The art and concept of the guitar is complex. There are so many sounds and tones that the instrument can create via the musician doing the strums, chords and progressions. With that in mind, there are a few who use the six-string to its full potential and Australian Tommy Emmanuel is one of them while doing it acoustically. Since he was a child at the age of six in the early 60s, he has had a prolific career of 27 studio albums and six live albums to accompany a repertoire of intriguing originals and expansive interpretations. On Friday April 8, Emmanuel will perform a slew of music from his enormous catalog at the Greenwich Odeum at 59 Main Street in East Greenwich.
We recently had a pre-show chat about not thinking about the praise he gets from others, always striving to be better, writing instrumental covers of Beatles songs and a new album he is working on.
Rob Duguay: Many critics, journalists and other musicians consider you one of the greatest acoustic guitarists of all time.
Tom Emanuel: What do they know? (Laughs)
DR: How do you see this degree of acclaim and being held in such high esteem by your contemporaries affect you at all? Does that come to mind?
AND : No, I never think about stuff like that. I’m too busy working on my game and trying to improve. Of course, I’m grateful to be where I am, that I make a good living playing music and have a good life. My lifestyle isn’t for everyone and it’s been a tough journey, but I’ve learned a lot and I think it’s made me a better person and a better player. I think I enjoy my life so much more now.
I can’t imagine walking around with a cannonball and having to be the best and drag that. It’s way too much of a load for me, I could never think about it so when people say “Oh this is the best” they always say that and everyone has an opinion so I never think about it really.
DR: I totally understand that. What do you prefer about an acoustic guitar that makes you want to play it more than an electric guitar?
AND : Well, I like to play electric too, but when I’m playing on my own, everything has to be there. The acoustic guitar is like a band in itself.
DR: Is there anything about the sound of an acoustic guitar that you enjoy more?
AND : Totally, everything about tone is what I’m in love with. It’s such a demanding thing, but at the same time, it’s totally self-contained and if people are really listening, you don’t have to struggle trying to get your point across. You just play and let it do what it does. I try to write songs that aren’t going to fly over people’s heads and try to impress musicians, that’s not who I am or what I am. I try to write music that people can get hooked on right away, like any other pop writer.
Pop and rock songs have a message and a way of directly touching you and that’s what I try to do with the acoustic guitar. I write songs that are quite demanding in terms of playing, but I always make sure to tell the story and get the message across.
DR: Speaking of music that gets a message across, your latest album, Imagine, released last year, features an instrumental rendition of John Lennon’s song of the same name. There are tons of recordings and videos of you doing covers of Beatles songs and medleys. Regarding their material, how do you integrate their vocal harmonies with the guitar?
AND : First of all, I always try to learn the right melody. The thing about Beatles music, whether John or Paul or George wrote it doesn’t matter. They all have a keen sense of melody and their melodies are unforgettable so you’re already a winner if you play a Beatles song, you’re already playing a good, well-constructed song. Now find a way to think of these guitar chords like a singer because I think vocally when I write melodies. It has to be singable, so it’s one of the tools I use as a writer and performer that’s been ingrained in me from the start. When I first heard good songs that I really liked, the melody and the harmonies were the parts that really melted my heart, so I was always drawn to melodic music.
DR: I can totally see why. You are also known for playing guitar fingerpicking style and I know Chet Atkins is a big influence for you. How difficult is it to take this particular approach? Did you get a lot of blisters on your fingers when you first tried this?
AND : There are a lot of people doing it in the world, but it just needs to be developed and maintained. I don’t use fingernails, most finger pickers use their fingernails or use fake nails, the one you can get put on. They’re really loud and they sound good, but I don’t do that. I use calluses on my right hand to do my sound so it throws me straight in jail because if I take a break to go and spend a week with my kids and grandkids, doing laundry, washing dishes, cleaning after the kids and all that kind of stuff my calluses start to soften right away. I have to practice all the time to keep my hands where I need them and the best thing for me is spinning because if it’s night after night I’m getting better every day I’m strengthens, I build coordination and I awaken my abilities.
DR: What are your plans for the coming months? Are you planning to work on a new original album or are you just planning to go on tour at the moment?
AND : I’m starting to work on my next album which is Accomplice Two. About four years ago Accomplice One came out and there were a lot of great people on it, so Accomplice Two is next and I’ve already started. When I return to Nashville after this current date slot at the end of the month, I will start working on the next album after that.