News Column

A true guitar hero

September 18, 2013


Sept. 18--Having a lot of money is nice, fame is temporarily rewarding and awards are vindicating, but for most people, it will never be enough.

Finger-picking guitar master Tommy Emmanuel knows this all too well. After all, he's collaborated with his childhood heroes, played to billions of people at the Olympics, inspired many and was named Guitar Player Magazine's Best Acoustic Guitarist twice.

"My focus is totally on trying to get better. I don't really care about anything else, to be brutally honest. I'm only interested in trying to get good at this," he says.

From any other guitar hero, that may sound like false modesty, but it's all genuine when it comes from the humble Australian virtuoso (a word he hates being called).

The problem for such a humble guy is the shoe fits well. You don't get to play with greats like Eric Clapton and Sir George Martin or grace stages like the Midland Theater, which he will on Sept. 27, by just being slightly talented.

Before he hits the big stages though, Emmanuel will play a more intimate performance on Sept. 25 at 7 p.m. at Highland Community College in Highland, Kan., a college crowd he says he enjoyed performing to before.

"The younger people really let you know how they feel straightaway before you play a note. You can kind of feel it, especially if they're very vocal about it," he says.

The younger crowd jells well with how Emmanuel operates. Though he has played thousands of shows to support his collection of about 25 albums, with two more on the way, he does it without a setlist and almost zero guitar effects. Yet the crowd almost always goes wild.

"Sometimes you have to throw water on them," he says, laughing.

It was at about their age that Emmanuel got his first taste of stardom. When he played in his family's instrumental surf-rock band as a child in the '60s, he heard guitarist Chet Atkins playing on the radio and his life was immediately changed.

The finger-picking style on an acoustic guitar and its remarkable chord structure was unlike anything Emmanuel had been exposed to prior, and he felt compelled to learn it.

"When you hear something that inspires you so much and challenges, that's all you do. You eat, sleep and dream that music and try to work it out," he says.

By the age of 12, Emmanuel was teaching adults how to play guitar, while winning awards and praise throughout his teen years for his advanced guitar abilities.

Playing in several bands throughout the '70s and '80s, Emmanuel eventually went solo and has stayed that course for decades.

The problem for him was breaking into the U.S. market, while most of his music was only released in his home country of Australia. With the advent of streaming sites, iTunes and YouTube, that's not a conflict anymore.

Emmanuel says he's touched by the people who are just discovering his music, as he's using the Internet to discover new artists of his own. But he'll always have his favorites.

"I tend to listen to the great songwriters whose pop music really moves the world, people like Elton John and Eric Clapton and James Taylor, people like that. I tend to listen to them rather than Beyonce or somebody like that, as much as I admire her too," he says.

Often including nods to his musical inspirations, like covering Carole King's "Tapestry" and The Hollies' "He Ain't Heavy, He's My Brother" on his 2011 double album "Little By Little," Emmanuel says he loves paying homage to great chord structures or rhythms.

"I like anything that's got good soul, good chords, good grooves, all that kind of stuff and the older I get, the more I appreciate that there's such good stuff out there" he says.

It's funny to Emmanuel to see younger generations coming up that play music he created. Even more humorous are those who request live videos of his so they can learn to play certain songs, like the strum-happy "Locomotivation" or the funky "Gameshow Rag/Cannonball Rag."

"I said 'You know that when I was your age, I had to wait for months for the next Chet Atkins song. There was no (sheet) music, because I can't read music anyway. There was no one who could play it, so I just had to listen to it over and over and try and work it. You've got the luxury of this shortcut. You don't know how lucky you are,'" he says, letting out a big chuckle.

A guitar teacher on the side, Emmanuel says he loves talking to younger generations of guitarists to see how they learn to play. As he discovered, it's often with DVDs or videos available on YouTube.

"They should use those things as a guide, as a road map. They should be really training their ear and working on their ... natural abilities. But that's just my opinion. What the hell do I know?" he says.

Audience interaction is one of the many reasons Emmanuel loves touring. He gets to read different audiences to see how he can excite them that night. Comparing a Highland College crowd to the Midland Theater is like night and day and he's up to the task of trying to work the two out.

"Older audiences, they're a bit more reserved. You've got to find some way into fooling them into doing that and I distract them with everything I can on stage and so their guards are down," he says.

With a live CD/DVD set for release next Tuesday, which will be available at Emmanuel's Highland College show, as well as preparing to record a new album around Christmas, he says he remains a guitarist intent on improving his craft.

"I'm always looking for a melody and a beautiful chord structure," he says.

Andrew Gaug can be reached at Follow him on Twitter: @SJNPGaug.


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