Tommy Emmanuel – Interview

Twice-nominated Grammy Award musician, the acoustic maestro Tommy Emmanuel, has released the album Accomplice Two, which as the name suggests, is a follow-up collection of Tommy playing some of his favourite songs with some of his favourite fellow acoustic masters.

Acoustic Review’s Andy Hughes caught up with Tommy on the UK leg of his current tour, to discuss guitar choices, venue acoustics, and fixing lawnmowers.

How are you enjoying your time here in the UK Tommy?

It’s wonderful, I have had some time with my daughter and my grandchildren, being Grandad for a bit, which is always great fun, and a nice break from being on stage.

You have released a second Accomplice album, which suggests how much you enjoyed the first one, because you decided to do it all over again.

Well, I deliberately called the previous album Accomplice One because I had in my mind the possibility that there would be a second, and maybe even a third. The project has been such a labour of love, and amazing fun to make an album like this one. I only had a short window of recording time in between concert tours, but everything lined up perfectly.

In one day, we recorded Billy Strings, Sierra Hull, and Richard Smith. One day, at the Ocean Way Studios in Nashville, we had Little Feat there in the morning, and The Nitty Gritty Dirt band were there in the afternoon. We got everything done as I said, between tour dates.

Michael McDonald got involved because his manager had recommended to him that he and I work together. He sent over a bunch of songs he had written, and I chose Someone Like You out of those. Michael sent me a rough mix with his vocal, a drum machine beat, and his piano, and I built the song around that. I put real bass and drums on it, added some nylon-string acoustic guitar, and got a friend of mine to sing some backing vocals, and we had the completed track from there.

I think the word ‘accomplice’ sums up the relationship between you and the musicians you have collaborated with on these two albums.

Actually, if you look up the word in the dictionary, it says that ‘an accomplice’ is someone who helps you commit a crime! I really like the word, and people hardly ever use it.

My relationship with the artists on this record, and the previous one as well of course, is based on the electricity we generate when we play together. That’s why I love working with other artists, someone as good as Richard Smith. The song we did together, Son Of A Gun, is dedicated to Thom Bresh, he was Merle Haggard’s son, and Thom passed away last year from cancer, and I wanted to do the song for him.

I called Richard from the studio, and asked him if he could work up a harmony part for Son Of A Gun, and he said he could, and he called me next day and said, listen to this, and it was there, ready to go, it was amazing.

When I recorded with Billy Strings and Molly Tuttle, that was all done ‘live’ in the studio. When you see those videos of us playing, they are not ‘performance’ videos, that was us recording for the album, so what you see and hear there is what is on the record.

 I notice that when you are playing, you have one headphone off your ear, is that so you can get the sound of your playing from your guitar, as well as through your headphones?

Yes, that’s right. I like to hear my guitar in the room, as well as what’s coming through the mixing desk. It’s natural to me to hear myself playing without headphones on, so I have the best of both worlds there. Molly is used to working that way, so when it’s time for the red light to come on, she just goes for it, it’s great.

Again, looking at the video of you playing with Molly, your playing is even more dextrous and complex than usual, does playing with a musician of her calibre, and the other players on the album, make you push your technique to even higher levels?

What it was Andy, was that the song lends itself to that sort of technical playing. For me, it was a real joy to do that. The solo I played on Cajun Girl was completely over the top, on purpose. That’s compared with the track Far Way Places which I did with Raul Malo, where I deliberately underplayed it. I just quoted the melody, and played as though I was soloing as a guest on someone else’s record, and that was equally deliberate. Depending what fits, I can underplay and follow the melody, or other times, I can fly my kite.

Which guitar models did you use on the album?

On the tracks with Molly and Billy, I played a Prewar which is a model based on a 1934 Martin 000-28 with a rosewood body. It’s a Custom model that they made for me, and it’s one of the greatest guitars I have ever owned. The rest of the tracks were played on my Maton Custom TE Personal which they make for me. They are an important part of my life, my Maton guitars. I do love other brands, and there are almost no bad brands out there these days. But everyone finds what works for them as a player, for me it’s Maton. It’s my voice, it’s my sound.

How did you go about choosing ‘accomplices’ to work on the new album with you?

It was a two-way street. Some people I spoke to said they’d love to be on it, and other people, my manager suggested to me, he’s really good at thinking of people that would work well with me in the studio. I love Del McCoury, and I have never had a chance to play with him. When Brian my manager called him, he said he was up for it. I wasn’t sure what songs he would know, but I figured that since he’s older than me, he’s going to know some Merle Travis songs. I suggested Sweet Temptation and he came straight back and told me he knew it, so that was the song we went for, and it worked out really well, I am very pleased with our collaboration on that.

When you work with other acoustic players, do you notice little technical tricks they have that you could incorporate into your own playing?

Absolutely. If I see something I like, I will definitely try and work out how to do it, and see if I can add it into what I do. I think that’s a pretty common thing for musicians who are really listening, and that is the first part of your job as a musician, it’s to listen and then work out what you want to take away, and add to what you do.

When I came to the track with Del, Sweet Temptation as I mentioned, I know that all his band are great musicians, and really good soloists. So, I made sure to create a track where everyone could have a solo, including the bass player, and if course to highlight Del’s voice which is still wonderful even though he is in his eighties.

 I’m sure that players in the audiences are looking at things you do, and working out how to incorporate them into what they are doing.

That’s why they come to my Guitar Camps! (Tommy holds residential Guitar Camps around the world where people can come and sit and play with him, and get some inside knowledge of his technical skills.)

There is always a reason for what I do. Everything is thought out carefully, I never play willy-nilly, everything I do with a guitar is planned, and in the right place. The days of trying to advance my career and build my audiences are long behind me now. Everything I do is purely and entirely for the sheer joy of playing that I get, and that hopefully my audiences get when they come to see me. I don’t feel I have to impress anyone any more, I can just pour my heart and soul into what I am playing, and let my music do the talking for me.

Do vary strings and gauges, and what dictates the changes?

When I’m touring, I usually carry three guitars. My main guitar has 12-54 strings, and that always stays in standard tuning. My second guitar has 12’s as well, and that’s tuned to a Dropped D or a Dropped G. The third has 12’s as well, and is tuned to a Dropped D or a Dropped G, and the third guitar has 13 – 56 and I tune it down a whole step. So that’s technically a Dropped D, but it’s actually down to a C.

That opens up a whole new canvas for our ears. It’s a different world when the guitar is tuned down, it gives me a chance to play songs like Those Who Wait, and The Wide Ocean, which are slower songs with a lot of space in the sound of them. It varies the pace and the atmosphere of the evening, because the audience, and I, need an ear-break from the constant sound of one guitar. Playing a tuned-down guitar makes for a really nice change of sound and atmosphere.

You said that are very pleased with Accomplice Two, does that mean that a third in the series is on the way?

(laughs) The short answer is, I don’t know yet! My plan is to get some more original material written this year, so that I can have a new solo album recorded for my next release. I have four songs written that I am pretty happy with, and I will start introducing them into the live shows. That’s always the best way to tell if a song is working right, play it for an audience, see how they feel about it, and also how I feel about it, and then I can make any changes needed before I take it into the studio.

Touring as much as you do, there must be occasions where you run into sound problems at venues. Have you learned to work around them?

It’s pretty rare that I get issues with the acoustic sound in a venue, I get to play very nice places now, and my sound man has been with me a long time, and he knows the sound I like, and how to get it.

Occasionally though, everyone runs into issues with tuning, and I am no exception to that. I have the right strings, I have tuned them correctly, but for some reason, the sound is just not right, not as it should be. From my experience, the best thing to do if you are having tuning problems, is to tell the audience what’s going on. It lets you step back from the mental anguish of knowing that things are not as good as they should be, and fixing them, is taking time and patience. I just tell the audience I am having a problem, and I’ll get it fixed and then we can enjoy … whatever the next song is in the set. The audience is on your side, they want you to do well, so if you include them, and make them part of the evening, then it helps all round.

I always say to people, make sure you have good material and you have rehearsed it properly and you can do a good show. Then, if things do go wrong, once you’ve got back to playing, everything else will work for you.

Do you take care of your hands?

Not especially. I have been visiting my daughter, and while I was there, I mowed the grass and tried to get her husband’s cranky mower to work properly. I had a go at it, and got my hands pinched in the machinery a couple of times, and got really grubby, but it’s no big deal. When we lived n Suffolk in the early 2000’s, I used to come home from tour and I’d chop all the wood for the fireplace we had. I’m always active, and I don’t baby my hands at all.

Lastly Tommy, have you got some UK dates planned?

I have. I am on the road right through to the end of this year, and I do have some dates in the UK for next year, and I’m looking forward to coming over and seeing all my English friends. Hope to see you at one of the shows, come back after and we’ll catch up.

Andy Hughes.