INTERVIEW: Tommy Emmanuel

Tommy Emmanuel is one of the world’s greatest guitar treasures. He’s on the road pretty much constantly in the US, Europe and Asia; Chet Atkins famously conferred upon him the title of CGP (Certified Guitar Player); and he’s generally regarded as the finest fingerpicker in the world. But his skills were developed from an early age as a child star playing all over Australia in the Emmanuel family band, and he proudly plays Melbourne-made Maton guitars. And Tommy never forgets where he came from, returning home regularly to thrill audiences with his acoustic and electric brilliance. Tommy toured Australia 18 months ago with his brother Phil, and that tour featured plenty of electric guitar playing and a full band. But he’s back right now to play a run of acoustic dates, with special guest Frank Vignola.

Tommy was something of an underground guitar hero in the 1980s but he came to the attention of the Australian music world at large with the release of his album Determination in 1992, and its 1993 follow-up The Journey. The associated tours took Tommy and his band all around the country, playing to regional audiences not often visited by instrumental guitar acts. “That’s right,” Tommy says. “Half the guys still don’t go to Perth because it’s so far to get over there and it’s hard for them to make the kind of money they’re looking for. But I always do Perth, no matter what. You’ve got to!”

This work ethic was forged way back when the family band travelled from town to town, learning how to hold the attention of an audience no matter what. “I always remind myself that I’m in the entertainment business, and people are meant to leave feeling uplifted and for the better,” Tommy says. “That’s how it works for me. I’m going to have the most fantastic guitar players with me, two friends of mine from New York who are amazing guitar players. Australian audiences are going to be totally blown away by these guys. And then the three of us play together at the end. It’s three part harmony stuff, it’s like Les Paul and Django, that kind of music, and you just don’t hear that any more. I think it’s going to be a wonderful surprise to the audiences.”

“It was so much fun doing the electric tour,” Tommy says. “I brought that tour to Europe too. We did two months: Italy, Germany, Holland, Sweden, Norway, all that. And then we did America with the band as well, which was really good. But when it all finished and I started playing solo again it was such a feeling of freedom. Because when you’re playing with other people they have to know what’s going on, and you have a structure to work to, so everybody has to know what’s going on. And when I’m playing on my own it’s totally unstructured, and that’s what I like. I like to just fly my kite, and if I change my mind about songs, I’ll do it! And if I want to extend solos or do a key change or whatever, I’ll just jump in and do it! Everything I do is in the moment.”

So what does Tommy do to keep his playing in form? “I don’t always set challenges, but I definitely go through periods of working on certain things like strength, or I try to come up with new arrangements and things like that, and I try to force myself to think outside of the box a little. You get so comfortable doing your own thing and in your own world that maybe you need to step outside of that, out of your comfort zone. I definitely try to do that with some of my arrangements. I try to make myself think in a totally different way. But I’ve been working a lot on building my show and improving what I do, and I’ve changed my guitars around. I’m getting a better sound now and I think I’m playing better this year than I was last year.”

The guitar change isn’t too drastic though: “I’m still playing Matons, of course! But I’ve retired my old beat-up one. It’s finally kicked the bucket. So I’m now using one of the 808s that Andy from the Maton Custom Shop made for me a few years back. I’ve got that out of mothballs, and man oh man, it sounds great. It’s a great-sounding Maton. I’ve been using three 808s on the road: one with a G tuning and one with bigger strings and tuned down a tone. So I’ve got three different sounds, three different tunings.”

Emmanuel sometimes expresses himself through other brands too, although he will always be identified as Maton’s greatest ambassador: “Just a few weeks ago we were in Pennsylvania and I went to the Martin factory, and wow, that was a beautiful experience. It really was. Actually, when I’ve been doing jazz things, like with Frank Vignola and Martin Taylor, I’ve been using an old 1930 Martin 0-17 with a pickup system in it and a mic on it. It sounds a little bit like Django but a little more woody and acoustic. It’s a beautiful sound.”

On the amplification front Tommy still uses AER amplifiers, with the AER Pocket Tools Colorizer providing a smooth direct signal to the PA while the amplifier adds its tonal mojo too. Although he’s not playing electric on this tour, Tommy has a collection of beautiful Fender amps, but he recently picked up a Paul Reed Smith amplifier too. “What a great guy,” Tommy says of Smith. “He didn’t give that to me – I went out and bought it. A lot of people have bought his amps – they sound amazing. And I’m really fussy when it comes to amps. I’ve got some wonderful Fender amps, but this Paul Reed Smith has such a wonderful tone. It’s the one with the 112 speaker and it’s just beautiful! Paul actually gave me some beautiful guitars a few years back, and he’s one of the kindest people I know.”

Tommy’s electric guitar collection includes some nice Maton Mastersounds as well as, of course, his battered old Fender Telecaster. “I don’t get a chance to play a lot of electric at the moment, but I do use the Matons on the road. Nothing comes close really. And the old Telecaster, it’s a 1966 Custom. I bought it privately in about 1971. It has Bartolini Super Strat pickups in in and I’ve got big frets on it. It just sounds like a big Tele sound. The traditional Fender sound, but it’s just bigger with the Bartolini pickups in it. But those Matons are so good. They really are.”

TOMMY EMMANUEL “LIVE AND ACOUSTIC” AUSTRALIAN TOUR DATES

Sunday August 5 – Adelaide Guitar Festival at Festival Theatre, SA

Monday August 6 – Sydney Opera House NSW

Wednesday August 8 – Enmore Theatre, Sydney NSW

Thursday August 9 – QPAC Brisbane QLD

Friday August 10 – Jupiters Theatre Gold Coast QLD

Saturday August 11 – Hamer Hall Arts Centre Melbourne VIC

Sunday August 12 – Perth Concert Hall WA

Thursday August 16 – Bruce Mason Centre Auckland NZ

Saturday August 18 – Founders Theatre Hamilton NZ

Sunday August 19 – The Opera House Wellington NZ