After playing close to 300 shows in 2018, you’d think Tommy Emmanuel would be itching for a breather. But as the fingerstyle superstar explains to Matt Doria, such an assumption couldn’t be farther from the truth.
In the past five years alone, instrumental blues legend Tommy Emmanuel has released eight full-length studio albums. Even for someone who wasn’t over 20 records and 57 years deep into their solo tenure – who’d endured heart problems a decade earlier from literally working too hard – that would be a monumental effort.
But of course, Tommy Emmanuel is no mere mortal when it comes to the guitar. The Muswellbrook-native 63-year-old is a superhuman behind a set of strings – one of only five CGPs (Certified Guitar Players) accredited by Chet Atkins himself, and a junkie for new milestones to break. And despite churning records out like KFC churns out calories, he’s showing no signs of slowing down any time soon. Hell, in 2018 alone, Emmanuel played an average of 300 gigs – that’s a new performance every 1.2 days.
“I loved it,” he quips, boasting that he’s felt not even the slightest fatigue from his whirlwind adventuring. “I could do it again, honestly! It didn’t sit too well with my family, but there was just so much going on because of the last album [Accomplice One – a sprawling triumph of grandiosity where each of its 16 tracks sees Emmanuel collaborate with a fellow rock legend or two]. It was just tour after tour after tour, and it was like magic – we just couldn’t stop selling concert tickets!
“I remember back in 1991, ’92 – when I had the Determination album out in Australia – it was the same thing; we’d put shows on sale, and the tickets would be gone within the hour. It’s just part of the magic of being in the music business – every now and again, it takes on a life of its own. You’re just turning up and hanging on for dear life, and everything else is happening around you, y’know?”
2019 has already been shaping up to be a colossal year for the virtuoso. Fresh off a string of stints in England, the Netherlands and North America (in reverse order, naturally), Emmanuel is gearing up for a small handful of shows on home soil, peaking with a choice slot at the 30th annual Byron Bay Bluesfest. The fingerpicker is certainly no stranger to Bluesfest, and with this year’s jaunt being an especially stately one, he’s promising a once-in-a-lifetime performance that audiences won’t soon forget.
“I’m gonna hose the crap out of them,” Emmanuel declares with a chuckle. “I’ve got a lot of new songs that I’m putting in the show this year. It’s mostly original songs – I might play a cover or two, but we’ll have to see – and basically, I’m just trying to tell stories without words. When I’m taking my time and improvising stuff with the guitar, it’s really just about playing what I feel in that exact moment. I have to ask myself during every new performance, ‘What am I feeling right now, and how can I express that with these six strings?’ That’s the exciting part about being an instrumentalist – you can take the show in whatever direction you want.”
As somebody whose love for the guitar is only rivalled by that for his wife, improvisation is crucial for Emmanuel to keep himself on his toes. “Every day of my life is improvised,” he asserts. “I’d be bored silly if I couldn’t improvise, y’know? It’s what I love to do! In fact, if you go onto YouTube and bring up six different videos of ‘Guitar Boogie’, you’ll find they’re all at least a little bit different. No two performances are the same.”
It goes back to the ethos of using the guitar to tell a story; it’s not just an instrument for Emmanuel, but an extension of himself – a voice for the musings he can’t intone through simple words.
“I’m always trying to write as if I’m writing a song for someone to sing,” he says. “And all the good instrumentals you can name have that quality – they’re songs with unforgettable melodies that hit just as hard as the catchiest choruses. And the other thing is, what you learn from great songs is that some notes against some chords touch your heart in such a way that you never forget it. You don’t even know why, but it’s there – and that’s what I’m always trying to come up with: a beautiful melody line with a chord underneath it that really moves people.”
Although Emmanuel’s latest record – Heart Songs, a collaborative effort with fellow CGP John Knowles – only hit shelves this past January, we’re told to expect a stack of new music in the near future. Because even when he’s got a year’s worth of shows to plan ahead for, Emmanuel’s mind never stops buzzing. “I’m always waiting for a good idea to come to me,” he says. “I’m sitting here with pen poised and my guitar by my side!”