Do you play with a thumbpick?
I do. I play with a thumbpick and with a straight pick, and without any pick at all. My nails don’t sound any good… so I don’t use them to play. I found an alternative way, and it’s kind of developed over my life. I constantly switch from thumbpicking to straight pick playing, and I do it with a thumbpick. I can flatpick with a thumbpick. I have to improvise my way of doing things, because I don’t have the luxury of having a second guitar player who can play rhythm for me while I solo and change to a pick. I want to flatpick a solo, but I want to thumbpick the verses and sing it, so I just have to do it all with a thumbpick.
Which thumbpick do you use?
A real thick type… I have some Dunlop picks, the heavy ones. Dunlop mediums are good, too. I don’t like a thumb pick that’s real thin, or that’s really flexible. I like it to be stiff like a piece of iron.
What strings do you use?
I vary them. I use Martins, GHS, Everly strings, D’Addario. I vary them, I don’t stick with the same strings. The only strings I don’t use are coated strings. I don’t like coated strings. I use Phosphor bronze and 80/20. On my little main guitar, the one that I’m using mostly, that one has .012 to .054, and the other two guitars that I carry on the road have .013 to .056 on them.
What about open tunings?
I use a tuning that I got from Chet, and I’ve been writing a lot of songs in that tuning. It’s the E string down to D, and the A string down to G, and everything else stays the same. When you strum it open, it’s like a G6 with a D bass, a very interesting tuning…. On my big guitar that I play the aboriginal song on, that’s just big strings tuned down… just normal guitar tuning, but when you play it open, the E is a C♯. It’s down two tones.
And you use some sort of echo unit?
On stage, I use a digital delay, an Alesis MidiVerb II. It’s old technology from the ‘80s, and it’s wonderful—real simple. I’m getting the feedback, and the sustain and the sounds of other instruments, I’m getting it all using way too much EQ on my guitar. I’m overdriving everything. I’m also getting very close to my amp and causing the feeback… and then I’m using all that to create those sounds. I’m taking an acoustic instrument into an area where it’s not really designed to go. But it can go there if you push it.
It’s a very organic way of doing it. I’m not using loops or digital sounds. I’m not using other sounds. I’m just using a delay and making the whole guitar vibrate in my hands.
I saw you playing it with your hand and with a drum brush…
Oh, that was my song “Mombasa,” where I was playing a percussion solo.
Is your guitar all beat up because you keep doing that to it?
I don’t really care what it looks like as long as it does the job for me. I can play music on it, and I can beat out rhythms on it, turn it from a guitar to a drum in a second. The guitar is just a wooden box, isn’t it?
How long have you played that particular guitar?
It was brand new in April of 2003. It’s had a hard life.
There’s a beauty in what you do as an instrumentalist—that there’s nothing lost in the translation of the language. Everyone can understand what you do.
That’s right, exactly. I’ve played in places where they’ve never seen a white man play the guitar. I took battery-powered amplifiers to the Rift Valley in Kenya and played for the Maasai, out there under the stars—and they loved it. As soon as I played, they danced. That’s why Ithink traveling is a rich experience for me, and I inhale everyone else’s cultures. I try to learn from it and see what I can do with it, with whatever I have. I’m just a humble white kid from down under who had no education. I ran away from school, and I never had guitar lessons, I don’t read music. I do everything by ear, and my life every day is improvised.
Which guitar players have you studied?
Well, the first person I really studied was Chet Atkins. I didn’t need to go much further than that, because there was so much to his body of work. It still is amazing. But I’ve listened to music of every genre. I’ve listened to metal music, rock ‘n’ roll, classical, country music, jazz, punk—you name it and I’ve listened to it, and I still do that. The music that touches me most, apart from indigenous music of other countries, is the music of great singer/songwriters. What touches me is what touches you, songs that move your heart and tell a story, and really are soulful. Like most of the world, the ones who really grab me are the ones who are for real, like Billy Joel, Stevie Wonder, Eric Clapton, Elton John—all the biggies. They’re the guys who write the songs that touch the whole world. That’s what I’m interested in doing... I like to hear a great musician pouring his heart out up there.
We have a world full of passion and people who want to play music, who are driven, and there’s a reason for all that. We need that in our lives. We don’t need where the world is going, in the computer age, to separate us, you know. Music brings us together. It’s a powerful force. It’s the most positive force in this world. And that’s the way that it’s meant to be.
How do you feel about the world of computers and technology?
Oh, it’s incredible! It’s amazing, and I’ll tell you what it’s doing in my world. I’m seeing young people play much more complicated and difficult music at a younger age, because they’ve seen someone else do it, and they’ve watched it a hundred thousand times, and they’ve been able to figure it out. It’s absolutely amazing. There are some kids out there, 12 and 14 years old, who are playing amazing things that I could never have dreamed of playing when I was their age. It’s all because they’re inspired by what they see and hear. Brilliant.
You’re into the internet and computers yourself?
A little bit. I don’t profess to know a lot about it. I have people who organize my website and things like Facebook and MySpace and all those things. I have pages on there, and I have hundreds of thousands of people that I communicate with, but I don’t know how to do it, and I don’t have time. I have to employ people to run MySpace and Facebook for me, because there’s enough interest out there to do it. And I’m willing to put up the money to do it, because I want people to get their questions answered. That’s what life’s all about; we’re here to communicate with each other.
You idolized Chet Atkins as a boy, listened to his music—and then you got to meet him.
Absolutely. Boy, he just led the way so beautifully for so many people. And when he got in a position to help others, that’s all he did. He was such a great, great human being… I think he’s been, in my eyes, probably the greatest example of a human being who would do all he could do help you. There wasn’t anything he wouldn’t do for anyone else—a brilliant guy and a great leader of people. He was a great motivator, and he recognized talent and knew how to nurture it and encourage people. People don’t know how powerful it is, the things they say. I remember things I read that he had said, that I still draw on, that I still marvel at. If you want to find out about things, listen to people who've been there and done it. Learn from there.
When did you meet Chet Atkins?
I didn’t meet him until 1980. I had been into his music since 1962, when I first heard him. It was quite a journey. I was so enthralled by what I heard. Most people said, “It’s a recording trick. It’s them damn Yankees,” you know? “You can’t really do all that stuff at once. It’s impossible.” I just didn’t believe that at all. I could hear what was going on, and I don’t know how to explain that, but I could hear what he was doing… I just kept working on it, and when I got it, it was like the heavens opened. I couldn’t believe it, it was like a door opened and I ran through there. I started to work out songs. I just couldn’t get enough of his music. I’d wear out albums, and I’d be waiting in line for the next one at the music store. I’d go in and buy the new Chet Atkins record, and I could hardly get a breath, I’d be so excited… run home and put the needle down and have a listen to it… I never thought about anything else, you know. I never wanted to do anything else… except chase girls, of course.
Of course. How did you come to actually get to know him personally?
I wrote him when my dad died. I was eleven. I retreated into music, completely for a while, and I would sit and listen to his music and stare at his albums, and I realized there was an address on the back of one of them. So, I wrote a letter to Chet Atkins, RCA Studios, Nashville, Tennessee, America, and I sent it, and he got it.
About three months later, a letter came back to me, from him. It was a photograph signed to me, and a little letter saying, “I’m glad you’re playing the guitar, and I’d love to hear you play. I didn’t know that anybody knew me so far away…” and he said, “my regards to your family, and I hope we get to meet one day.” Years later, I was visiting friends and playing for them… and people would record me all the time. Somebody started sending him tapes of me playing—I didn’t know that. I would’ve been highly embarrassed had I known. I got another letter, just out of the blue, and it said, “Tommy is a very good player, and I’d like to meet him. Here is the phone number of my office. Have him call me.”
In 1980, I made a trip to the United States, and I got into Nashville, and I called his office. I said, “It’s Tommy Emmanuel from Australia.” And he said, “Well, where are you?” I said, “I’m down the road,” and he said, “Well come down here. I’ll see you now.” So I got in the car and came down to his office. He came down the stairs with his guitar and said, “You want to pick a little?” We sat and played for about half an hour; it was absolutely the greatest day of my life. I’ll never forget it. He took me upstairs and introduced me to Lenny Breau, who blew my mind. I don’t know a great guitar player who isn’t influenced by or in awe of Lenny Breau. He was the greatest of all time, and I’m not exaggerating. But it’s not commercial at all.
Two Maton EBG808 with .012-.054 strings
Maton TE Series TE1 with .013-.056 strings
AER Alpha smplifer Countryman Type 85 FET DI Alesis MidiVerb II TC Electronics M-One Reverb
I’ve never turned back since then. My dream was for us [Chet and I] to record together,and that ended up happening. It was the last album that Chet made, this album of duets with me—that was in 1996.
How do you define commercial music?
Well, there are two ways, I think. People could say, “It’s commercial if radio will play it.” I say it’s commercial if everybody from your granddaughter to your grandfather likes it… if people in general really like it, if it gets to people out there.
Do you feel your audiences are children to older people also?
Yes. My audiences are really broad. I’m really grateful for that, because it’s really great to inspire kids, and it’s great to be inspired by people you meet. You know, older people need a little excitement in their lives, too, and they get a really good time coming to my shows. They laugh and they have a good time—I’m an entertainer who plays the guitar, that’s what I am.