Teaming up to unleash twice the fingerpicking power on his latest set

By Russell Hall

If anyone can be said to occupy the throne left behind by the great Chet Atkins, it’s Tommy Emmanuel. Regarded by many as the finest acoustic fingerpicker in the world, the two-time Grammy nominee has spent five decades dazzling audiences with his six-string virtuosity. And the 58-year-old Emmanuel places just as high a premium on songcraft and entertainment as he does on technique.

“I’ve always been a song person,” he explains. “Growing up I listened to Neil Diamond, Gordon Lightfoot, James Taylor, Don McLean—figuring out how to construct songs, why a song touches you, why a song is a hit. I was also fascinated by performers who had charisma, whose shows were polished and full of entertainment.”

The self-taught Emmanuel was a bona fide pro by age 6, traveling with his family’s band throughout his native Australia. His first trip to America came in 1980, when he traveled to Nashville to meet Atkins, his longtime hero. His career blossomed under Atkins’ tutelage, abetted by an emphasis on touring. Some things never change—in recent years the guitar sensation has performed more than 300 shows annually.

Emmanuel’s latest project finds him teamed with fellow fingerpicking great Martin Taylor. Their acoustic duet album,

The Colonel and the Governor, consists mostly of jazz and pop classics performed in a deft blend of breathtaking fingerwork. “Martin flew in and did four dates with me. In the afternoons we would go to the venue early to practice and work up the songs. We pretty much had them nailed by the time we went into the studio,” says Emmanuel.

High points include a breezy rendition of Roger Nichols and Paul Williams’ “I Won’t Last a Day Without You,” a swinging version of Benny Goodman’s “Jersey Bounce,” and an eloquent rendering of Don McLean’s “Wonderful Baby.” Emmanuel spoke with us about the new album, his evolution as a player, and why he performs without a set list.

What made this project special?

It was a good combination of styles. Martin and I are different types of players, but it just seemed to gel. The funny thing is we’re both used to being solo players, but whenever we’ve played together it’s always been so much fun. I especially enjoyed playing rhythm, because I so rarely get to do that anymore.

Describe the recording process.

We were ready to go by the time we got to the Nashville studio. We put the album together in a couple of days, recording it as if we were playing live. We had two separate rooms with glass between us, so that we could see and signal each other, but we were wearing headphones and were totally isolated. We definitely wanted that isolation so that if there was anything we needed to do with our individual sounds we could do that without affecting the other.

Was it all single takes?

There was no redoing. Everything was spontaneous. Once you get comfortable with the arrangements and know everything is working, you can then dig into your bag of creativity and bring those things out. The whole album is filled with improvisation. Once we decided who was going to take the melody and what the key changes were, we played as if we were onstage.


What was the biggest challenge?

Deciding on the right material. We wanted strong songs where the melody was good, but also where we could find a way of making the chords underneath interesting. We spent time creating arrangements that would create space for each other. On some of the tunes, we would start playing the melody together, and when the song went to the bridge, I would go into the groove and Martin would take the melody. There were also tunes, like “Wonderful Baby,” where I just played the melody as a solo piece, and then did a key change in the middle, from F to B-flat, and then Martin came in and took a solo. That was a whole different structure as well.

How do you preserve the integrity of a song while still being adventurous?

You have to walk that line. You don’t want to be self-indulgent. You want to be true to the melody, but also be interesting—to be as entertaining as possible. The first track, “I Won’t Last a Day Without You,” is a Paul Williams song that the Carpenters recorded. Everybody from our generation knows that song, but the way we changed the chorus gives it more power and made it more interesting for us as players. We’re still playing what the composer intended, we’re just trying to make it more interesting for ourselves.

Who influenced your stage show?

I observed lots of great singers, musicians and comedians, learning from them—and stealing ideas from those I was impressed with. It all helps you to be better onstage. The only real way to engage the audience and make an impact is to go out and give your all.

What was it like turning pro as a child?

I had a typical boy’s life growing up in Australia. I played games with my friends, but when it was time to do a show, that was just as much fun. I had both—a normal boy’s life but at the same time I was in show business. I never got caught up in the mentality of wanting to be perceived as a star. I was just enjoying trying to play the best I could.

What was it about fingerstyle playing that reeled you in?

It was a sound that drove me crazy—a style I loved from the get-go. I knew I wanted to do it, I just had to work it out. I didn’t think of anything else. Of course when I heard George Benson and Django Reinhardt and others, I wanted to play their music as well. But that music didn’t fall into my hands in the same way Chet Atkins and Merle Travis and Jerry Reed’s music did.

What’s your songwriting process?

I follow my instincts. If I get an idea, I’ll start working it until a melody comes. I approach it like I’m writing a verse, a chorus, a verse, a chorus with a solo and a key change. I have a pop-rock song mentality when I’m writing for the guitar. Sometimes if I’m really inspired, I’ll start writing and won’t stop until the song’s finished.

Has not reading music ever been a hindrance in your career? 

Not so far, although I would love to be able to sight-read like some of the great players I admire. Think of people like Tommy Tedesco and Barney Kessel. Imagine going into the studio and sitting there with 50 other musicians and sight-reading the most complicated things, and having to get it in just one or two takes. That’s incredible pressure, but those guys did it.

Why no set list?

I don’t want to be tied down to a structure. I want to take the show wherever it needs to go. You have to go on what you’re feeling at the time, perhaps depending on what’s going on with the audience. I’ve been doing it long enough to know what works. The biggest decision is, “What do I start with?” It’s important to start right. If you come out of the gate with something that’s exactly right for that moment, the show will take off like a firecracker.

How do you feel about being called a musician’s musician?

I’ve never allowed myself to slip into the “I’ve got to play for musicians” bag. And I’ve never listened just to guitar players. I’ve always been into singers and songwriters. The songs have to stand up, and the arrangements have to be interesting. I’m interested in reaching out to the world, not in impressing a few people who read guitar magazines, or reeling off a bunch of technique just because I can. It’s about the quality and the integrity of your songs.

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