Tommy Emmanuel can do more with a guitar than most four-member bands can do.
The 63-year-old Australian fingerstyle virtuoso, whose “one-man band” style is at the same time complex and accessible, told an audience in a 2013 TEDx talk in Melbourne that his style of guitar is more than just his craft, it’s his “calling in life.”
“I do have a band. The band is me,” said Emmanuel, a two-time Grammy nominee, who’s all but retired the “Best Acoustic Guitarist” award in Guitar Player magazine’s reader’s poll. “And I think like a band, and that’s what’s different about what I do. I think like a band when I play, and when I write and when I perform. And that’s how I hear music. I hear it as if it is a band and I write as if I’m writing for a band.”
Emmanuel will play a single show on the Big Island, at 7 p.m. Sunday at Honokaa People’s Theatre. Doors open at 6 p.m.
According to Emmanuel, a galvanizing moment” in his life occurred at age 7, when he heard Chet Atkins on the radio in the family car.
“With his thumb, he was playing what the left hand on the piano would play, the accompaniment. And with his fingers, he was playing the melody and the harmony,” Emmanuel said. “… And I heard that sound and I knew that he was playing everything at once. And everybody told me … it’s a recording trick. You can’t really do that. But somehow I could hear it and I wanted to work it out. And I just kept at it and at it and at it, listening to Chet Atkins. And I eventually got it.”
Emmanuel wrote the iconic artist and record producer who helped widen the appeal of country music to a pop audience, and he and Atkins became “pen pals.”
“When I finally got to meet him, I played for him. And he confirmed that I was doing everything right, even though I had no training. And I still haven’t had any training. I still don’t read or write music. But I can write you a song. I just can’t write it out on paper,” Emmanuel said.
Atkins not only confirmed that everything the Aussie picker was doing was right, he also conferred upon Emmanuel the title “Certified Guitar Player” or “CGP,” a select group anointed by the master himself. Other than Atkins and Emmanuel — who’s the youngest member of the group — CGPs include the late Paul Yandell, Atkins’ longtime guitar partner, John Knowles, Steve Wariner and the late Jerry Reed.
“One of the things that I think I learned the most from him would be the quality of songs that you choose to play,” Emmanuel said. “And the other thing was, I quickly learned that if I wanted to stand out as a musician, I should play my own songs. So I started writing songs at a very young age and I spent a lot of time learning the craft of songwriting. And … it’s one of the parts of my life that I really love the most.”
One technique Emmanuel employs that didn’t come from Atkins is to use the guitar as a percussion instrument, often while picking, completing the one-man band.
I am a drummer; I’ve always played the drums and loved it,” he said. “So when we were fortunate enough to have electronics where there’s a microphone inside the guitar, I started experimenting by playing the guitar like a drum. So I found these patterns and I found a way of making it really interesting.”
His talents, which translate to any language, carry him to the far corners of the globe, but Emmanuel never plays the same show twice, and he improvises big chunks of every date. That leaves him open to the occasional technical imperfection, as well as providing humanity to an otherworldly talent.
“I’m one of the luckiest people on the planet. I get to make a living doing what I love,” he said. “And people say, ‘Are you in the music business?’ I call it ‘the happiness business.’ I play music and you get happy. That’s what matters to me.”
“It’s all about the feeling of the music,” Emmanuel says. “And it has to make me feel something. I’m still playing for myself, you know, because I figure if I please me, then I’m pretty sure I’m gonna please you. And that’s not an arrogant statement, it’s just quality control.”
Tickets are $45 general, $75 gold circle. Advance tickets are available at: CD Wizard, Hilo Ukuleles &Guitars, Hilo Music Exchange in Hilo; Top Stitch and Waipio Cookhouse in Waimea; Waimea General Store in Parker Square; Kona Music Exchange and Sound Wave Music in Kailua-Kona; Kiernan Music in Kainaliu; by calling 896-4845 and online at bluesbearhawaii.com.
Email John Burnett at firstname.lastname@example.org.