Certified Guitar Player: Tommy Emmanuel
By Janelle Landauer
It's hard to classify Tommy Emmanuel's instrumental guitar music into one specific genre. As Emmanuel explained in a recent interview, "it's kind of part country, part blues, part jazz, part rock-n-roll."
Though instrumental music is not heard that often on "country" radio, Emmanuel still has a lot of country influences in his fingerstyle guitar playing. Emmanuel recently released his DVD entitled: "Live At Her Majesty's Theatre: Ballarat, Australia" on July 11, 2006. Emmanuel also released his new studio album, "The Mystery" on August 22, 2006. Both projects feature Emmanuel's fiancée Elizabeth Watkins. Watkins is an accomplished singer and songwriter from the United States.
Emmanuel began playing guitar at the young age of four. Growing up and to this point in his career, Emmanuel has achieved so much. He explains, "I think the first kind of success I had in my life was during TV shows like competition kind of shows that were on in the early 60's when I was a little boy. I won several of them. And then, I think probably years later, when I got my first platinum album in Australia as an instrumentalist. It set a new record in my country. No instrumentalists had ever gone past a gold record and they weren't Australians anyway, they were overseas instrumental acts. So, I was really the first Australian to achieve that kind of sales in notoriety and instrumental music."
Emmanuel is beyond doubt one of the best guitar players out there. He was greatly influenced in his life by the legendary Chet Atkins, who eventually gave him the title "cgp - certified guitar player." "I first met Chet in 1980 when I came here to Nashville the first time. It was a great, great experience. I was a young man full of hope and I was so excited to meet him as you could imagine. He's like a God to us. And, it was so great to meet him. He was so nice to me and encouraging and he was all his life, right until the end," said Emmanuel. He goes on to explain how the title "cgp" came about. "That was in 99. And I knew nothing about it. It was a total surprise for me. And, Chet in his speech said: that this award was for my lifetime contribution to the Art of fingerstyle guitar. And, I'll never forget him for that."
Interview with Tommy Emmanuel
How would you describe your style of music for those who haven't heard you yet?
Well, I guess it's kind of part country, part blues, part jazz, part rock-n-roll.
How and when did your first break in the music industry come about?
I've been playing guitar all my life. (Bit over 45 years now) I think the first kind of success I had in my life was during TV shows like competition kind of shows that were on in the early 60's when I was a little boy. I won several of them. And then, I think probably years later, when I got my first platinum album in Australia as an instrumentalist. It set a new record in my country. No instrumentalists had ever gone past a gold record and they weren't Australians anyway, they were overseas instrumental acts. So, I was really the first Australian to achieve that kind of sales in notoriety and instrumental music.
What do you like about touring? What do you dislike?
Well, I dislike being away from my children, but I love touring because of the people I meet and the experiences that I have and the things that I see. There's no words that can describe it. There is so much to see in this world and I think the people (the people that are put in my path from time to time) really blessed my life in a big way.
Do you have a favorite song to perform live?
I love playing all songs and I like all styles of music. I think probably - It's a song I wrote in Africa called "Mombasa" where I get to play like a drum and percussion solo on my guitar. That's so much fun. It really turns the audience on. So, I guess that's one of my favorites.
While you're on the road, how do you balance your career with your family and friends?
It's hard to get a balance. With my children, we're on the phone all the time. We text each other a lot. In my travels from time to time, especially when I'm in Europe, I will go in New England where my children are and pick them up and bring them on the road with me.
Does Elizabeth perform on any of the tour dates with you?
Oh, absolutely, she does.
One of our favorite songs is your duet with Elizabeth - Walls. Can you tell us why you decided to record it on your new album?
We fell in love with that song last year when we were touring in Australia. My manager Gina had got a copy of an album by one of the composers, Pam Rose. And, Pam sings with Emmylou Harris. And, I've known Pam for awhile as a writer and a singer. Anyway, we got her album and we just fell in love with that song. We loved the message of it. And, I said to her one day "Why don't we try it as a duet?" And it just came about that it worked perfectly for us. We liked the message of the song We liked to sing it, so we decided to put it on there.
Do you have a favorite song on your new CD? If so, what is it and why is it your favorite song?
Lewis & Clark. I think it's one of the best melodies I've written.
What is your favorite song that you've written overall on guitar?
Let's see. I'd say "Those Who Wait."
Where do you find the ideas and inspirations when writing songs?
They come upon you. A songwriter waits patiently for inspiration and it comes, but it takes some time. Sometimes it can be 3 months before you get a good idea. I'm usually very much inspired by people I meet and their stories and the feeling I get from being with them. Sometimes if I'm in the most unusual place or a place that gives me a lot of feelings, a lot of joy, I end up writing from that experience. I remember there was a song on my "Endless Road" album called "Bella Soave." Belle is Italian. It means "beautiful." So Bella Soave... Beautiful Soave, up in the mountains outside of Verona, that song just came to me in minutes.
How would you describe the whole process of recording your new album, The Mystery and what is a typical day in the studio like for you?
I don't spend too many days in the studio. My album, "Endless Road" took 2 days to make and the new album, "The Mystery" was 4 days. And, basically we start about 10 o'clock in the morning. Get everything all set up and ready. I sit in front of the microphones and move around until I get a sound that I really like. And then away we go and record the songs one after the other. I don't spend a lot of time because most of the things I play are either one or two takes and that's about it.
What goals do you feel you have accomplished so far and what do you still hope to accomplish?
My main goal in life when I was young, when I was a little boy in Australia was to meet Chet Atkins and record with him and that happened. That was a real dream come true for me. I guess to have children was another great thing that I wanted to do in my life. I wanted to be a dad. And, I guess traveling around the world and doing what I'm doing now has been the vision from my life from when I was young. My vision of where I was going was that I belonged in bigger stages, in concert halls, guitar festivals and I wanted to be up there. And, making a difference in people's lives using the power of music to change people's lives.
Can you tell us more about your experiences of playing with Chet Atkins?
I first met Chet in 1980 when I came here to Nashville the first time. It was a great, great experience. I was a young man full of hope and I was so excited to meet him as you could imagine. He's like a God to us. And, it was so great to meet him. He was so nice to me and encouraging and he was all his life, right until the end. He was one of the best friends I ever had. He truly was like a dad to me. I lost my dad when I was 11 years old and Chet really filled that gap when I got a little older. We always had a great time playing together and I learned so much from him. I, not only learned so much from him, but I stole so much from him as well which is what he encouraged me to do. In fact, he said, "We don't own it. Just steal it and make it your own. Do something else with it." And, I encourage young people to do the same thing with me.
For those who don't know, can you explain when and how you were given the title "certified guitar player" by Chet Atkins?
That was in 99. And I knew nothing about it. It was a total surprise for me. And, Chet in his speech said: that this award was for my lifetime contribution to the Art of fingerstyle guitar. And, I'll never forget him for that.
Who has been the greatest influence in your life? (music related or not)
I think Hank Williams, Merle Haggard, Merle Travis, Jerry Reed... Let's see. Jimmy Rogers was another one that I listened to when I was young. He influenced generations of country music people. I still listen to Merle Haggard. Just this morning I was having my breakfast and I was playing one of my favorite Merle Haggard albums called "Hag" which has some beautiful songs on it that I listen to. I got that album when it came out. I was 16, and I remember it. I still play that album from time to time. It's a beautiful album.
If you could collaborate with anyone musically, who would it be and why?
Well, there is so many. There are so many great people out there. There's a guy I've known since he was a little boy who I love dearly who has enormous success here and I would love to work with again and that's Keith Urban.
What advice would you give to those who plan to get into the music business?
Get good. Get some good songs to play. Get a good style together and put the people first. Put the quality of what you do and the integrity into what you do as your number one priority. Always be there and play for the people.
Special thanks to Glenn for setting up the interview... and to Tommy for taking time out of his busy schedule to talk with us!
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