Grammy-award winning guitarist Tommy Emmanuel will be performing tonight at Reynolds Performance Hall in Conway. The show will feature one full set of solo classic acoustic songs and a full set of Christmas favorites with Pat Berguson, John Knowles CGP and Anne Sellick. We caught up with him by phone on Friday afternoon in Wichita, Kansas, while he was backstage resting before that evening’s show.
When you’re playing live, how much of your show is improvised and how much is repeated from previous shows?
Like everybody, we all have our bag of licks and things that we like and have learned, but when I’m taking solos, I’m totally improvising, whether it’s “Jingle Bells” or “Guitar Boogie.” I’m making music instantaneously…. My whole life is improvisation…I live my life the way I play music…I try to be spontaneous and make it up as I go along.
When you travel a lot, and play show after show, and you’re meeting people night after night, you can get into a routine. When I arrived here today, I came into my dressing room and watched some Buddy Rich to inspire me. To see and hear someone do something at a level that is almost unreachable.
Buddy Rich, the drummer?
Yes, he’s been an inspiration to me since I was a kid. I got to see him play three times live. One of the greatest musical experiences of my life, because of how he interpreted the music from a drummer’s perspective. He played the drums as if he knew the big picture of the song….he just wasn’t playing the drums…he was driving the whole band….he was inside the music. I’m trying to tap into creativity almost on a spiritual level.
I know Chet Atkins was a major influence. Did he improvise when he played?
Chet was a great improviser….he approached melody like a singer, that’s how I learned….by imagining that my guitar is actually the vocal…When I work out an arrangement of a song I’ll go listen to Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan or Frank Sinatra sing that song and hear how they phrase that melody, how they approached that melody.
What about singing? How do you feel about your voice, your singing?
I’ve never considered myself a singer, but I love singing because it’s the first instrument…..it makes you feel good physically to sing….spiritually, emotionally, everything…..in my show, especially when I’m playing solo, if I put a couple of vocal tunes in…..it kind of breaks things up and gives people a different sound to focus on…..and then I can play around.
Have you studied singing, worked on it?
Not really, I’ve never had any training. I asked a singer one time that I really respect, a really great singer from Australia, Can you tell me about singing? What I need to work on? And his advice was, Open your mouth and push it out! (laughs)
A lot of it has to do with your breathing…..a singer as good as James Taylor…..first of all, you never hear a bad note…..and you never hear him take a breath…..he knows how to breathe thru his nose and blow out his mouth.
Frank Sinatra learned how to “circular” breathe…..you try to sing along with Frank Sinatra and you’re going to run out of breath…..if you want to learn about singing there are so many places you can go to…..it’s all about getting a tone and getting the pitch right.
Tell me about great melodies. What do think makes a melody great? Do you think you’ve written any great melodies, why or why not?
I don’t know if I’ve written any great melodies….I know I’ve written melodies that I like and I’ve written melodies that people like and that’s a great reason to keep going at it. … It’s pretty hard to write something as good as Leonard Bernstein “Somewhere” from West Side Story….(Emmanuel sings the melody)….“There’s a place for us….”
I don’t waste time listening to things that don’t move me.
Some people say the elements of a great melody are mysterious, unfathomable. What do you think?
I can tell you certain elements…..For instance, George Harrison is a writer who has a similar formula…..he’ll always use diminished chords…..because they’re full of emotions…..and full of mystery…..then he’ll sing a melody line, and then he’ll sing the same line but change the chord from minor to major or the other way…..and it just becomes powerful…..having moving chords underneath a simple melody is a really good tool as well…..if you look at John Lennon’s “Imagine”…..the chords are constantly moving…..then sings the melody…..it’s almost like a question and answer writing…..(Emmanuel sings the tune to “Imagine.”)
Who are some of your favorite musicians playing today who should be better known?
Jack Pearson from Nashville. …one of the greatest musicians I’ve seen….he sings everything from the Reverend Gary Davis to Allman Brothers music…..has one of those high beautiful sounding voices that you can’t get enough of.
A young man from Australia named Joe Robinson…he’s a great talent…..only 20 or 21 …..doing great work.
From Croatia…young boy…called Frano Zivkovic…he can play anything from classical music to my songs, he writes songs…he’s only 12 years old…he’s a genius….Frano has been on tour with me many times.
How would you describe this period of music we’re living through, driven by the Internet with all the opportunities to listen to music, study it, create and distribute it worldwide?
This is one of the luckiest generations, but at the same time they have no excuses. If you can’t pick something up…..I’ve had so many people say, “Couldn’t you give me instructions, couldn’t you give me the tabs?” And I say, “No, watch the video of me playing it and work it out.” People don’t even want to do that, even though it’s right in front of them.
What is your feeling about musical talent, where it comes from, how to develop it?
Talent is a gift that comes in different forms. And everybody has a different one. Somebody can hear a piece of music and memorize the whole thing because that’s how they’re wired. I tried to learn how to read music, but I just had a mental block with it. I just couldn’t get it at all. But I can hear a piece of music and play it back to you almost instantaneously.
I really admire people who can read a piece of sheet music and instantly make music. Like John Williams the classical guitar player; he can play Bach, stuff that’s damn near impossible to play. Not only can he play it, but he can sight read it and play it. That is unbelievable! With whatever gifts you’ve been given, you have to make the most of them.
Do you think you’re a better player now that ten, fifteen years ago? What about in ten years from now? What about plateauing?
I’m taking care of myself, staying happy and healthy. If I see some footage back in ’96, ’97, ’98, I can see that my hands were a lot quicker back then, my hands were a lot more precise, but I think my ideas are better now. There is more depth in my ideas, although physically I’m not as on top of it as I used to be. I still enjoy the challenge. And I beg, steal and borrow from everybody I come into contact with.