Australian musician Tommy Emmanuel is one of the finest finger-style guitarists on the international circuit. With a laid-back demeanor and charismatic playing style, his live performances usually offer much more than one might expect from a typical acoustic guitar recital or folksy unplugged rock show.
"When I play, I don't think like a solo guitar player," Emmanuel says. "I think like a band. It's important to me that people feel the emotion in the music and that they feel the groove that's going on. It has to have a deep groove in there, and it has to have a commitment. I'm committed to every note I play, and I'm committed to giving the people a good time."
Positivity is at the core of Emmanuel's approach to touring, recording, and performing. His warm personality and natural talents tend to attract fans of all ages and tastes.
"My audiences are right across the board, from kids to grandparents," Emmanuel says. "I'm really fortunate in that way. I enjoy playing for people of all ages, so I don't try to target any one demographic. I just write the best songs that I can and play the best that I can on stage."
At 56, Emmanuel's already toured the world numerous times, and he's still going strong. His latest endeavors have been a series of mad-dash trips across the continents. Sometimes, in Europe, he'll play six different countries within one week. It's a tough pace, but he handles it wisely.
"A couple of years ago, I told some friends that I was going to slow down, but I actually sped up," Emmanuel says. "The demand is there, and it's getting more demanding. I just kind of walk through it with a good team around me. I look at it this way: I play for free, and I get paid to travel."
During his early days as a budding teenage professional in Sydney in late 1970s, Emmanuel played drums with his brother in a rock group and signed on as lead guitarist in the Southern Star Band, the backing group for vocalist Doug Parkinson. In the early '80s, he joined the rock group Dragon, touring widely with them, including a 1987 tour with Tina Turner. By the beginning of the 1990s, he was ready to embark on a solo career as a songwriter and instrumental guitarist.
"In the '90s, I used to come up with a chord structure that sounded nice and interesting, and then I'd write a bass line and a melody, and add some drums, and make it into a song," Emmanuel says. "Even though I'm writing instrumentals, I still maintain that I'm writing a song for a singer, so the melody has to be singable and memorable."
Late guitar legend Chet Atkins was one of the first artists to inspire Emmanuel to try a 10-finger picking style as a young musician. Years later, Atkins himself became one of Emmanuel's biggest fans. In 1997, the two guitarists recorded an album titled The Day Finger Pickers Took Over the World.
"I tend to play an eclectic mix, including things I loved when I was a kid, like Chet Adkins and Beatles songs," Emmanuel says of his current show. "I mix those things with tunes I've written recently, and it all comes together. Most musicians are simply trying to get a message across with their performances, and, overall, my message is, 'Fly your kite and try to have a good time.' It's just honest, and it is what it is."
Emmanuel developed an unusual technique over the years. He adds percussive accents or rhythmic patterns to a song by tapping, scraping, or thumping different parts of the guitar (the neck, body, or the strings). He frequently uses his left thumb to pick basslines on his top strings as he plays chords and melody lines on the others. All together, the range of sounds can resemble three or four musicians at one time. For a self-taught player with little formal training, his technical skills are simply amazing.
"Technique is your vehicle to express yourself, so that's why it's important," he says. "But I never look at things from a technical point of view, really. I look at things from the pure power of the music — the melody against the chord and what it makes me feel. I'm always with that kind of approach. Too many people focus on my technique, and they miss the point. The idea is that the music is the star of the show."
Emmanuel's latest studio albums are the two-disc set titled Little by Little (released in 2010) and a festive holiday collection titled All I Want for Christmas (released in 2011).
"The title Little by Little is very significant to me because I had to learn to take things one day at a time and not to be so concerned about tomorrow," Emmanuel stated in a promo clip for the album's release. "That's an important lesson for us all to learn."
It's hard to predict what he might have up his sleeve when he returns to the Music Hall stage this weekend, as he never puts any kind of set list together before hand.
"Having fun on stage is the important thing," Emmanuel says. "It's not just about the music. It's about the whole experience. I don't have any plans when I go out there. I basically walk out, start playing, and see what's going to happen. My biggest challenge is what I might start with, but once I start, everything's OK. These days, I'm much more led by my feelings and by being spontaneous. If I get a good idea, I go for it and I try to finish it. I'm usually inspired by people in stories I hear or in places I go. A songwriter waits patiently for inspiration."