From the September/October 2021 issue of Acoustic Guitar | By Kate Koenig
Guitar virtuoso Tommy Emmanuel has done many collaborations over his nearly 60-year career, to the point where they seem to flow out as naturally as his playing. At least, that’s the way his latest EP, Accomplice Series Volume 1, with Rob Ickes and Trey Hensley came about.
Emmanuel has been playing with Ickes and Hensley since a 2016 show at the Palace of Fine Arts Theatre in San Francisco, where they discovered their lightning-in-a-bottle chemistry, and the EP came out of a simple idea to jam together without much premeditation. Emmanuel has a reputation for using unconventional guitar techniques (notably on display in his 2014 Ted Talk, “My Life as a One-Man Band”), but Accomplice Series Volume 1 is mostly just straightforward country and bluegrass.
Despite all the accolades and awards he has received, Emmanuel stays humble. “There are guys who can play rings around me,” he says. “But I try to do different things; I try to write in my own way, and that’s kind of how I stand out.”
In terms of guitars, Emmanuel has been playing Matons for longer than he’s been performing, and as a passionate acoustic player, he says, “Everything I need I can get with that instrument.” The connection he has with that guitar is readily apparent on the EP. Chet Atkins’ “Flatt Did It” shows off the spark between Ickes’ dobro and Hensley and Emmanuel’s guitars, while Emmanuel’s original “It’s Never Too Late” offers a more pensive vibe enhanced by Ickes. I chatted with the Certified Guitar Player (an honor bestowed upon him by Chet Atkins) about the new release, his guitars, and the motivation behind his playing.
How did the new EP come together?
Well, I rang the guys and just said, “Let’s record something together!” They came over to the studio, and we still hadn’t even worked out what we were going to do. I said, “Here’s this song that might be good for the three of us,” and that’s an old one called “Copper Kettle.” I played it for them and they jumped on it. It came out really nicely. And then Trey and I had already messed around with “Raz-Ma-Taz Polka,” the Buck Owens song, so we went in and did that in one take—and filmed it and had a bit of fun!
Rob and I did a version of my song “It’s Never Too Late,” and that was his idea. When those guys opened for me in San Francisco the first time, Rob turned up at sound check and said, “Play ‘Never Too Late,’ and he just jumped in and did all these parts. He’d worked it all out. And it sounded beautiful, so we put it in the show. And we ended up recording it for this EP. It’s a unique sound, with a dobro mirroring and shadowing the melody. I gave him the solo in the middle, and he improvised that.
What’s it like blending styles with them?
Trey’s guitar style is different from mine, and it’s nice to have different voices to kind of mix together. Trey is a great singer, too. Every time we do shows together we end up singing quite a few Merle Haggard tunes and soloing and stuff like that. So those guys bring so much knowledge and expertise in that genre to the table.
Which song was the most fun to play?
Oh, they’re all fun to play! [Laughs.] That’s for sure.
Did you have a favorite?
Yeah, “Flatt Did It,” by Chet Atkins. It’s a whole bunch of Lester Flatt licks made into a song—such a cool idea. We needed one tune like that, a kind of roly-poly country song, where there’s a little answering to each other and all that. But yeah, I liked ’em all. They’re all a little bit different, and I think people who like what I do and people who like what Trey and Rob do are going to love this collaboration.
You’ve played Maton guitars for decades. What’s the story behind your history with the company?
Back in 1946, a guy named Bill May wanted to play and there were no guitars available [in Australia at the time], so he started building some. He was a furniture builder and had made himself a couple of guitars and a bass guitar as well, and they turned out really good. So, he got a whole bunch of people who put orders in, and he started this guitar company.
My first good guitar, which I got in 1960, was a Maton, and it’s in their museum now. They’re probably going to stuff me and mount me and put me in there, too. [Laughs.] But they’ve grown into a great company. When I started working with them, there were four people in the company, and now there are 75. But there’s still people sweating over wood in there, which is what it should be like. You go to some factories and you can eat off the floor, and everything’s run by computers, but Maton still has handmade guitars and all that stuff. And they’re using all Australian woods as well.
What are some of the things about your Matons that you enjoy?
They have a particular acoustic tone. But they also have the best electronics of any instruments on the planet right now. I don’t think there’s any guitar with a pickup in it that can come close to what a Maton sounds like.
What is it that you prefer about the acoustic guitar over the electric?
Well, the acoustic is its own little orchestral kind of thing. It can be punchy and aggressive; it can be so sensitive. It’s just such a beautiful sound. And plus, it’s not a sound that wears you out after half an hour. You can sit and listen to an acoustic guitar—with a good sound and a good PA and all that—for hours.
And electric wears you out?
Well, it depends who’s playing it. I just think the acoustic guitar is an instrument that is so expressive and it’s really up to the player. When I’m touring and playing concerts, I have three guitars with me, and I change guitars for two reasons: I’m playing some different songs in a different tuning on one of the other guitars, and then the third guitar is tuned down really low, like a step-and-a-half down, with big strings on it and it’s real deep, like a grand piano. So there are three different tones there and I can give the audience a break from one and go to the other. It’s a way of being versatile. And frankly, when I have different tunings, I play a little differently too, and it’s fun for me.
You have a reputation for using some unconventional techniques. Do you like turning your instrument into something other than a guitar?
It’s not really about the guitar. It’s really about what goes on when I’m playing. Something happens out there. I don’t know what it is—it’s not me. But when I play, people feel good; people smile and get happy. They forget everything and they’re totally caught up in it. That is entertainment, and that’s what I love. I love distracting people and entertaining them so they’re not sitting there thinking about their problems. I’ve got them right where I need them to give them a good time for a couple of hours, and then I have to let them go. And hopefully they’ll feel better when they leave the hall.
You’re known to improvise your set lists. What guides you?
Probably the first thing to guide me is my experience. I’ve played a few shows in my life, and I know how to build it and how to have good dynamics. And some places, I can read the audience even before I walk out there. Like for instance, when I first started playing big halls in places like Sweden and Norway, the audiences were amazing. Their applause would knock you over with its volume. So, on the second tour, every show sold out and I thought, “My god, I better eat well tonight, ’cause I’m going to expend every bit of energy I’ve got for these people.” I went out and started the show with a ballad, playing a slow song. And the screams and yells at the end of that were amazing. I love the interaction with people, and I love to hear them let me know how they’re feeling and what they want.
I’m a performer myself, and I like to feel it out like that, too.
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Exactly. Well, if you’ve got the songs, you can paint whatever you want out there and take people with you and it’s beautiful. That’s what I love about being in the music industry. It joins us all together. Music’s magic, you know?
I’m only there for the audience. I don’t give a damn about anything else when I’m up there. People say, “What’s going through your mind when you’re playing?” And I say, “The sound of my own music.” I’m examining my sound, my feel, my time, my tuning; I’m examining everything as I’m going along, because it has to be at the level that I know I can take it to.
But I have to be on my own case about everything and know that the sound is the best it can be—that my tuning is dead-on, my timing is in there. And if something’s not right, my world, it goes upside-down. So it’s a commitment to everything in every way.
A year into the coronavirus pandemic, do you miss being there for the audience?
I sure do. I play every day when I’m home, and I play for people who are in the house with me and all that. But there’s nothing that can compare to walking out onstage and playing for an audience. That’s the greatest feeling I know.
If you’re not free when you’re playing the song, then you haven’t practiced it enough. Practice is just as important as breathing.
How many hours a day do you normally play?
It all depends on what’s going on. Some days I play all day; some days I play an hour.
If you don’t read or write music, how do you remember your compositions?
Repetition. As a musician, you’ve got to play that same stuff over and over and over so you can try to master it and get it down. When I’m playing, I’m not thinking about what my hands are doing. I’m listening to the music, and I’m pouring my emotions and my feeling into the music. I better have practiced it enough so my hands know exactly where to go and I can make them do little trills or I can change the groove or something, so that I can do what I want musically and I’m free. If you’re not free when you’re playing the song, then you haven’t practiced it enough. Practice is just as important as breathing.
Have you changed as a guitarist in recent years?
I think I’m just evolving as a player, and I hear things differently now than I did even a couple of years ago. I think I’m changing pretty rapidly. It makes me play stuff better. I’ve changed my lifestyle. I’m eating better; I quit drinking alcohol. I’m trying to be a pure channel. Whatever flows through me that the universe has in mind, I should be at the optimum place so that it can flow through me.
The only time I make a mistake on stage is if I allow my mind to wander. That’s the biggest no-no. I remember Billy Joel saying, “I was singing ‘Just the Way You Are,’ and I was thinking, ‘I wonder what the club sandwich is like back at the hotel.’” And then he goes, “That’s when I realized I better stop singing that song.” [Laughs.]