If you want to become a guitar hero, history dictates that you should probably play an electric instrument within popular music’s broad spectrum of vocal-driven styles.
It’s worked for a scroll of icons both living (Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page, Ritchie Blackmore, Keith Richards, Pete Townshend, Susan Tedeschi, Derek Trucks, Tom Morello) and deceased (Jimi Hendrix, Eddie Van Halen, Frank Zappa, John Lennon, George Harrison, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Chuck Berry, Duane Allman, Lowell George).
Australian Tommy Emmanuel (tommyemmanuel.com) just approached things a bit differently after starting his career as a session musician in the late 1970s, despite eventually recording as a sideman with disparate artists like adult contemporary stars Air Supply, former Rolling Stones bassist Bill Wyman, and R&B singer Diana Ross.
The 65-year-old was profoundly influenced from childhood onward by country music guitarist Chet Atkins (1924-2001), and eventually eschewed the electric guitar in favor of its acoustic cousin, within an instrumental solo career, by the mid-’80s. Emmanuel even traveled to Nashville to meet and record with his hero on what would be Atkins’s final album, and one that indicates another of the Australian’s stylistic trademarks — The Day Finger Pickers Took Over the World (1997).
“Chet was my childhood hero, and then became a kind of mentor,” Emmanuel says by phone from Nashville, where he’s lived since 2003. “I learned so much from him about melody, groove, tone, playing and music in general. I’m still learning. When my dad passed away, I was 11 years old, and I wrote a fan letter to Chet. And he wrote back, and kept in touch with me afterward. At the time, he was a very busy musician, plus he was the A&R man at RCA Records. But he took the time to write me back. Amazing.”
Emmanuel’s solo instrumental wizardry will be on display May 15 at Old School Square, the outdoor Delray Beach facility that’s become a new staple for artists touring through South Florida in the COVID-19 era. Tickets are purchased in socially distanced “pods” (tables with four seats), and masks are required everywhere on the grounds other than within those pods’s confines. Recent shows include New Found Glory, Grace Potter, Sister Hazel, and the North Mississippi Allstars; near-future bookings are St. Paul & the Broken Bones, Martin Sexton, the Allman Betts Band, and Hot Tuna.
“I haven’t played at Old School Square before, but I’m very much looking forward to it,” Emmanuel says. “I’ve been fully vaccinated after having contracted COVID-19 last November. The effects of the virus lasted four days, after which I was out of bed and feeling good. But I won’t do any international touring until next year. All my dates were moved in Canada, Russia, Italy, Spain, France, Australia, everywhere. This year, everything will be concentrated on America.”
Atkins’s legacy is such that he bestowed upon Emmanuel the esteemed title of “Certified Guitar Player,” along with only four others: fellow acoustic artists John Knowles and Steve Wariner, Tunisia-born instrumentalist Marcel Dadi, and country star Jerry Reed. Emmanuel thus proudly displays the initials C.G.P. on everything from his guitars to his website to his own recording label (after years of recordings on everything from the major label Columbia to independents like former Zappa guitarist Steve Vai’s imprint, Favored Nations).
“C.G.P. Sounds is my label, which gives me control over everything,” says Emmanuel, who became a dual American and Australian citizen nearly three years ago. “Even though being in control is an illusion anyway, but I do get a lot of say this way with what goes on artistically regarding the label.”
The veteran guitarist was practically born to be a musician, taking up the instrument at age 4 and becoming a professional at age 6, the same age at which he first heard Atkins’s playing. Touring the vast Australian countryside with his parents and family band siblings, lap steel guitarist Veronica, drummer Chris, and guitarist Phil, caused the children to miss schooling but earn a largely self-taught musical education.
“Chris is still alive, but I lost Veronica and Phil a month apart in 2018,” Emmanuel says. “That was a tough year.”
With his oversized hands, Emmanuel found he had the ability to both pick and fret notes with each of his thumbs as well as his fingers, which he’s since done for decades on six-stringed instruments designed by Maton, an Australian guitar manufacturer that carries multiple Emmanuel signature models. He’s also creative with his occasional use of a bluegrass-inspired thumb pick and a common flat pick, the rock industry standard.
And while his influence may not be as vast as that of popular music guitar stars, Emmanuel’s melodic, intricate and percussive techniques have put him in the realm of acoustic heroes like Michael Hedges and Paco de Lucia; crossover country players Atkins and Les Paul, and jazz forefathers Django Reinhardt and Joe Pass.
That influence extends locally in the form of 64-year-old, West Palm Beach-based Andy Stein. Similarly a former electric player who now performs solo and with others while playing a Martin acoustic, he’s best-known for his fiery work through the 1990s with area and touring pop/rock act InHouse.
“Tommy has such strong hands,” Stein says. “Both his hands are amazing. I’m so impressed with his rhythmic and percussive abilities, and the capacity to play bass lines, rhythm parts, and melodies so smoothly and seamlessly. I’m also envious of how large his hands are, and the way he utilizes his wrap-around thumb on the guitar’s fretboard. Tommy says of himself that he’s his own one-man band, and what a remarkable band it is.”
For evidence, listen to Emmanuel originals like the historical ode “Lewis & Clark,” lyrical piece “Song For a Rainy Morning,” or ballad for his daughter, “Angelina.” Or covers like his reworking of guitarist Mason Williams’s instrumental gem “Classical Gas,” the Fab Four’s pop hit “Day Tripper,” or John Lennon’s anthemic “Imagine,” the title track from Emmanuel’s latest release from this year.
Asked to name his non-Atkins influences, Emmanuel cites several previously named guitarists.
“Everybody from Django Reinhardt to George Harrison to Eric Clapton to Wes Montgomery to Doc Watson to Jimi Hendrix to Stevie Ray Vaughan,” he says. “I love all kinds of music, including classical, jazz, Brazilian, country, and bluegrass. It’s funny, because people seem to think that someone like me must sit around listening to only guitar players. Nothing could be further from the truth. It’s actually usually The Beatles, because it really is all about the songs.”
Always creative, Emmanuel found ways to diversify during the unintended touring down-time the COVID-19 virus provided.
“I’ve stayed busy doing other things,” he says. “Like shooting a lot of videos and launching a new video site where people can subscribe, download them, and learn the songs. It’s called ‘Up Close & Personal, and it’s all about my original songs. I demonstrate how to play them, and talk about arrangements, getting a tone, re-stringing a guitar; as much information that I can give that’ll be helpful to people. I learned a lot from my wife Clara, who plays guitar as well. She said, ‘You’re a terrible teacher. What you need to do is break everything down into tiny pieces and teach them one at a time.’ So that’s what I’m doing now.”
As for what he’ll play at Old School Square or at his other Florida tour stops (Jannus Live in St. Petersburg on May 14 and the Key West Theater on May 16), that’s yet to be determined.
“I don’t write set lists,” Emmanuel says. “I make up my mind what I want to start with, and that’s all I need. Afterward, it just flows. People will shout out requests, or put notes with them on the stage. But I try to do a cross-section of songs from all my albums. So in Delray, I’ll be playing a lot of my new stuff, plus some from my early albums as well.”
Tommy Emmanuel in Concert
Where: The Pavilion at Old School Square, 51 N. Swinton Ave., Delray Beach.
When: 8 p.m. May 15.
Cost: $160-$300 per pod (socially distanced table with four seats).
Info: 561-243-7922, oldschoolsquare.org).