There’s barely a country in the world that doesn’t feature somewhere on Tommy Emmanuel’s touring itinerary. It seems like the man is on a never-ending marathon of concerts, recording sessions and seminars that takes him, quite literally, to all corners of the earth, where he stuns audiences with his masterful virtuosity.
It looks like January 2015 is going to be a good time for lovers of acoustic guitar music as Tommy Emmanuel’s UK tour kicks off mid-month in Harrogate’s Royal Hall before visiting London, Birmingham, Manchester, Glasgow and beyond with his spellbinding brand of fretboard magic. He’s as busy as ever and rarely off the road, but Acoustic managed to catch up with the maestro during one of his recent whistle-stop visits to our shores to talk about tone, touch and technique – as well as share with us a masterclass in his phenomenal thumbpicking style.
Tommy’s story began in his native Australia. Born in Muswellbrook, a coal-mining town “about three hours above Sydney”, he began playing at the age of four, his mother showing him those all-important first few chords. Initially intrigued by the guitar playing of Grady Martin, Hank Marvin and George Barnes, Tommy was seven when he first heard a solo piece by the man who was to become his mentor and main influence, Chet Atkins. Fascinated by Chet’s style and the way that the country master was playing bass, chords and melody all at once, Tommy tried to work out some of Chet’s pieces and, by all accounts, made a pretty good job of it, too. But there was still something missing and it wasn’t until the fledgling fingerstylist chanced upon a photograph of Chet playing that he enjoyed something of a “eureka moment” which would place him firmly on the path to guitar superstardom.
‘I started out with a straight pick and I heard Chet playing ‘Windy And Warm’ and I was trying to work it out. Everyone else around me was fascinated by him as well and so I worked out how to play the alternating bass and mute it with my palm to get that sound. I could make it sound fairly close to what I was listening to off the record and I started learning other tunes like ‘Freight Train’ and get a few tunes under my belt and get this technique going, but it was difficult with anything that had fast scale passages in the melody line. I was supposed to be doing it with my fingers, but I didn’t have any left because I was holding the pick with my index finger and thumb and the index and second fingers are your main melody fingers in thumb and finger style. When I saw a photo of Chet playing with a thumbpick on I had one of those moments where I went, “That’s it!” and as soon as I put a thumbpick on it was like a wild horse had been let out of the gate and I went crazy with it. All of a sudden my right hand technique just came alive and my thumb just went straight into that boom-chic-boom-chic-boom-chic and it freed my fingers up. It was a great day and I’ll never forget it. It was like being let out of jail or something because everything came a lot easier and had better feeling as well,’ Tommy starts.
Do you use regular thumbpicks or do you alter them in any way?
Yeah, these are regular Jim Dunlop thumbpicks. I don’t actually modify them. People think that I spend all day fiddling around with my equipment and I don’t. I buy a bag of 50 thumbpicks and then I go through them and find the three or four that really do the business for me and the rest I give away. I can use a thumbpick that has a short end or a long end, I can modify the way I play to suit the thumbpick. I don’t make my life depend on my thumbpick being perfect, I try to fit in with what I’ve got in my pocket. Some of the thinner thumbpicks I can’t use because the minute I start to really dig in, they would fly across the room. I need a fairly heavy-duty pick and one that I can grab to do flatpicking with, which is another thing that I had to train myself to do. A long time ago when I was working with my brother Phil, some of the tunes we’d play like ‘Sugarfoot Rag’ and things like that, I’d have to play the rhythm and he’d be playing the single line melody and then he’d give me a solo and so I’d have to do single line stuff myself and so I worked out how to play like that just using the thumbpick. Not many fingerstyle players do that, but it’s a handy technique to have, that’s for sure.
When you play in concert, you play some tunes with a thumbpick, some without, and some pure fingerstyle. Do you adjust your technique to suit the song?
It’s all governed by the song. Songs like ‘The Man With The Green Thumb’ where I play strong alternating bass, you can’t get that groove without using a thumbpick. But then when I play a song like ‘Old Photographs’, I’m aiming for more of an old-timey kind of a sound and I’m trying to be more subtle with my backing and let the melody speak and so I don’t need the thumbpick because I’m bringing the melody out with my fingers and playing the backing with the flesh. When that tune goes to the bridge there’s a part where I need the melody to sustain and the bass needs to be really subtle and I get that without a thumbpick. Some of the other ballads that I play like ‘Since We Met’; in order to get that slightly funky feel to it, I don’t need a pick. Then there are other tunes where I play with a flat pick. It’s still hybrid fingerpicking, almost, because I’m using the flat pick, but I’m using it because I still want it to have that rhythmic groove and there’s a strum within what I’m doing, you know? It’s hard to describe exactly because you would have had to grow up playing the way I play and developed these kind of hybrid ways of getting my music across.
Do you ever use your fingernails or do you use the flesh of your right hand fingers?
My nails aren’t any good, they sound like paper – they’re awful. So what I’ve done over the years is develop these callouses and when you compare the sound of my fingers and a pick with one another, it’s pretty close. There’s nothing missing in the tone. I love the sound that Chet got from his nails, I love the sound James Taylor gets from his nails and players like Stephen Bennett, too. Most people nowadays use acrylic nails and you can get a big sound from them, but it just didn’t work that way for me. I think I was about 18 when I started growing my nails. I was flirting with classical at that time and I got myself a Yamaha nylon string and was listening to Julian Bream records and trying to work out all this stuff by ear. But my classical playing ended up sounding like a country guy playing classical, which is what I was. I grew my nails and they just sounded awful, so I thought, “No way.” But this comes at a price because when I take a break from the road, say if I have a week off, I still have to play hard at least once a day and really dig in to keep my callouses up. You take two showers a day and wash your car or wash the dishes or do something like I do at home, your callouses are getting soft already. So when I practise off the road, I have to play like a demon to keep my sword sharpened!
Your muting technique involves laying the fleshy part of the right hand palm’s edge in front of the bridge.
Yes, it’s just basically to mute the bass to take away the frequencies that are going to get in the way of trying to get the melody out. If you didn’t do it, it’s not a bad sound, but when you do the melody immediately sounds different. It pops out and almost sounds like it’s got its own character aside from the backing, so it gives you that bit more separation and I like that sound. The only time I don’t use it is if I want to accent one part of a song. In ‘Doc’s Guitar’, the famous Doc Watson tune, the first time around I play it a bit more open, but the second time around I mute it a little and it’s a nice change for the ear. I also use muting sometimes when I’m soloing; if I want to do a long arpeggio then sometimes I’ll start it with a mute just to make it more subtle.
You sometimes use your left hand thumb to fret bass notes. How did that come about?
I use my thumb a lot for playing different chords. I was slowing down my version of ‘Day Tripper’ for a bunch of students recently and when it goes [sings] “Day Tripper, one way ticket…” I wanted to get the Beatles’ harmonies in there, but I wanted the bass to pump on the F# and so I had to train my hand to do that, which is basically playing an E triad with an F# in the bass – and that hurts! It’s the most unnatural thing, but it really works and I remember when I first started doing it, it hurt my thumb, but that’s the sound I was going for and you can’t get it otherwise.
So that’s utilising my thumb and the dexterity of it; your thumb can move from side to side and up and down and all that sort of stuff. But I try to be conscious of not overdoing it with the thumb because a player can look sloppy if he uses it too much. Richie Havens did everything with his thumb over the top because that was his style, but I try not to make it look too strange by using too much thumb. When I watch Chet play, I’m humbled by the beauty of his left hand and how everything is so beautifully worked out. Every so often he’ll bring the thumb over but because he trained classically as well he’s really got a beautiful way of playing. So I’m trying to work towards that as well and be conscious of my fingering and the aesthetics of it.
Do you need a narrow neck to employ the thumb like that?
Exactly, although I can get around fairly wide necks, I do prefer a narrow neck because it allows me to get to a lot of these positions. Like, for instance, Merle Travis’s E7 [see box out]. I call that “A fistful of E”, right? This is the shape he used on the original version of ‘Nine Pound Hammer’ and it’s got a certain sound. It’s almost a honky-tonk stride piano sound and I love it and I use it as often as I can.
The “progressive acoustic guitar” crowd use a lot of percussive techniques on their instruments, but you’ve been doing it for years.
Well I have, but in a different way. I very rarely play a song where I do all the percussion parts because it looks too much like a science experiment to me. When I see someone doing all the drum parts and trying to sing over it, it’s like, “Okay, you’ve got your motor skills and your multi-tasking together…” but it’s hard to watch because it looks like an experiment. Some people can really pull it off well; Andy McKee looks really relaxed when he’s doing it and he plays beautiful music, but there are a lot of people out there who put up videos and I watch them and feel that they’re thinking too much about it and if they miss one thing then it’s all going to unravel. It’s like a dancer: one foot wrong and it’s all undone.
As far as doing percussive stuff on the guitar, I’ve always done that but I’m a drummer and so I approach it like a drummer. In ‘Nine Pound Hammer’ I break it down to a drummer playing brushes with a bass player playing a walking bass and then I’ll sing over the top of it. I play the bass with my left hand and then I’ll do the brushes here [indicates the bare wood patch on his Maton]. That’s why my guitar is so marked up here; when I got this guitar, the first thing I did was get a screwdriver and scrape it all off because it had to be useful and I needed that sound. I do it because it’s fun and you never see anyone else do that and I’m always trying to look for something different to do for my audience and to surprise people, because really we’re in the entertainment business, girls and boys. We’ve got to give people a good time and if I bang up my guitar and bang my head on the microphone and play with a drummer’s brush then it’s all in the name of entertainment. Musically it all works, but it’s all in the name of surprising people and that’s what it’s all about. It’s like, “Let’s see what we can do with this instrument that hasn’t been done before”. I don’t really do tapping and all that kind of stuff and I don’t play anything much in altered tunings because I’m having enough trouble with normal tuning! People ask me why I don’t play a 12-string and I say it’s because I’m busy with six.
There are a lot of people out there who are really good at the percussive thing, but what I try to do is to give people an experience by doing drummers’ stuff and I try to make it sound very ethnic; I look for certain sounds on the guitar. These Maton guitars have a microphone which is really wide open. When I’m playing I cover the soundhole with a feedback buster and I put the mic on ten. So I’m living dangerously, but it’s worth it because every sound that I make here comes out like a drummer and a percussionist have got together. You’ve got all these different sounds and you put all of it together.
There’s a song I play called ‘The Trails’, which is really a story of the struggle of the native people of America and Canada. First of all I listened to a lot of their music and then I tried to incorporate grooves and sounds that feel authentic and so I get the basic drum pattern going and I add other sounds to it with delays and stuff like that and it sounds like animals in the distance. When I tap really soft and go right up close to the microphone it sounds like a horse’s hoof. So there are all sorts of things that I’m looking for – a wolf howl… I go for all sorts of stuff.
Your on-stage set-up is really quite straightforward, although people might assume you’ve got lots of outboard gear. Can you outline what you take on the road with you?
This is my main guitar, I have two of these on the road. It’s a Maton EGB 808 and it has a pickup and microphone inside. I go into a BOSS tuner which I like because they’re really simple and very reliable and that’s a number one priority when you play as much as I do. Two things about the BOSS tuner: first of all, when the light’s red you’re out of tune and when it’s green you’re in tune and that’s all you need to know. You don’t need to know that your B string is spinning at 650 decibels per minute – you don’t need to know any of that stuff. All you need to know is if you’re in tune or not. Secondly, the pedal mutes so I can be talking to the audience and in the bottom of my eye I can see a green light or a red light and I don’t have to lose contact with the audience, I can still tune and they can’t hear me do it.
I come out of the tuner into an AER Pocket Tools Colourizer; it’s like a preamp and quite small and it’s basically a signal that is going out to the PA. So my first signal is the Colourizer. My sound engineer, Steve Law, tells me that the signal coming from the preamp is even bigger than the one coming from the amp. Bigger and warmer, so when he puts it in the PA, that’s actually the bulk of my sound. I’ve got a bypass built into it and I come out and go into an AER Compact 60 amplifier and then I take the direct line out of that. So I have the Colourizer and the amp: two signals and Steve just brings them up where he wants, either left and right or both in the middle or whatever and so it’s a combination of what the amp does – gives me highs and mids and some grunt – and then the direct signal gives me the clarity and a big fat signal. And that’s it.
I carry three guitars, the two 808s and a dreadnought with a cutaway called the TE-1 and I use medium strings on that one and tune it down a whole tone, so my E is a D. It’s a different sound, which is nice for your ear. If you come to a guitar concert and you’re got two hours of full-on guitar, it’s nice to give the audience some different textures, some different tones. My other guitar I use for drop D and drop G tuning – that’s a different sound – and then the other one is everything down a tone and I usually use that one for stuff where I play a lot of harmonics and where I can use a lot more midrange. So it’s a big sound, but it has this warm midrange. Put it in the PA with some nice reverb and it’s delicious!
Tommy’s rule of thumb – download the tablature for the lesson here
To get started playing thumb and fingerstyle, one of the things that you have to understand right from the start is that the fingers can’t be involved much at all in the backing. You’ve got to train your thumb to be almost like your accompanist and so I get people to put their fingers on the soundboard and leave them there. Don’t let them do anything and get your thumb to play example one.
So I’m doing a little bit of strumming with the thumb pick – I’m getting a little bit of the chord through – but I’m basically marking out the bass part. Then you play example two.
The rule is that the first note of every bar should be the root note of the chord you’re in. So if you’re in C, your first note should be a C and when you change to F, your first note should be an F and so forth. What I mean is, you don’t do this – see example three.
If it’s Bb then you begin with a Bb bass note, then Eb, then F as your first bass note on each chord and it’s the same for every key. Take a look at example four.
So you start out with your fingers down on the soundboard and just slightly muting with your palm in front of the bridge while you practise the alternating bass. That’s the basis of getting the thumb so that it’s independent from the fingers.
Step two is to leave your little finger down on the soundboard as a sort of an anchor. Some people don’t do it because they find it’s uncomfortable, but most of the great players who have come before us like Chet, Merle Travis and Jerry Reed, they all anchor down and I found that it came naturally to me to do that, too. So little finger down as my anchor point and now what I do is I get the thumb going and then I strike the chord using my index, middle and ring fingers. That’s basically spelling the chord out with your fingers while you keep the thumb going. Take a look at example five.
Step three would be to play an accent with your fingers which is against what the thumb is doing. Your hand is going to hit a roadblock here and you’re really going to have to work through it. It looks like kindergarten, but it’s really difficult when you’ve never done it before. Take a look at examples six and seven.
Step four is to play arpeggios with your fingers, spelling out the chords and then muting the bass. The underlying thing is that the thumb is the steady rhythm, steady groove underneath. Take a look at example eight.
Then, as soon as you can, learn a tune like ‘Freight Train’ and put it together. Work out each bar; find the melody and learn how to play that and then keep the thumb going underneath. Practise it up until it begins to sound like music and then you can do stuff like put in a key change. Do it the first time in C, then change to E and on up to G. Just get that thumb nice and steady!
Tommy Emmanuel’s The Guitar Mastery of Tommy Emmanuel is out now. Tommy tours the UK throughout January 2015.