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The Musical Journey of Tommy Emmanuel

10/26/2016 11:00AM ● Published by Phil Reser

Music Man

November 2016
By Phil Reser
Photo courtesy of Tommy Emmanuel

Tommy Emmanuel says, “What I’m doing now is living out the dream that I had when I was a kid. I always wanted to play music all over the world, and that’s what I’m doing.”

Born in the coal-mining town of Muswellbrook in New South Wales, Australia, Emmanuel began playing the guitar when he was 4.

At age 6, he started touring the Australian outback with his family.

He talks about hearing legendary American country guitarist Chet Atkins on the Australian radio and discovering the style of finger-picking guitar music.

  “Finger picking is like playing the piano on the guitar. It’s like a fully self-contained style. With your thumb on your right hand, you play pretty much what you would play with your left hand on the piano. And then with your fingers, you play what you would play with your right hand on the piano. You’re basically creating the bass and the rhythm with your thumb and the melody with your fingers.”

At 11 years old, Emmanuel wrote a letter to Atkins in Nashville, telling him that he was a guitar player and a fan. He received a package back with a signed photo and a handwritten note that encouraged him to spend his every free moment studying the guitar.

He listened over and over to Atkins’ records. “It wasn’t just finger-style playing that I got from Chet. It was the fact that the guy interpreted melodies in such a great way. A quality that he gave all of us guitar players to aim for, a way of getting the melody across properly, playing it with a groove, and working on a turn.”

When he was 17, a high school friend sent a tape of his music to Atkins, who once again responded with a letter. This time he invited the young musician to visit him in Nashville.

He moved to Sydney when he received offers to work as a studio session player.

Some of his most notable appearances at that time were on Air Supply’s hit singles, “Lost in Love,” “All Out of Love,” “Every Woman in the World” and “Now and Forever.”

After several years as a popular sideman and ace songwriter, he launched his solo career in 1988 with the album, “Up From Down Under.”

After saving his money, he made that trip to Nashville, met up with Atkins and fulfilled the dream of jamming with the master craftsman for a couple of hours.

Connecting like a father and son, the guitar elderstatesman and the “kid from Down Under” stayed in touch through long-distance telephone conversations and musical play over the phone.  

In 1993, Atkins agreed to play on Emmanuel’s album “The Journey,” and contributed again to “Midnight Drive.”

They agreed it was time to do a complete album together and began making plans with Columbia Records.

Shortly before beginning the creative process, Atkins was diagnosed with cancer, but the two musicians didn’t let the medical problems prevent them from completing “The Day the Fingerpickers Took Over the World,” which received a Grammy Award nomination in 1998.

It was Atkins’ last recorded finger picking and he wrote in the liner notes that Emmanuel was “without a doubt, one of the greatest guitarists on the planet, and working with him on this project was one of my most exciting musical journeys.”

A few months later, in Nashville, Emmanuel was honored by Atkins, receiving his Certified Guitar Player Award for his contribution to finger-style guitar, a crowning moment for him.

Shortly after playing for his native Australia during the closing ceremonies of the 2000 Sydney Summer Olympic Games, Emmanuel was called to Atkins’ Nashville bedside, where his friend and mentor passed away.

“He was always like a father to me,” Emmanuel says. “He was very encouraging, always honest and trying to help. But at the same time, he was always interested in anything that was new and when I wrote songs myself and would play them over the phone for him, the first thing he would do is try to learn it himself.

“He was an example of a person who was in an eternal search for knowledge, and that was a great example for everybody.”

In his concerts, Emmanuel’s guitar performance brings a sense of jazz improvisation into a mix of blues, country, rock, classical and Spanish music.

His guitar finger picking style and fearless showmanship has carried him many times around the globe. He has toured and played with Stevie Wonder, Eric Clapton, Michael Bolton, Olivia Newton-John, Bill Wyman, Jerry Reed, John Denver, Albert Lee, Leo Kottke, Joe Walsh and Roberta Flack, to name a few.


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