a Maton-designed pickup. The system is six individual piezos under the saddle, not just one bar, and a little microphone. That’s all connected to a preamp, and you just plug in with a normal cable—there’s no stereo out, no outside effects or EQ. It’s all onboard the guitar. You just plug in and go. And it’s the best system I know.
I notice when you’re playing percussion on the guitar, that comes through the same pickup.
That comes through the mic and the pickup. It’s a lot of mic… I mean, I drive my equipment. I know how I like to run the Maton, and I run the pickup on 10, flat out. And I run the microphone flat out too. But it varies, I can change it around, like if I play a real soft song where I need to get the melody out through the reverb (I’m using reverb on stage as well), I bring the high and midrange up a bit more, I turn the mic down a tiny bit and spike the treble on the pickup… and I play really gently, so with the right EQ you can hear everything just perfectly, and I do it all on the guitar. You don’t need to touch anything. If I want to play like a Merle Travis tune, I just spike the bass, put the microphone flat out and the pickup flat out and there I go—trouser-flapping bottom end. Boom! Boom! Boom!
I use a feedback buster. There’s a rubber plaque over the hole in the guitar, because nobody in the hall hears what comes out of your guitar. They hear what comes out of the PA. It’s common sense. I know the world is full of purists who want to try and mic up their precious acoustic guitar, but nobody hears it…. unless you’ve got the world’s best sound man, the world’s best PA and the world’s best microphones. In my line of work, I plug into an amp, I plug the amp into a PA, and every single person in the room from the front to the back hears me perfectly. That’s what I need. It’s perfectly simple.
Of course, when I’m in the studio recording, if you listen to my CD, it sounds like I’m sitting right in front of you playing, and that’s the sound I’m looking for when I make a CD. However, it’s not always a reality live. But I have certain guitars that I don’t havepickups in at all—I would never put anything in them—they’re so perfect just the way they are. And so I sit in front of a good microphone, usually a condenser mic, but that’s on rare occasions. When I record in the studio, I use two mics on my guitar and I play acoustically. Sometimes, when I use a Maton on the track, I’ll take a line out and I’ll go into my AER amplifier, which is a beautiful German amplifier. I mic the amp up as well, and I take a line out of the amp so I have two mics and two signals coming from the amp. I put the reverb that I want to use on the track on the amp signals, and I leave the microphones dry, right up in front of the mix. Therein lies the way of getting the depth and the clarity, and the real, beautiful tone of the guitar… in a natural way, while still having control of the reverb you want.
What microphones do you prefer in the studio?
I like Neumann KLM 184s. They’re about the best mic for the acoustic guitar. But I’ve played through some microphones that just knocked my socks off: Telefunken 251s, Neumann U87s, U47s, 149s—the German microphones are by far the best. But, you know, it’s different for everybody. I like an AKG414 as well. I like a big diaphragm microphone, but the KLM184s are very small microphones—and yet they have such character. It’s really beautiful, you know. But I can get a sound with a Shure Brothers [sic] SM57 if I have to.