Tommy Emmanuel: On the Power of Inspiration
September 18, 2009
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.
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
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.