Two-time Grammy-nominated guitarist Tommy Emmanuel – whose ability to approach his instrument by using all 10 fingers to play a variety of parts simultaneously has earned him worldwide respect – actually doesn’t care all that much about technique. The veteran Australian axeman, who has been playing professionally since age six, and at 44 became one of five people ever named a Certified Guitar Player by his idol, music icon Chet Atkins, employs his abilities to reach audiences on more than intellectual levels.
Which is why Emmanuel, who draws inspiration from a variety of genres and whose playing ranges from contemplative ballads to shredding rock ‘n’ roll, remains on a never-ending quest to improve and explore. That also likely explains why the solo acoustic guitarists has been able to play hundreds of sold-out shows every year across the globe in venues of all sizes.
Emmanuel returns to UCSB Campbell Hall on Saturday, December 14, for a comprehensive concert that revisits his recent album, Accomplice One, and previews his next one, a double-disc effort that serves as something of a retrospective of his career. He spoke about the music and more from the road – where else? – earlier this week.
Q. I didn’t plan on asking this first, but I’m wondering how being held in such high regard by both guitarists and listeners, and influencing so many musicians, affects your approach.
A. It’s nice to be appreciated, but I’m trying to show young people that there’s more to life than a phone or a computer. You can make music and change people’s lives… There are a million guitarists out there who have better technique than I do. It’s all about the songs and the integrity of the music. That’s what counts. I couldn’t care less about impressing other musicians. It’s about giving people a great time and making a difference in their lives.
How can listening to you play do that?
When you spend two to three hours at a show, you’re not thinking about anything else, like a car payment or politics. It’s a stress release. And people are also reminded of the beauty of music. Plus, it’s fun! When I’m playing I’m having the time of my life. I want people to experience that too.
Is that always true? I mean is the writing and honing and practicing fun? Or only when you’re on stage?
I love all of it. I’m working on new stuff as much as I can and the challenge is wonderful. I love every aspect of it. I love to practice. I love to work on things and improve what I’m doing, so I can surprise the audience with new stuff either with a new way of doing things, or by writing some new songs.
It occurs to me that the instrument is an extension of who you are. Not to use a cliché, but more like the other meaning of the word instrument, that it’s your method for delivering what’s inside of you. Does that fit?
Absolutely. The guitar is my vehicle, my way of expressing myself, which is why technique is important because it helps you to get across the feeling, the emotions behind the music. But really, it’s about telling stories without words.
Was that true even when you were a kid?
I’ve always been trying to get good. I had a vision from when I was young that I wanted to be a concert player touring the world, though with no idea how it would happen. But it’s still unfolding and unraveling. Every day I get a little further along, find better ways of doing things, still using the same principles of approaching the music from a completely open and honest point of view. There’s something irresistible about the truth. I have to put my faith in that I’m doing what I’m supposed to do and I’m doing it with all my energies and abilities, for the good of others. That’s the bottom line.
But don’t forget, I only play because I love to play, so I’m selfishly supplying that to myself as well and always have been.
OK. So how is it that you do what you do, like playing all the parts of an orchestra or band on a single guitar?
I just don’t think like a guitar player, but like a band, a singer, a producer, a songwriter. I think about everything all at once. I look for the best ways of getting the melody across and of telling the story. I listen to everyone from classical music to bluegrass, Sting, Barbra Streisand, and emulate what they do, all the parts of the song, just with the guitar. The guitar playing part is just one part. The rest of it is even more important – the spiritual part, where the music comes into your heart and soul and lifts you up and makes your life better on the inside. The entertainment factor is about surprising people, distracting them, if you will, so that they let their walls down, which is when the healing begins, and you can feel better inside.
I almost feel like I’m doing this interview backwards, going from the meta approach back toward the technique. But I’m wondering, do you ever get part way in and realize it’s too hard to capture a song the way you want to? Or do you never give up if you feel it, and find a way to make it happen?
Covering “Daytripper” was a perfect example. I knew what I wanted to do; I just physically couldn’t do it yet. That was hard. I wanted to abandon it ten times. But I just kept at it until it happened, which was a great sense of achievement.
Whenever you’re writing a new song, do you hear in your head what you are wanting to do or does inspiration ever happen just as you practice?
I’m always seeing the big picture as I’m writing it. Sometimes, as in “The Duke’s Message,” which Suzy Bogguss sang, I wrote it as an instrumental and we put the lyrics on later. I already saw the movie in my head and just wrote the soundtrack to it. That’s how my brain works… My hands never dictate to me. It’s always the other way around. It’s about what’s right for the music and how the song should build. I use my instincts. I have to be satisfied with it, so I can’t be noodling around playing a bunch of notes just because my hands can.
(UCSB Arts & Lectures presents Tommy Emmanuel at 8 pm Saturday, December 14, at Campbell Hall on campus. Tickets cost $45-$60. Info at 805-893-3535 or www.ArtsAndLectures.UCSB.edu.)