Legendary finger-style master Tommy Emmanuel talks childhood and the power of music
For more than half a century, Tommy Emmanuel has traveled the globe, touring relentlessly and gaining widespread recognition for his peerless technical skill, passion for music, and his heartwarming personality.
Like many who have found their true calling in life, Emmanuel discovered his passion at a young age—a very young age.
“I’ve been playing guitar since I was 4,” says Emmanuel, “but I didn’t turn professional till I was 6,” he adds, with a laugh. “All I knew when I was a kid was that I wanted to play, and that it was exciting to play with my family. I’m one of six kids; four of us played music and we all played together, and it was great making music as a family.”
But it wouldn’t be until the ripe age of 7, as he cruised the outback of his native Australia, that he would have the musical epiphany which would change the course of his life.
“We were listening to the radio and trying to find something good to listen to and I heard Chet Atkins on the radio playing a song called ‘Windy and Warm,’” Emmanuel recalls. “I’ll never forget that moment because I could tell [that] he was doing everything at once … It was the most unique sound that I’ve ever heard and I said, ‘He’s playing everything at once!’ and my father said, ‘It couldn’t be. That must be a recording trick,’ and I said, ‘No, no, no, he’s doing everything at once and I wanna work that out.’ It was like a revelation to me. It was a sound that I really wanted to make.”
Atkins’ distinct acoustic instrumental style—with chugging bass lines, full rhythmic backing and melody all played simultaneously on a single guitar—became a framework for Emmanuel to find his own way in the world of music. Inspired, he studied obsessively, learning all of Atkins’ songs and even writing him, an action that would eventually lead to another pivotal moment in his career.
“It was amazing,” he says. “I wrote to him when I was 11 years old and he sent me a photograph and everything, and I can’t tell you what that did for me—that my hero would take the time to send me a photograph. It was just beautiful. And I came here to America in 1980 specifically to meet Chet and he was so nice to me, and so encouraging. We jammed together for hours and he offered me so much advice. It really changed my life. He was such a great person, just the kind of person you would want to be around.”
Since then, Emmanuel has been nominated for two Grammy awards, released more than 20 albums, and collected a staggering number of accolades, including Rolling Stone’s Best Guitarist Award (1990) and Guitar Player magazine’s Guitar Legend Award (2009). His music is complex, evocative, and almost exclusively instrumental.
Whether he’s blazing lightning-speed licks or crafting delicate shimmering melodies—all on a single acoustic guitar—Emmanuel always uses his virtuosic skills to serve the music, and not his own ego. “I’m not interested in impressing a handful of guitar players,” he explains, referring to the types of musicians that often come to his shows to obsess over his techniques and equipment. “What I’m interested in is moving people and touching people. That’s how you do it, through the quality and integrity of your music.”
He recalls one man in particular who was literally shaken by one of his performances. “The very first time I went to Japan I met some fans after the show and they were so moved by the experience. One guy came up to me and he was shaking—literally, his whole body was trembling—and I put my arm around him and said, ‘Are you all right?’ And he leaned into me and whispered, ‘I’m very happy.’ Whispered it to me. And I’ll never forget that … you can’t put a price on that.”
Tommy Emmanuel plays at 8 p.m. Monday, Feb. 4 at The Rio Theatre, 1205 Soquel Ave., Santa Cruz. Tickets are $25. For more information, call 423-8209.