Interview: Guitarist Tommy Emmanuel

Tommy Emmanuel

Tommy Emmanuel

First published in HK Magazine on October 13, 2013.

There’s no two ways about it—Tommy Emmanuel is the world’s greatest living acoustic guitarist. The Australian-born musician is a wizard on the six-string, not just mastering the famed “Chet Atkins fingerpicking style,” but also being one of just six “Certified Guitar Players” named by Atkins himself before the legend passed away in 2001. Emmanuel hits Hong Kong this weekend with British jazz guitarist Martin Taylor as part of “The Guitar Legacy” tour. He chats with Sean Hebert about the show, his own musical heroes, and the power of YouTube.

Sean Hebert: In guitar circles, you’ve long been considered one of the greats. But you’ve only recently gained mainstream fame. Has the internet been responsible for that?

Tommy Emmanuel: Absolutely. When I was younger, if you didn’t read about an artist in a magazine, you didn’t know what they were doing. Nowadays, it’s pretty amazing how much information is out there. I first noticed the power of what the internet does when I started touring Europe a lot more. When I played Stockholm the first time, my agent rang me and said, “Can we do two shows in one day? The first show sold out.” I didn’t understand how it was possible—it was a big hall, and I’d never been there before. I asked the audience how they knew my music and they all sang out “YouTube!” That’s when I first realized it: you can reach a wider audience now.

SH: The internet is also a big source for young guitarists looking to learn the instrument. How do you feel about guitar tabs?

TE: I’ve never, ever read guitar tabs. A tab is too slow for me—I work things out by ear much quicker. I actually never had any formal lessons, either. When I was a kid, my elder brother showed me how to listen and how to recognize the sound of a chord construction. I don’t read sheet music at all. If you put it in front of me, I get pretty quiet. So I’m still working it all out—it’s a work in progress.

SH: After all these years, are you still improving?

TE: Definitely. It’s all about using your experience, and saying something with the instrument. On this last American tour, I was really pushing myself to play at the top of my game. Technically, you can always train your abilities so that your technique allows you to spontaneously play whatever you want. But I tend to always look for getting the most juice out of anything I play—the most tone, the most sustain, the sweetest sound.

SH: You’re here with Martin Taylor after collaborating on an album, “The Colonel & The Governor.” In planning it you were on different sides of the globe, rehearsing via Skype. Did your limited time together impact the final product?

TE: I think it has to. We both enjoy improvising so much, and we enjoy just playing off each other. We really wanted to get that across on the album. That’s why we didn’t overdo it with spending a lot of time on recording. We just figured out how the arrangement of the song should go, and then we just went in and played it as if we were on stage. That was so much fun.

SH: Is it true that you didn’t even discover jazz until you were in your 20s?

TE: True. I heard Django Reinhardt when I was a kid, but I was so young and inexperienced that it sounded like circus music to me. I didn’t take it seriously until I had a lot more knowledge and experience. When I heard him again later in life, I totally fell in love. He’s like the father of us all musically—one of my all-time favorites. The feeling that he plays with, the interesting ideas, and the way he exploded on the instrument: there’s a sense of freedom in his playing that gives you the right to follow him, and to have your own sense of freedom.

SH: You speak so passionately about the great guitarists. Do you feel like you’re a member of the old guard, promoting these artists to the younger generation?

TE: Could be. I love turning young people on to guitar players that they may not have been aware of, bringing them a taste of the early roots of the music that they are listening to now. Martin’s the same. He’s not only a great guitar player, but he’s a historian, and his knowledge of the history of music is amazing. I have learned so much just from working with him, particularly about the history of jazz guitar. We both enjoy that part of what we do—tapping into our well of experience, and what other guitar players who have come before us have laid out.

SH: You and Martin are playing a proper gig at the Queen Elizabeth Stadium on Friday, but Saturday afternoon’s performance is a “Guitar Workshop” at the APA. What can audiences expect?

TE: What I do with the workshop is give a complete exposé. I’ll play stuff, and then show the audience everything I do: how I put the songs together and where the ideas came from. I take questions everywhere I go. It’s a great way of explaining to people how much work it takes to get to that level. Some people come along to learn, some are curious about what makes me tick, but for me there is no greater thrill than playing to an audience that doesn’t get to see me that often. I look forward to it.

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