Interview: Tommy Emmanuel

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Australian-born Grammy award-winning Tommy Emmanuel is coming to the Honoka’a People’s Theatre on Sunday, August 26, 2018. At the end of this interview you’ll find ticket info for this upcoming Big Island concert.

Emmanuel plays hundreds of sold-out shows every year from Nashville to Sydney to London. All the while, Emmanuel has hungered for what’s next. When you’re widely acknowledged as the international master of the solo acoustic guitar, what’s next is an album of collaborations with some of the finest singers, songwriters, and guitarists.

His new album Accomplice One does just that. It features 16 tracks of duets with a wide range of musician friends who stepped forward to join Emmanuel in the studio. The impressive list includes some of today’s most respected performers, from across the musical spectrum.

I caught up with Emmanuel while he was getting ready to perform four nights at the Blue Note in Honolulu. We talked about the new record as well as some questions our readers sent in.

Have you played the Big Island before, or do have any connection to the islands?

No, I haven’t. I have heard a lot about it. Last summer I was here I played [Oahu] where I’m playing this weekend on Friday and Saturday at the Blue Note and played on Maui… stayed and had a holiday there.

My connection with Hawaii is that it was some of the first music that I was exposed to. There was Sol Hoʻopiʻi [Native Hawaiian guitarist] who played a show heard on Radio Australia called Hawaii Calls. From when I was like two years old to six, we would all huddle around the radio on a Saturday morning and my dad would tune in that program and we would listen to live Hawaiian music over the radio. Well, you know it was also the days when there was no TV, and there was only the record player, a jukebox, or the radio. We used to listen to drama programs on the radio, like superhero/Superman kind of programs that were all on the radio. That was our entertainment, and it was great fun! All the family did it as a unit… we all got together to listen to radio shows every day, and the radio kept us all close.

Tell me about your 2018 release Accomplice One. It looks like you’re joined by everyone from Jorma Kaukonen to Jake Shimabukuro, and you even cover Jimi Hendrix.

[Laughs] Exactly. And the funny thing was the newspaper The Tennessean, that track [“Purple Haze”] which Jerry Douglas and I totally improvised, and only played once, that track was voted the best recording to come out in Nashville in 2008. Can you believe that?!

It was just an afterthought. I booked Jerry to come and play on another track, which was a ballad that I’d written, and we spent the lion’s share of the time on that. When we got that done, I said to him, ‘Look I got a little bit of time left, do you want to do something else?’ and he said. ‘What do you know? And I said, ‘How about “Purple Haze,”‘ just kind of joking. And he said. ‘Oh, let’s not rehearse it, let’s just play it’. So, we did.

The album was pretty much done like that. The track with Mark Knopfler was one take. The only thing I really spent a lot of time on was Jake’s [Shimabukuro] track because Jake had to learn the whole thing and then come in. By the time he’d worked it all out, I’d actually changed my mind and done it in a different key. He had to relearn everything. It was just good fortune that he was in Nashville playing the Ryman Auditorium, opening for me. I said to him that night, ‘Hey Jake, you want to come to the studio in the morning?’ and he said, ‘Sure.’ He moved his flight so we could do it.

Everything on that album was done live in the studio, and I think that’s why people like it because it’s so fresh and different and it’s very unpretentious. I didn’t want anybody emailing their part in. I wanted it to be live in the studio and that’s how we did it.

I understand you never use a set list. How do you plan the format of your shows?

I plan it as I go. My biggest decision really is, what do I start with. And from then on it just seems to flow. And I’m so used to it being that way that if I if I had a set list, it kind of cramps my style. I like to keep it open and I like to see what the crowd are really responding to and I kind of use that as my guide. Sometimes people request songs and I write them down and try to remember to play them. Sometimes I get so into what I’m doing that I forget what I promised I’d play to somebody and then they write me a nasty letter afterwards saying, ‘You didn’t play what you say you would.’ And that’s totally because I get caught up in it. This is the moment and I’m totally in it, and that’s how I always want it to be.

I have a few questions from our readers. What gauge and brand of strings do you use, and how high or low do you like the action to be set on the neck of the guitar?

I have three guitars I use on the road. For two of them, I use medium gauge strings, 13 to 56, and the one I have in normal tuning is 12 to 54, and they’re Martin strings. My action is a kind of medium to low action. I like a little bit of height, but mostly I like it to be really comfortable, so what I do is I set it so it’s just a fraction higher than I’d like it, and then, I tweak the neck and pull the neck down a little so it’s dead straight and then the action just right.

What’s your average play or practice time each day?

It depends. I can’t have any kind of routine because I’m always travelling so I play as often as I can. When I’m doing tours I generally wake up in the morning and play for a little while, half an hour or something, have breakfast, get out to the airport, get on the plane, go to the next city, get back to my hotel, play a little, rest, have sound check, and then have the show. I don’t have a set routine. I just play as much as I can, and I practice what I need to practice and play what I love to play. That’s the way to do it.

We have a lot up-and-coming guitar players here on the island. What advice would you offer with their playing and music careers?

The best thing you can do is always learn new songs and make sure that the songs you’re learning are good songs. Always look for the good melodies, and always find the best keys to play the song. If you want to be inspired and feel that you’re improving, then you keep learning new songs. That’s the best way. Good advice. And don’t forget you need to practice those songs you know for the next 10 years of your life.

What does the rest of 2018 have in store for you?

Oh my goodness! It’s been a busy year. This has been already the busiest year of my life. I’ve done eight tours since Christmas [2017] and the rest of the year runs like this. When I finish here in Hawaii, I have a tour of Canada. I come back to America for Americana Week and then I go to England for a break with my two daughters that live there, and then I go on to Italy with Jerry Douglas, and we we’re doing our Tom & Jerry show over there in Italy and then I go to France in November. December, I’m back in America with Jerry Douglas again. So, I’ll be busy right before Christmas. I’ll finish about the 18th of December and then I’m going to have Christmas in California with my wife and our baby daughter. She’s three and a half. That’s right Rachel,  of ‘Rachel’s Lullaby,’ and then I’m going to England after Christmas to be with my other daughters. I have two daughters in England.

Well, thank you so much for your time. I really appreciate it.

Oh, man, you made it easy. Thanks a lot, brother. We’re really looking forward to the show on Sunday.


Ticket Info

To buy tickets for Tommy Emmanuel’s August 26th concert at the Honokaa People’s Theatre, please visit Blues Hawaii: https://bluesbearhawaii.com/t/tommy-emmanuel.

Honoka’a People’s Theatre
45-3574 Mamane St., Honoka’a, HI
Information: 808-896-4845 General Admission $45. ($75. Gold Circle Sold Out)
Doors: 6:00 pm Show: 7:00 pm.

Tickets are also available at the following locations: Kona Music Exchange, Sound Wave Music – Kailua-Kona; Kiernan’s Music – Old Town Kainaliu; Waimea General Store – Parker Square, Kamuela; Top Stitch, Waipio Cook House – Honoka’a; CD Wizard, Hilo Ukuleles & Guitars, and Hilo Music Exchange.

Photos courtesy of Tommy Emmanuel’s management with the exception of the featured image, which is by Steve Roby.

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