20:20 — 20 Questions, 20 Answers

Published April 2, 2021

In part 29 of our continuing Q&A series,

The joyously stunning Tommy Emmanuel —

master solo guitarist and one of only four people awarded the title of Certified Guitar Player—

joins us as our guest in our Guitar Masters Special Editions.

Tommy humbly answered our questions in a voice recording. It was lovely to hear him speak about playing music and traveling around the world. The joy inherent in his music and performances comes through in his gratitude and his love for his family. Join us as Tommy shares about his unique childhood traveling around Australia, meeting his hero Chet Atkins, leaving behind the rockstar life, and more.

Welcome, Tommy, and thank you for joining us.

~NoteWorthy Music

Tommy Emmanuel
Photos courtesy of Tommy Emmanuel

20:20 with Tommy Emmanuel

NWM 1): Please introduce yourself, briefly, as a musician and human of Earth.
Tommy: My name is Tommy Emmanuel, and I’m a musician. I never wanted to do anything else in my life but play music and travel around the world.

NWM 2): Your website bio begins with this quote by you: Songs are our teachers. They show us the depth of the human race and its unrelenting desire to create.

The truth of this resonates with us. Please expound on what you mean by this.
Tommy: I just think that there’s so many amazing musicians who write amazing music, and it just goes to show us how creative we can be, and that’s only just on a musical level. There’s so many other levels.

NWM 3): Name three things that make you smile.
Tommy: My children, playing a show, and ice cream.

Tommy Emmanuel

NWM 4): Your unique childhood experience involved extensively traveling with your family band and set you on the road to performing. Share a bit about what most helped contribute to who you and your music are today from that time in your life.
Tommy: My childhood was a little unusual because I was part of a family group who traveled around Australia. We were performing at such a young age—I was actually performing before audiences from the age of 5 onwards. It just seemed like an adventure to all of us. It wasn’t unusual to us that we were kids making music and entertaining people. It was a great time in our lives, and we as a family had a really wonderful time.

I was actually performing before audiences from the age of 5 onwards. It just seemed like an adventure to all of us.

NWM 5): What is a favorite of your own songs? Please tell us a little bit about it.
Tommy: My favorite song that I’ve written might be ‘Song for a Rainy Morning.’ I like it because it’s simple, and it has a sweetness to it that fills my heart when I play it.

NWM 6): You can play anything and everything. What is a favorite piece you most enjoy playing and why?
Tommy: I most enjoy playing my own original songs. There’s no feeling like playing your own music. It’s a great feeling. I don’t have one particular song that I enjoy more than the others. I enjoy them all because they’re fun, they’re challenging, and they’re original.

Tommy Emmanuel

NWM 7): You say ‘the joy is there always because I’m chasing it through music.’ This is something almost palpable that we feel when listening to you and see on your face and in your engagement to your performances. There is pure joy inherent to you as a human being that pours into your music.

Have you always felt this cyclical wholeness, and to what extent do you think it would be possible for one to exist without the other?
Tommy: The reason I say that is because I’m always looking for the joy and the fun in music. I’m serious about my playing, my repertoire, and all that. I’m looking to have fun and enjoy myself when I play music, and that’s where a lot of the joy that comes out of me and pours into my music, and when that happens it helps people forget their troubles.

The joy is there always because I’m chasing it through music.

NWM 8): In an outstanding life of performing and playing all manner of locales, what has been a particularly memorable or rewarding experience of your career so far?
Tommy: Touring around the world has been particularly a great experience for me. I love going to new countries and playing to new audiences. There’s no thrill like playing to a new audience. And so all that traveling and all the things that I’ve done in my career so far have been rewarding in their own way—they’ve been really wonderful.

NWM 9): What comes to mind as an unusual or weird show?
Tommy: I’ve done a couple of TV shows in places like Croatia where the TV host was in another room and I had to listen to him and then play what I needed to play. It’s kind of strange. I’ve played shows in unusual places too, out in the desert in Africa.

Tommy Emmanuel

NWM 10): You are a part of Barry Gibb’s new album, Greenfields – The Gibb Brothers Songbook Vol. 1, along with so many other amazing artists including Little Big Town, Keith Urban, Olivia Newton-John, Dolly Parton, Alison Krauss, Jason Isbell, just to name a few. Tell us a little bit about working on this project and what it means to you to be a part of it.
Tommy: It was a great honor for me to work on this project. Barry came to me asking me to play on ‘How Deep is Your Love,’ and what a great honor that was. I think it’s a beautiful album.

Barry [Gibb] came to me asking me to play on ‘How Deep is Your Love,’ and what a great honor that was.

NWM 11): Who might we be surprised to find on your playlist?
Tommy: You might be surprised to know that I still love listening to Gordon Lightfoot, Carole King, James Taylor, Billy Joel, Stevie Wonder. I love listening to that kind of music. I don’t study guitar players, I couldn’t care less. I’m more into songwriters and singers.

NWM 12): Dylan or Cohen?
Tommy: I’d say Dylan.

NWM 13): What song/album could you play on repeat?
Tommy: Donald Fagen’s The Nightfly. I could play that on repeat all day.

Tommy Emmanuel

NWM 14): ‘When I was a kid, I wanted to be in show business. Now, I just want to be in the happiness business. I make music, and you get happy. That’s a good job.’ Wow—It certainly is, and we thank you for it.

At age 30, you left what essentially could have become the rock star life to become a solo acoustic guitar player, which unanimously seems the ultimate fit. Tell us about this momentous decision.
Tommy: There was no decision as far as I’m going to quit rock and roll and go acoustic. That just slowly evolved. As I was playing in bands I would book myself in clubs and play solo shows and start building an audience and honing a show as a solo acoustic guitar player. The only thing I left behind was the rockstar life, but that was okay because I just wanted to be a solo acoustic player and travel around the world like that.

The only thing I left behind was the rockstar life, but that was okay because I just wanted to be a solo acoustic player and travel around the world like that.

NWM 15): Chet Atkins was a huge inspiration in your directional change. Most people never get the chance to meet their icons. What was it like to come face to face with yours?
Tommy: Meeting my hero Chet Atkins in 1980 was a great moment for me. I’m so glad that I made the trip and came to meet him because he was the man I thought he would be. He inspired me, and he has always been a great inspiration, not just as a player, but as a songwriter, an arranger, a producer, and a fellow human being. What a great person he was.

NWM 16): Chet ‘welcomed [you] into guitarist knighthood by bestowing upon [you] the coveted title of CGP (Certified Guitar Player), an honor awarded only to four other humans ever.’ Please share something about this noteworthy achievement and the ultimate recognition it signifies.
Tommy: It’s just an honor that Chet gave me. On my award it says, ‘For lifetime contribution to the art of fingerpicking.’ That was a great moment for me, and I’ll never forget it.

Tommy Emmanuel

NWM 17): If you could see anyone from throughout history perform who would it be?
Tommy: I would love to see Django Reinhardt or Wes Montgomery, two of the greats who passed on. Yeah that’s who I’d like to see.

NWM 18): Apart from live music, what are you most looking forward to when things return to ‘normal?’
Tommy: I’m looking forward to seeing my family, that’s what I’m looking forward to. Of course getting out there and playing shows, but mostly the first thing I’m looking forward to is seeing my family.

I’m looking forward to seeing my family, that’s what I’m looking forward to.

NWM 19): What is one thing you would want our readers to know about you which we might not know to ask?
Tommy: I love to cook, and I love cars. That’s two things that might be unusual.

NWM 20): What’s next for Tommy Emmanuel?
Tommy: That’s really up to the universe. That’s up to what happens. I’m ready to go, but I’m ready also to take my time and be safe with everything.

My favorite song that I’ve written might be ‘Song for a Rainy Morning.’ I like it because it’s simple, and it has a sweetness to it that fills my heart when I play it.

Tommy Emmanuel

Tommy Emmanuel

Stripping away everything but the essentials, Tommy found the ideal equation, and one which has led him to worldwide acclaim: one acoustic guitar in standard tuning played by one ambitiously unchained guitarist and lover of song. Always it’s about melody, of expressing the tune, not with a barrage of notes, but with those which touch the heart. And it’s about his singular greatness at translating the dimensional dynamics and dimensions of arrangements onto the six strings of his guitar. Although many scoffed that it was possible, Tommy made a series of hit albums as a solo guitarist, and became a major star first in Australia, and soon everywhere.

To learn more and buy stuff visit https://tommyemmanuel.com

Read our other Guitar Masters Special Editions:

20:20 with Andy McKee

20:20 with Mike Dawes

You may also enjoy our 20:20 Q&A with Dobro master Jerry Douglas

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