If you loved this interview with Tommy Emmanuel, you’ll want to check out these similar acoustic guitar interviews with Paul Reed Smith, Bob Taylor of Taylor Guitars, Chris Martin CEO of Martin Guitars, or my favorite inspirational interview with the late Pete Huttlinger.
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How Tommy Emmanuel Checks Out Guitars
Hey guys, Tony Polecastro here from The Acoustic Letter and Tony’s Acoustic Challenge, and today is a great day. We have Tommy Emmanuel here in the studio. He just got done with a soundcheck, he’s playing up the street, and he took some time out for us to come and chat some guitar, so we are going to chat guitar.
Tommy Emmanuel: Our favorite subject.
Tony Polecastro: Our favorite subject.
Tommy Emmanuel: Exactly.
Tony Polecastro: To be quite honest with you, it was very cool. We went over to soundcheck, and I walked in and you were in back playing one of Kevin Kopp’s guitars, a local builder.
Tommy Emmanuel: Yeah. I love Kevin’s guitars.
Tony Polecastro: Immediately … They’re fantastic.
Tommy Emmanuel: They are.
Tony Polecastro: Immediately, I noticed you were holding the guitar, you were playing it, but you weren’t just playing, you were digging in. You were checking it out.
Tommy Emmanuel :Oh, absolutely.
Tony Polecastro: You were giving it the run-through.
Tommy Emmanuel :Whenever I play a guitar, especially one that I’m interested in, if a guitar has a good sound, has a good feel to it, then I’ll want to play it for a while, you know? I don’t want to just pick it up and go, “Oh yeah, it sounds good,” and move on. I want to get to know this baby.
Tony Polecastro: Absolutely, absolutely.
Tommy Emmanuel :The same as your D35 here. That’s a great sounding Martin.
Tony Polecastro: Thank you.
Tommy Emmanuel :I could play that thing all day.
Tony Polecastro: We can negotiate. Also, our viewers, we’ve had some questions, speaking of guitars. We’ve had some questions about Maton guitars, and that is your primary stage instrument.
Tommy Emmanuel Talks About Maton Guitars
Tommy Emmanuel :It is, yeah. I’ve been playing Maton guitars since 1960, which is a long time. My first real good guitar was a Maton. It was electric, a solid body, called a Master Sound. I didn’t really get into acoustics until later on. I started on the electric guitar, and then I moved to the acoustic later on in life. The guitars that I travel with, that I play all my concerts with, this is my main one here. It’s called a EBG808, and it has the Ap5 pickup system in it, which is everything on board here. Six individual piezos here, and a microphone. I’ve done a bit of hot rodding here, as you can see, I’ve got a little gaff tape holding stuff in here, but I wanted to get the mic free of the body and just hanging in mid air, so I’m pointing like that. That’s what I did there.
I did it in a bit of a hurry the other day before I left to go on tour, so it’s holding together with gaff, but normally the Maton comes with a microphone, and it goes up inside a piece of foam, foam rubber stuff, and it just sits there like that. It’s a beautiful placement. This particular model, which I have 2 of these on the road, this is an indigenous Australian maple called a Queensland Maple. It’s a mahogany neck, and a [inaudible 00:03:15] spruce top, rosewood fingerboard, and saddle. These guitars are really well-made. This is a custom shop model, made by a guy named Andy Allen. It’s got a good acoustice sound.
Tony Polecastro: It sounds gorgeous.
Tommy Emmanuel :Nice and even, but the thing I like about them is, they’re so player friendly, they’re set up so well, the neck’s nice and slim, and it’s a different beast to the Martin, or the Gibson, or the Taylor, or the Larrivee. It’s a different beast altogether, and the pickup system is so good, you just plug it in, and turn it on, and bring it up through the P.A. As you heard at soundcheck, the sound is right there. There’s a lot of front on the note. Some pickups, especially older style pickups from 10 years ago, there was almost a delay in the P.A. of the note. Either that, or it would square wave, like the Japanese ones, the early Japanese ones.
They had plenty of volume, but it was a strange sound. You didn’t hear the guitar, you heard the pickup. Nowadays, of course everybody’s making good pickups, but these Maton pickups are my favorite. I can play really gently, and you’ll hear every nuance of what I’m doing.
Tony Polecastro: That’s one thing I noticed when we were at soundcheck and you were playing through the system, but both acoustically, your playing, the dynamic range of your playing, is significant.
Tommy Emmanuel :Well it’s from a whisper to a roar.
Tommy Emmanuel’s Approach to Guitar Dynamics
Tony Polecastro: Oh yeah. Can you tell me a little bit about your approach to dynamics? You seem to do it very cautiously.
Tommy Emmanuel :What I do is, I think like a band and a singer, so when I’m playing a tune, the lead singer’s here … Right? That’s the singer and this is …
Tony Polecastro: That’s excellent.
Tommy Emmanuel :That’s the band backing.
Tony Polecastro: Yeah, absolutely.
Tommy Emmanuel :I’m thinking like a band, and that’s the difference. I never think like I’m just one guitar player, and that’s it. I’m thinking like a band, and the songs, the way I write songs, or arrange, is very much as if it was for a band.
Tony Polecastro: That’s one thing, I was trying to jot notes when you were soundchecking and we were sitting there. I put “control,” I wrote down, “control.” Seeing you play, you have control over all these parts. You can hear the bassline, you can hear the melody. When the chords come in, they’re lush, they’re full, they’re not overpowering the melody. It’s a complete package, and one of the cool things, some of our Acoustic Letter followers wrote in with some questions, and one of them was, “Do you find it hard, or how do you make it as a solo guitarist?” I think that plays to that a little bit. Could you explain …
Tommy Emmanuel :It’s the same principal as anything else. You’ve got to think like, “I’m going to give these people everything I got.” I never ever think like, “Well, I’m just a solo guitar player, how can I possibly see myself as being a huge success in the world?” I’ve never, ever thought that way. I’ve always thought if you can’t give these people a good time, get out of the way and let me on. That’s always been my attitude. If you want a big crowd, make a big sound.
Tony Polecastro: Yeah.
Tommy Emmanuel :Make a big sound, and really mean it if you want a big crowd.
Tony Polecastro: That’s …
Tommy Emmanuel :It’s simple, really. Growing up in Australia, having to make a living playing in pubs and clubs where people are drinking, and they’re noisy and all that, you’ve got to hit people over the head with something that’ll get their attention. That was my training ground. All the time I was going through that hell of playing everything as loud and as fast and as hard as you possibly can, so you got your pay at the end of the night and people had a good time, that was like boot camp.
The whole time I was doing that, my dream was to do what I’m doing now. To travel the world and be a concert player. It was like this is what I’m doing, that’s where I want to be, how do I get there? Well, I’ve got to stick at it, I’ve got to be disciplined, There’s got to be quality, and integrity in everything I do, and I’ve got to be consistent and get peoples’ attention.
Tony Polecastro: Absolutely.
Tommy Emmanuel :It’s taken a long time.
Tony Polecastro: You’ve had your eyes on the prize.
Tommy Emmanuel :All the time. I still do.
Tommy Emmanuel Talks About His Soundcheck Routine
Tony Polecastro: I was just going to say, so you seem like you are constantly going. Even during soundcheck, I’m listening to some of the songs, and I’m thinking, “Wow,” you’re going at it in soundcheck.
Tommy Emmanuel :Absolutely.
Tony Polecastro: You’re just laying it out there.
Tommy Emmanuel :Absolutely. Well, there’s 2 reasons why I really go for it at soundcheck. Firstly, I want to hear what the P.A.’s going to do for me and my sound men. We want to hear the boundaries of what we’re working with. I like to play loud at soundcheck, because then I can hear everything, and then during the concert I know what dynamic range I’ve got. The other thing is, I need to play like I’m playing the concert. If I come out there and go, “Oh yeah, it sounds good,” and we set everything, and then I come out full of adrenaline and excitement for the crowd, and then everything goes into the red. You can’t do that. You’ve got to play at soundcheck how you play at the gig.
Tony Polecastro: Absolutely, absolutely.
Tommy Emmanuel :The other thing for me is, it kick starts my motor inside. I get going, I get excited, and I’m revved up ready to go.
Tony Polecastro: Excellent, excellent.
Tony Polecastro: Well, one question I had is, as I noticed during soundcheck while you were playing, you’re into it, and I want to know … and this is more of a question that just popped up in my head … Where mentally do you go when you’re playing?
Tommy Emmanuel :Oh, I’m trying to play well. I’m focused on trying to play well. When I do soundcheck … Like, I had a crowd at soundcheck today. You were there. Levi was there. Mr. DiMarzio was there, and it was a few people, so I’m not going to mess around at soundcheck. I’m going to really play because there are people there.
Tommy Emmanuel :I don’t want people to hear me sit and playing half-assed.
Tony Polecastro:Yeah, absolutely.
Tommy Emmanuel :I’m going to play for them even though it’s soundcheck. It’s good for me to be in that situation. I very rarely have people at soundcheck because the general public wouldn’t understand why … Why is that sound changing, and why are those frequencies bad? You know what I mean?
Tommy Emmanuel :When we do a normal soundcheck at a theater, I just come out and start playing tunes, right? I’m not saying to my sound man, “Do this, do that,” because he’s so damn good. That’s why he costs me the big bucks. I’m employing one of the best guys in the world, and that’s no joke.
Tony Polecastro:That’s got to be comforting.
Tommy Emmanuel :It’s great, and that’s why he’s there, but I can tell you that he’ll go through frequencies and you’ll hear … You’ll hear the sound, and then it’ll get real hard, and then there’ll be mid-range stuff poking out. If you didn’t know what he was doing, you’d think, “What is that?” I don’t need people doing that in my soundcheck. We need to get as obnoxious as we want at soundcheck to iron out all the bugs and then make it sound beautiful. By the time he’s dialed in everything and got the PA sounding how he wants, he should be walking around the room listening, going, “Yep, it’s how I like it,” and I’m still playing knowing, “Boy, is it in the zone.” You know?
Tony Polecastro:Yeah, yeah.
Tommy Emmanuel :When we’re both happy … See, what we do is we get the house sounding good. Then we bring the monitors up.
Tony Polecastro:Right, right.
Tommy Emmanuel :He turns the house off, gets the monitors how we think they should be. Then he brings the house in, and then I’m in heaven because I’ve got that big sound of the PA there, and I’ve got the front of the note right here. Normally, on stage, I have four monitors, two behind and two in front, and so I’m in a square. I’m in a square of sound and tone, and my amp is right here pointing that way. My amp does not point at the audience. The audience hear the amp, but they don’t hear the speaker. They hear the amp part of it.
Tony Polecastro:Right. Wow, that’s great. That is so cool. Yeah, that has to be absolutely super comfortable.
Tommy Emmanuel :But it’s quick, and it’s easy.
Tommy Emmanuel :Two signals, my direct signal here, which is the AER pocket tools, and then I do a bypass and go into the amp. Then I have the amp, the Compact 60, and then we take a line out of the amp, so it’s two signals, direct and amp.
Tony Polecastro:And that’s it?
Tommy Emmanuel :He puts them in parallel and turns it up.
Tony Polecastro:Wow, that’s mind-blowing.
Tommy Emmanuel :We carry our own Heil microphones.
Tony Polecastro:Nice. Nice. Oh, that’s outstanding. Again, in relation to playing and learning to play … I want to switch gears a little bit. One of our viewers wrote in and had asked, “What is the most significant lesson you’ve learned on guitar, whether it came from a guitarist or not?”
Tommy Emmanuel :Make your arrangements interesting. Look for the good songs. Find good keys to play songs in, and always look for the good songs. You know?
Tommy Emmanuel :Fight mediocrity tooth and nail. If you get a good melody, milk it for all it’s worth. You know what I mean? When I play “What a Wonderful World,” right, everybody knows that song, it’s the one time in the show … I don’t always do it, but it’s the one time in the show where I don’t play any backing. I play (plays his guitar). I play it just like that with nothing else, and I turn the pick-up almost off and just have a little bit of microphone, so it sounds like … It just brings the whole audience right in like that because I’m not playing … I’m playing as gentle as I can with the most gentle sound, and it gets people every time.
That’s an example of a great, great song that means a lot to people. I always choose the songs that they mean the world to me, like “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” “Mona Lisa,” “Imagine,” all those songs. I love those songs, so I think … I’m a 59-year-old guy from Australia, and I figure I’ve got a fairly broad love of music and good songs, that if I really love this song, I think you will, too.
Tommy Emmanuel :You know?
Tony Polecastro:That’s outstanding. That’s great. That’s great. Did you have …?
Tommy Emmanuel :It’s kind of common sense. I try to always use the common-sense approach.
Tony Polecastro:That’s good.
Tommy Emmanuel :Look for a good melody and good chords and all that stuff.
Tony Polecastro:Why do musicians over-think everything?
Tommy Emmanuel :Well, exactly. You’re out there. You’re out there. Don’t forget, you’re out there to play for the people. You’re not out there to try and impress musicians. You’re out there to play for the people, and if you do the job properly, you’ll always have a good job, and people … What you want to hear at the end of the night is, “When are you coming back?” That’s all you want to hear.
Tony Polecastro:That’s awe … That was just like I kind of get a little shiver right there. That was good.
Tommy Emmanuel :It’s true.
Tony Polecastro:Did you …? This one’s way off the beaten path. Did you have pets growing up?
Tommy Emmanuel :Yeah, I had dogs.
Tony Polecastro:Does my beard remind you of your first pet?
Tommy Emmanuel :No.
Tony Polecastro:Believe it or not, that was actually written in by George Hayes, one of our viewers.
Tommy Emmanuel :Okay. Thank you, George.
Tony Polecastro:Thank you for that. Getting back on track, you just mentioned probably what I would assume is the most quiet thing you play in a live setting.
Tommy Emmanuel :Yeah.
Tony Polecastro: You also do a fair amount of percussive technique, which is way on the other end of the spectrum. How do you control both hands? Can you give us a little insight as to what’s happening?
Tommy Emmanuel Talks About Being a Drummer
Tommy Emmanuel :Well, I’m drummer. I’m a drummer who plays the guitar, right? I play drums. I have drum kits. I’ve played on records, and I can sit and play with a metronome. I know what time is. I know what groove is, all that stuff, so I use all those drummer things when I’m playing the guitar. When you see me standing up on stage moving from side to side, I’m a metronome. My whole body’s a metronome. That’s how the groove … You lay the groove in, you see.
When I’m playing percussion stuff, I do typical drummer things. I’ll show you. There’s a basic pattern that I use. My right hand plays four: one, two, three, four. My left hand plays three: one, two, three, one, two, three. Right? You put the two together. See that, and then you just add extra notes. (Plays percussion on guitar). Right? But you put that through a PA, and that really sounds like a base drum.
Tony Polecastro:Oh, yeah.
Tommy Emmanuel :Then you’ve got the (taps on guitar), you’ve got all these sounds. You’ve got this, as well. See, I had that marked up so I can go (plays for a while), so I can play bass with my left hand, the brush part with my right hand, and then I can sing. “Roll on, buddy. Pull a load of coal. How can I roll when the wheel won’t go?” And so forth. Then you’ve got all these other sounds here and … you know.
Tony Polecastro:That is just … and through a PA that sounds like you’ve got a jazz kit sitting over there with the brushes.
Tommy Emmanuel :Exactly. Yeah.
Tony Polecastro:And I was like, “Yeah, absolutely.”
Tommy Emmanuel :Well, all this stuff’s in the name of entertainment. You know?
Tommy Emmanuel :There are some songs where I’m playing away, and I flip my cape. I often throw it up in the air in the middle of the song, and then I can do a key change. Why do I do that? Because no one else does it. That’s it. That’s the whole reason. I’m looking for something different all the time. Why do I bang my head on the microphone in the middle of a drum solo? To add an extra note, but people laugh, and they’re amazed, but it’s just in the name of entertainment. That’s what it’s all about.
Tony Polecastro:That’s outstanding. That is outstanding.
Tommy Emmanuel :I’ll use anything I can to entertain you when I’m up there. It’s as simple as that. You’ve got the power of songs, the power of your playing, the power of your confidence in what you’re doing, and then the underlying innocence of that you’re really just doing this for fun.
Tony Polecastro:Yeah. That is outstanding. I’ve got to hit the guitar subject one more time, because on the Acoustic Letter, we are … We’re basically guitar geeks, is basically what it boils down.
Tommy Emmanuel :Well, I’m a geek, too.
Tony Polecastro:I’m really glad to hear that.
Tommy Emmanuel :Yeah, I am. I’ve confessed.
Tony Polecastro:So, how do you pick the perfect guitar?
Tommy Emmanuel :Well, you pick it up and play it, and if you can’t put it down and you just want to keep playing it, then that’s probably the guitar for you. It doesn’t matter where it was made, what name is on it, how much it cost, any of that stuff. It doesn’t matter. If you love that guitar, it could be some piece of funky old junk because if you love it, then that’s the guitar for you. The truth is, I play these guitars because I love them. They sound so good, and I can do whatever I want with it, but they don’t pay me to play them.
Tony Polecastro:Right, right.
Tommy Emmanuel :I play them because I like them. If I preferred a Martin or a Taylor or whatever, then I’d play one, but I don’t. This is the guitar I like. You know?
Tommy Emmanuel :Yeah.
Tony Polecastro:That’s outstanding.
Tommy Emmanuel :You’ve got to find what works for you. People are always asking me, “Well, what’s the best guitar?” and I’m like, “The one you can’t put down.” What are the best strings? The ones that your guitar likes.
Tommy Emmanuel :The ones where your guitar feels so good, sounds so good. It’s got overtones. It tunes up so well and all that stuff. It doesn’t matter what brand it is. Experiment. Find out for yourself. It’s up to us to make the decisions. Just because the people see me in magazines or on TV, on things, doesn’t mean that what I do works for you. You have to find what works for you. I’m just doing what works for me, and I’m still farting around looking for things to get to make what I do better.
Tony Polecastro:Well, thank you so much for the words of wisdom, for the playing, for the music. Acoustic Letter folks, what a day.
Tommy Emmanuel :Thanks very much.
Tony Polecastro:Going at it in soundcheck.
Tommy Emmanuel :Absolutely.
Tony Polecastro:You’re just laying it out there.
Tommy Emmanuel :Absolutely. Well, there’s two reasons why I really go for it at soundcheck. Firstly, I want to hear what the PA’s going to do, and for me and my sound man, we want to hear the …