Emmanuel has been playing guitar since age 4 and was a working musician by age 6. His guitars of choice are his custom Matons, made from indigenous woods in his native Australia. Photo by Jamey Firnberg

You’ve got an uncanny way of taking the Travis approach to new places, like on “The Bug.”
I’m glad you mentioned that because the song’s about my wife—The Bug is her nickname. She’s old-fashioned, which is a real beautiful quality, and that’s why it’s in an old-timey style. I tried to write something that’s full of life, like she is. I call it the never-ending song because it never resolves. [Plays the main theme to “The Bug,” transcribed in Ex. 1.] And then to play over those chords I found this … [Plays a variation on the theme—see Ex. 2.]

What a lovely progression. How did you develop such a sophisticated sense of harmony?
I don’t think it’s that sophisticated—have you ever heard of Lenny Breau? [Laughs.] Now that’s sophistication! I just try to write things that please my ear. I’m always trying to look for ways of doing harmonies that are a little different from what you’d expect from a guitar player. Like for instance, when I did an arrangement of [the Burt Bacharach song] “Close to You,” I found sounds that are unusual. [Plays a chord-melody version of “Close to You” with extensive chord substitutions.]

What I really want to do is surprise you, the listener, with things that tickle your ear, so I found a way of making things sound unexpected and unresolved. If everything sounds too sweet, then after a while, it all sounds boring. You’ve got to do things that keep the music interesting.

“If I play a song in a concert and someone films me, it’s on YouTube that night and there are four other versions by 6 a.m.”

There was an old song—it’s probably long before your time—I recorded on an album a couple of years ago. Called “Secret Love,” it was originally done by Doris Day. I found a way to play the melody in natural harmonics. [Plays the song’s A section.] And then when the bridge comes around I do this ... [Plays a passage with thorny harmonies and harp harmonics.] It took me a while to find those chords, but I knew they were there.

How did you find them?
I find where the melody is first, and then I just go looking for those shapes. I have to practice to make the melody flow well, while keeping the backing underneath and making it all fluid. I try to think of it like I’m singing, keeping the melody moving but at the same time offering those little musical surprises, which are the unresolved chord sounds.

Speaking of Lenny Breau, you really use those harp harmonics to excellent effect.
That’s a sound I first heard from Chet Atkins, and Lenny really perfected it. I use those sounds a lot—there’s this group here. [Plays a colorful progression using harp harmonics.] I just go looking for shapes that musically make sense and have an intriguing sound. Chet did a version of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” on his album Chet Atkins Goes to the Movies, from around ’76. On the intro, the bass guitar plays the melody while Chet plays those beautiful harmonics.

I worked those out when I was young and just kept working on it. Every now and then I go looking for new stuff, new shapes and sounds. But it’s the same technique, a combination of harmonic notes and fretted notes as well, the two together creating that beautiful harp-like sound.

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In a rare televised appearance, Tommy Emmanuel plays a seasonal favorite with a hero, Chet Atkins.

What guitars did you play on the record?
Mostly my custom Maton guitars, two signature-model EBG808TEs, which are made in Melbourne, Australia. They’re made from indigenous woods—maple from the northern part of Australia, which has a lot of the qualities of mahogany, actually, with a deeper sound than U.S. maple.

I used those two guitars for most of the tracks, though on a couple of songs I played my Larrivée, which Jean Larrivée gave me a long time ago. It’s a cutaway with a neck that meets the body at the 12th fret, though I couldn’t tell you exactly what model it is. It’s got rosewood back and sides and a bear-claw spruce top. That guitar is a cannon—it’s a wonder.

The guitars sound very natural on this album. How did you record them?
I didn’t plug in or use any electronics. I just put one mic—an old Neumann from the ’50s— in front of the guitar, found a good spot, and there it stayed.

In general, I don’t spend a lot of time recording—in fact, I wish I had more time for recording. A lot of times I write the songs, play them live to make sure everything is working, and then go into the studio for a day or two and pretty much get everything done. I try to play as if before an audience. To be playing guitar in front of a mic while wearing headphones—that’s the zone for me. I enjoy it so much and it really brings out the best in my playing when I can listen and examine what I’m doing, as I’m going.

Getting back to the title track, have you played it for your new daughter?
Yes—I love playing for Rachel and she loves music. She already knows her song. As soon as she hears it, she gets this look on her face. It’s the best thing in life, it really is.

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The fingerstyle wizard demonstrates his approach to solo guitar in a TEDx talk.