This interview was originally published in 2014.
Fingerstyle guitar was not where he started out, but it is as one of the world’s pre-eminent fingerpickers that Australian-born Tommy Emmanuel is known today. Born into a musical family, Tommy was handed his first guitar at the age of four, and by the age of 10 had performed all across his native land. By the 1970s he was an in-demand session player whose credits include recordings with Air Supply, Men At Work, as well as countless other bands, and literally thousands of advertising jingles.
From the beginning, whether he was playing acoustic or electric guitar, Emmanuel had one major influence flowing through his playing: the music of Chet Atkins. The Australian finally met and played with his hero in the 1980s, and the Nashville legend took Emmanuel under his wing, eventually bestowing the esteemed and rare title, “CGP: Certified Guitar Player” on his disciple.
And it is a badge of honor that Emmanuel has done proud. The two recorded The Day Finger Pickers Took Over The World together in 1996. Released in early 1997, it was to be Chet Atkins’ last release of original music. In 2000 Emmanuel launched a solo recording career, with some of his best work distributed through Favored Nations Acoustic, the independent record label owned by guitar virtuoso and businessman Steve Vai. Emmanuel was seen by an estimated 2.85 billion television viewers when he shared the stage with his brother Phil at the closing ceremonies of the 2000 Olympic Summer Games in Sydney, Australia.
Many stellar albums, thousands of concerts, and millions of air-miles later, Emmanuel is in high demand as both a performer and an educator. A look through Emmanuel’s website, or a quick Internet search reveals an incredible wealth of inspiring video lessons and performances, and Tommy’s instructional DVDs continue to sell briskly.
In this exclusive Guitar.com interview Emmanuel tells us about his latest CD/DVD release, Tommy Emmanuel, CGP: Live and Solo in Pensacola, Florida, his master-classes and guitar camps, his ever inspiring collaborations with everyone from Chet Atkin’s proteges to Gypsy Jazz whiz-kids and much more. Among the topics Emmanuel was happy to discuss with us are his practice and songwriting routines, iPhone recording as a way of life, and how this one man band maintains a touring schedule of more than 300 concerts a year.
Guitar.com: Hello Tommy.
Tommy Emmanuel: Hi, are you in Chicago?
Guitar.com: Yes I am.
Emmanuel: Ah, one of my favorite cities. Beautiful place.
Guitar.com: And you’re in Nashville?
Guitar.com: And how long have you been living there?
Emmanuel: Twelve years. And I’m still an Australian, of course, but I’m a U.S. permanent resident until 2018, and then I have to decide if I want to stay here, or whether I want to live somewhere else. Being a musician, I’ve lived in many countries, and traveled around the world a lot, and enjoyed learning about how other countries work, and other cultures. I have two daughters from a previous marriage in England, and I’m re-married. My wife is also an Australian.
Guitar.com: And what part of Nashville do you live in?
Emmanuel: An area called Nolensville
Guitar.com: I know you know my friend Muriel Anderson, she lives in Nashville and you’ve shared stages with her.
Emmanuel: Yes indeed. I saw Muriel last night. It was at the annual Chet Atkins Appreciation Society convention. I did a set yesterday with my dear friends John Knowles, and I jammed with a whole bunch of players in the Gypsy Jazz summit last night. It was absolutely brilliant and fun.
And today John and I are hosting a show called, “Young Thumbs.” It’s all young fingerpickers from different parts of the world and different parts of America. They’re all under 18 years old. They’re the future of fingerpicking guitar. So we’re hosting the event today. John came up with the title “Young Thumbs.” I thought it was a great idea.
Guitar.com: Where did these kids come from, are they players who won competitions, or where they invited by you to come there?
Emmanuel: They’ve been to the conventions several times, and a lot of them have been spotted on the internet. Quite a lot of them have been to shows and have come and played backstage for me, and stuff like that. There’s some great players out there, some really enthusiastic young people. A lot more girls now are playing finger-style, which is great. It’s going to be wonderful.
Guitar.com: You had a special relationship with Chet Atkins. Will you tell us a little bit about the Chet Atkins Appreciation Society, and the convention.
Emmanuel: It’s over four days, Wednesday through Sunday [July 9th through 12th, 2014]. People come from all over the world, and it’s basically a celebration of Chet’s music and his life. And all the people that were around him, and his influences as well. So there are people who play Chet’s style, there are Jerry Reed players, Merle Travis style players. There are blues players, classical players, Django style players. And there’s just every genre of music that influenced Chet.
And there are people who have worked with him, like myself, and Pat Bergeson, who do talks. And people ask a lot of question about recording with Chet, and working with him. And people are interested to know what he was like, and how he worked, and all that sort of stuff. And then people like Jerry Reed’s daughter will turn up and sing a couple songs.
I’ve had the pleasure of playing with Les Paul and Duane Eddy and people like that, and Arthur Smith, the guy who wrote “Guitar Boogie.” Arthur and I played together at the convention and when Chet was alive we used to play there all the time.
So it’s a really wonderful event. People come from practically every country in the world: There are guitar players from Serbia, Hungary, and Japan, and China, and Korea. It’s amazing. It really is amazing.
Guitar.com: And Muriel has told me there’s people just sitting out in the lobbies of hotels, just jamming.
Emmanuel: Oh yeah. The whole place is just abuzz with jamming music, learning songs, swapping licks, telling stories. And everybody just having a great time. And the Gretsch guitar company — Fred and Donna Gretsch are there, and they’ve got a big display. Maton guitars, the guitar that I play, they’ve got a big display there. Gibson and Martin and Larrivee… It’s a mini-Namm, but it’s much more about playing guitar and playing music and people jamming together. It’s brilliant.
Guitar.com: I have to tell you my daughter is 11 years old, and she listened to the Essential Chet Atkins CD as her bedtime music every single night of her life for about five years straight.
Emmanuel: Oh how wonderful!
Guitar.com: She has got that music drilled deep into her subconscious.
Emmanuel: Well done Dad!
Guitar.com: I put that on for her and it just kind of lasted, she just wanted it.
Emmanuel: Isn’t that wonderful? My daughter Amanda, she’s the oldest. She loved all of Chet’s music, and whenever we traveled in the car, she’d always put on Chet playing Sails and stuff like that. She loved the album we did together too [The Day Finger Pickers Took Over The World].
Guitar.com: So you are, in addition to the convention, you are playing a lot of shows, as always. You played 300 shows a year for the past seven years?
Emmanuel: Oh yeah, at least. I’m trying to get good at this!
Guitar.com: That’s a lot of performances. You’re all over the U.S. in the next couple weeks, right.
Emmanuel: That’s correct.
Guitar.com: So you recently put out a great CD and DVD set, Live and Solo in Pensacola, Florida.
Emmanuel: That was a chance for me to do something just solo. My previous live in concert things have been with guests and singers and all that kind of stuff, which is good too. But the Live in Pensacola gave me a chance to play some of my new songs, and also just to play with a mic on the guitar, and sit down and play. It was much more intimate and simple. And people like that stuff. I’m really glad.
Guitar.com: When you’re writing material, where do you start? Do you sit down and say, ‘Well, I haven’t done this style in awhile?’ How do you get started?
Emmanuel: Well, sometimes it’s just, I might find a new chord or a new sound that I like while I’m messing around on the guitar. And then I get an idea from there and write the song. But as a songwriter, I approach songwriting as if I’m writing for a singer; I’m writing a song for someone to sing. And so I go looking to tell a story with notes against chords and it’s always got to be sing-able.
Because I don’t read or write music, I can’t write it on paper, so I have to compose it on the guitar, or in my head. There have been some songs where I’ve got the idea in my head while I was driving. And then I got to the guitar and worked out what I was thinking in my head, and then I kind of took it from there. But when I’m writing I’m always using my instincts, and I’m also using the tools that I’ve learned over my life about songwriting.
If the melody is going a certain way, and that’s really working for me, then I need to repeat it. And when I repeat it, I need to play the melody the same, but maybe the chords could be a little different underneath the second time around to keep it interesting and moving.
And there has to be a definite plan: a verse and a chorus and a verse and a chorus kind of thing, so it takes the listener somewhere. I never try… part of your brain and your enthusiasm, and your skills — that part of you wants to be clever. But then you’ve got the heart and soul in you as well that needs to be satisfied, so you need to have a bit of both. You need to have the willingness to try a lot of different things, and maybe, and the soul to say that’s too much, or that’s right. So it’s like your quality control.
Guitar.com: Do you have a home studio that you lay down some tracks with?
Emmanuel: No I don’t. I’m not home that often, so I just record stuff on my iPhone. The song has to work just recorded on your iPhone. I don’t do any fancy-schmancy demos and stuff like that. When I write a song I practice it up, and I record it on my iPhone, and then I listen back to it. And If I’m satisfied with everything, and everything for me is working, then I go and perform it on stage and see what happens when I play it in front of an audience. And that’s how my songs and my arrangements of my songs evolve and, hopefully, get better.
I don’t want to have an elaborate studio set-up at home, otherwise I’d be there all the time. So I make sure I’ve got all the songs together and my playing at a level where I can go in and just do it live. And then I hire a studio and an engineer. I go in and set up mics and headphones and all that stuff, and I sit and play these tunes, and I do take after take and have a listen, and I try to go for the magic.
Guitar.com: You’re on the road so much, do you bring songs into your set that actually end up changing and evolving over time?
Emmanuel: So many of my songs change. And so many of them evolve into getting better ideas because we’re busy all the time, and there’s a lot going on in your private life as well as your career and your musical life. A lot of our perception clouds that kind of creative side, and so when you get yourself into a good mindset and you’re feeling fresh, and your ideas are flowing, that’s the time to tap into that creative part.
When I’m traveling a lot, I carry a guitar with me all the time, and I may be on a bus or at the airport, and if I get an idea I’ll just whip my guitar out right there and work on it, right there in the airport. I like doing that because there’s definitely something magical about spontaneity, and about — if you’ve got an idea and you get excited about it — to do something about it right now, you know. You’re in that moment and that moment may pass, and you may have missed something that would cause you do to something creative.
Guitar.com: I bet you get people gathering around you when you pull that guitar out in an airport.
Emmanuel: You’d be surprised. People leave me alone a lot. I meet people everyday of my life who know who I am, and we talk and all that, but a lot of times I’m looking for a quiet spot where I can sit and play and I can use repetition without annoying people. You know what that means.
Emmanuel: Because we musicians need repetition to get better, working and playing the same thing over and over. But nobody else likes it. And there’s no reason to do it in front of anyone. That’s why I always tell my students and people who want my advice, I always tell them, ‘Never practice in front of anyone. Make sure it’s private. You don’t need to be playing around people and driving people nuts and feeling their bad vibes towards you.’
Guitar.com: You do some teaching as well.
Emmanuel: Yeah, I do my guitar camps here in America, and I also do them in Australia as well. And pretty much everywhere I travel, I do workshops and master classes from time to time. This week I came from London on Monday; I flew into Boston. Tuesday I taught a masterclass to 300 students, and then I played a concert that night. And then I was on the plane and here in Nashville at the Chet Atkins convention the next afternoon. And I did a workshop yesterday, I did a talk on arranging Chet Atkins tunes. I enjoy it.
Guitar.com: Your master class in Boston, was that at Berklee College of Music?
Guitar.com: I see on your calendar at the end of July, you’ve got a three-day camp in Woodstock, New York.
Emmanuel: Yeah, it’s up at the Full Moon Resort. We take over the whole resort and I have 130 students for three days. And I have three other teachers, and I also have some of the young folk who I know real well, who are good jammers and good teachers themselves. So we have four main instructors: myself, John Knowles, Jim Nichols from San Francisco, and Joe Robinson, a great young guitar player from Australia. And we play and teach and some of us tag-team, work as two teachers at the same time. On one of the days, I get the other instructors on stage, and I interview them, and they don’t know what questions I’m going to ask. It’s interesting for the students.
And everybody has their own set of skills. Like John Knowles is great at transcribing stuff and getting it done really quickly. Joe Robinson is great at acoustic and electric and playing rock music, jazz music, and all that kind of stuff. Jim Nichols is a patient and knowledgeable man with a lot of experience who can give you 10 alternatives on how to play these four bars. He’s a really knowledgeable guy.
And I talk about so many different things: How to arrange a song, how to find a good key to play the song in, how to get a sound, how to experiment. And also one of the things that we teach people is how to practice, and how to get the most benefit out of practice, and things like that.
Guitar.com: What kind of things do you bring up about practice routines?
Emmanuel: Working with a metronome, and when you’re learning a new song, work out some exercises. If there are things like a hammer-on and a pull-off and a bass note moving, and you’ve never done that before, then you have to go slow and work out an exercise that will get your thumb and your fingers to actually move around in a smooth way. And so you teach yourself how to do exercises that will help you eventually turn the skills into music.
Guitar.com: I agree. When I’ve taught guitar I show people how, if there’s a particular song that they want to learn — because most students are song-oriented, and don’t necessarily want to sit down and work out scales and things of that nature…
Emmanuel: Well I’m glad to hear you say that Adam, because I’ve often said to people — because people think I sit around playing modes and scales all day, and that I practice nine hours a day. And nothing could be further from the truth. I get so bored with stuff like that. I want to play music. When I practice, I practice songs, and it’s songs that makes you interested in playing the instrument. So don’t get caught up thinking, ‘I’ve got to be in the gymnasium of the guitar world to get any good.’
It’s all about playing it like you’re playing it on stage, and you go over it and over it until you’ve got it perfect.
Guitar.com: Yes, and I’ve often shown people, ‘Look, if there’s a tricky part of the song, take that part of the song and turn it into an exercise for yourself.’
Emmanuel: Exactly! It’s like smoothing out a bump in the road, when something gets really hard.
Guitar.com: So your camp in Woodstock in July  is sold out, but Guitar.com visitors can look on your website to find about future camps…
Emmanuel: You bet. There’s a camp set up next June  in New Orleans. It’ll be announced soon.
Guitar.com: Do these camps sell out far in advance?
Emmanuel: To sell a camp of that size, it takes probably three or four weeks.
Guitar.com: What is the nature of the people who come to your camps? Are they already, typically, fairly advanced players?
Emmanuel: It’s a combination. It’s really a mixture of people who just play for fun, and who can afford the camp. There are parents who come with their kids to gather knowledge and experience. And then there are players who are really into playing all my songs, and they want to hang with me and do some homework and learn how to make their way of playing better. All that sort of stuff. And there are some people who just come for the experience of just hanging out with other players and jamming a lot.
Guitar.com: In addition to all of your recordings, you have actually put out quite a few instructional DVDs.
Emmanuel: Yeah. When I have time, I really enjoy to do that. There’s a brand new one out at the moment, which is probably the best thing I’ve ever done. It’s called “Fingerstyle Milestones.” It’s a three hour instructional DVD, and it’s in all different levels. It starts out with how you can get started the right way, playing fingerstyle. It’s through TrueFire. Most of my teaching stuff is through TrueFire. I think some of my early videos and DVDs were through Mel Bay, but the last three products were with TrueFire.
Guitar.com: As you’re on the road in the next couple of months, as people come to your shows, will people hear even newer songs that are just coming to you now?
Emmanuel: There’s a few of those in the show. What I’ve been doing lately is going back to a lot of my really early stuff that I haven’t played in about 15 years, and I’ve been re-working them. It’s been a lot of fun. It’s been like re-arranging the songs, and starting with a whole different set of skills now.
Guitar.com: So now these songs that you haven’t touched on in awhile, and they’re going through a second round of evolution.
Emmanuel: Exactly. You don’t discard a song if you put your life into it. Certainly I’m challenged to make what I do better every day.
Guitar.com: I’ve always been interested in the title ‘Certified Guitar Player’ which Chet Atkins bestowed on you. Who are the other three other players Chet gave that title to?
Emmanuel: Unfortunately there are only two of us left. Paul Yandell was the other one. The three of us now are John Knowles, Steve Wariner, and myself.
Guitar.com: Certainly there is a Chet Atkins influence in your music, but what else do you think people might hear in your playing?
Emmanuel: There are so many. James Burton and Albert Lee. Roy Nichols. Django. Buck Owens, Merle Haggard, Hank Williams, Eric Clapton, B.B. King. Albert King, Albert Collins… I could go on all day, the people who I’ve stolen from.
Guitar.com: You mentioned Django, and you mentioned that you did a Gypsy jazz thing at the Chet Atkins convention?
Emmanuel: Yesterday, yeah. It was absolutely brilliant, and as always, so much fun to play Django’s music. It’s like flying the biggest kite you’ve ever had. And the audience loved that stuff. They were going out of their minds. People were going red in the face listening to it. [laughs]
Guitar.com: Had you previously worked out specific Django songs? Are you doing your own versions, or did you ever sit down and actually figure out specific, exact, note-for-note licks of Django’s?
Emmanuel: I tried to when I was in my teens. I tried to work out what he was doing. But what I like is playing a song and learning the melody right, and then doing my own thing with my improvisation. But there are some people who re-create it faithfully, and that’s wonderful. But I’ve always been a person who has taken something and said, ‘I’ve got to do my own thing with it.’ I think the important thing is to learn the arrangement and learn the song properly, and then you can play with that.
Guitar.com: So did you have a Stephane Grappelli with you yesterday?
Emmanuel: (laughs) No, we didn’t, but I did the day before. When I played in Berklee, in Boston, a young guy who normally plays with John Jorgenson, a violin player named Jason Anick, he came and played violin with me. And a young, brilliant guitar player from Finland, Olli Soikkeli. He played too and it was brilliant. So we played some Django tunes at the end of my concert in Berklee.
Guitar.com: And you did a Jerry Reed tribute as well recently.
Emmanuel: Yeah, we’re doing one on Saturday night as well. I love Jerry’s work. His daughter is going to come and sing with us.
Guitar.com: Your musical world involves a lot of collaboration…
Emmanuel: Yeah. It keeps it interesting for me, that’s for sure. And it’s challenging, but I’m really comfortable with all the styles that I get to have a go at. I’m comfortable sitting in with a blues player, I’m just as comfortable sitting in with a jazz player, or a Django player, or a country player, or bluegrass, or whatever.
I’m comfortable in every genre, except, don’t ask me to take a solo in a song in 7/8 or 5/8 or 9/8 or whatever. Don’t ask me to do that because I won’t do anything, because how can you play an interesting solo when you’re going ‘1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7…1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7’ in your head? I can’t do it. I know people who can, but I can’t.
Guitar.com: So you won’t be covering Frank Zappa any time soon?
Emmanuel: No thank you! (laughs) This is what’s interesting: People who can do that, that’s how their brain works. I can’t. Mine is like a metronome. It’s just ‘1, 2, 3’. Everything has to have meter and form for me.
Guitar.com: How often do you play electric guitar these days?
Emmanuel: Not that often. But I enjoy it when I do, that’s for sure.
Guitar.com: People who know your music of the last 10 or 15 years think of you as an acoustic fingerstyle player, but you had a long history of being in bands before that.
Emmanuel: Yeah, I played electric guitar all my life. And I enjoy getting back into it every now and again. I shot a video here at home with my wife and she used a split screen technology and I did five different parts, and she put it all together. I played electric on the last pass. That was fun, and it surprised a lot of people. Just go to YouTube and search “Tommy Emmanuel The Journey.”
If you want to see two CGP’s playing together, John Knowles and I did a couple of videos as well, we do a version of “How Deep Is Your Love,” the Bee Gees song. It was just one take, a couple of microphones, and straight down.
Guitar.com: I know you have to go and catch another plane, so thank you so much for spending some time with us Tommy!
Emmanuel: Thank you for your time as well.