I’m crushed to hear of the passing of Phil Emmanuel, following an asthma attack last night at age 65. A brilliant player and a great guy. If you ever saw him play – solo or with Tommy – you witnessed a player who could go from country to surf to Satriani in the space of a bar, all with a cheeky smile. His album Kakadu Sunrise is an eclectic, beautifully-executed celebration of the guitar and his various musical interests, but it was onstage that Phil really came into his own. He was a brilliant mimic on the guitar, not in an unoriginal, copycat kind of way but in an ‘entertain the people by any means necessary’ way. His playing was more hard-rock than Tommy’s in many ways, but he could play the hell out of a country chicken pickin’ lick or an Irish jig, imitate pedal steel like the real thing, convince you that you were listening to Hank Marvin in 1963, then throw in a Van Halen lick just for kicks.
The sense of humour and fun in his playing was undeniable and he clearly lived to play. Phil and Tommy released a brilliant album called Terra Firma in 1995 which captured their intuitive musical language and fun, but part of Phil’s magic was that he brought that same joy with him whether he was playing with his brother or with a pick-up band at a pub. A few years ago Phil and Tommy toured together to celebrate 50 years of making music together (they started when they were absolutely tiny) and it was exactly as amazing as you’d expect, with the brothers pushing each other to ridiculous levels of performance.
Phil sort of took me under his wing when I was about 15. He would do clinics and gigs locally quite often because his keyboard player, Simon Mills, had a piano store called London Music that also sold Valley Arts guitars and Soldano amps. I’ll never forget the first time I met him. Simon introduced us and we talked guitar for ages. Phil even sneakily bought me a beer that night and he tried to persuade my mum to let me hang out with the lads and have a few more and stuff me in a taxi at the end of the night, haha. (Mum said no). I saw him many more times over the next few years, and when I did Work Experience at London Music he gave me a few guitar pointers, particularly about focusing on melody and keeping it fun.
Thanks for everything, Phil. My deepest condolences to Tommy and family.