More than 300 nights a year, Tommy Emmanuel strides onto stages the world over and does things with the six strings of an acoustic guitar that nobody who hears will likely ever forget.
The Australian, known as “The Wizard of Oz,” seems to be playing three instruments, sometimes four – bass, rhythm, and lead guitar, as well as percussion (the finish is worn off his guitars from their use as drums and he is known to bop his forehead off the microphone to create a percussive pop) – and he does it with pure exuberance. Guitar geeks have strived to come up with concepts to explain his technique (“thumb independence” is frequently mentioned), while both Guitar Player and Acoustic Guitar magazines have named him the finest acoustic guitarist alive. Guitar players ranging from Steve Vai to Chet Atkins – Emmanuel’s childhood hero, eventual friend, collaborator, and direct forbearer as a player – have identified him as perhaps the instrument’s greatest living master.
But Emmanuel, who plays at the Redondo Beach Performing Arts Center next Thursday, has a cheerful but firm suggestion for anyone who may want to marvel at his technical achievement on the guitar: forget about it.
“They shouldn’t be focusing on my technique,” Emmanuel said in an interview this week. “When I play, it should be all about the music and the feeling of it and getting caught up in that. I work really hard to make my technique invisible. It should just look like, ‘Wow there is a guy up there having a good time playing a wooden instrument having a dance. That is really what it is about. I am up there flying my kite, you know?”
And this, really, is what sets Emmanuel apart. He began playing professionally at the age of 6 in his family’s band, The Midget Safaris, travelling throughout the Australian outback. He developed an unshakeable sense of showmanship and a keen understand of the workings of song. Often, those who attain virtuosity reduce music to math, playing with technical brilliance but racing through notes to produce something that is more equation than song.
“I could never allow that to happen,” Emmanuel said. “For me, I give it total passion when I am out there – that is why I am exhausted at the end, because I give it as much as I can and really tear into it and totally savor the moment. I don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow, so I better do it all today. And that is how I’ve always approached it. It’s a good job, making people feel good.”
It’s a job that extends far beyond those 600 to 700 hours a year spent on a stage. A famed examination of excellence, Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers, cited a scientific study called the “10,000 hour rule” which posits that that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to achieve mastery at any discipline. Gladwell noted, for example, that The Beatles played 1,200 concerts in Hamburg, Germany from 1960 to 1964 (at least 300 shows a year, like Emmanuel) and played for more than 10,000 hours. Emmanuel, though, started playing at the age of 4 and easily had his 10,000 hours in by the age of 8, when he first encountered Chet Atkin’s music and was able to quickly understand exactly what he was hearing and learn from it.
Nearly every morning of Emmanuel’s life for the last fifty years has begun the same way: he reaches for his guitar, wrapping his left hand around its neck until the strings fit into the grooves worn into the tips of his fingers and the small orchestra of his right hand begins thumping. The day’s dance has begun.
“It’s a two way thing,” said Emmanuel, who is 57. “I’m totally obsessed by it, but it’s also like a familiar friend, a familiar cradle, that you pick up and hold. You are so used to it that it’s like having breakfast…It’s a daily ritual. The only times I don’t play in the morning is if I have rush to get a plane. But I always carry a guitar on my back anyway, and when I get to the airport and get through security, then I find a place to sit and play.”
He’s written many songs in airports, in fact, and often attracts a crowd in whatever little nook he’s found to play while waiting for a plane. Not long ago, he was playing at Tokyo’s Narita airport and a small group of mainly older Japanese folks gathered around. Emmanuel started playing the Japanese folk song “Sokiyaki” and pretty soon he had an impromptu vocal choir.
“They sang the original lyric, all in Japanese – these little ladies actually stood up and sang their hearts out,” Emmanuel said. “You just never know what’s going to happen.”
He’s also become a guitar ambassador of sorts, offering workshops in many of the cities he performs in, and ministering to some longtime fans in a way indicative of the emotive power of his music.
“I don’t know why this happens, but I often get people who are dying, and their family contacts me and I go and spend time with them,” Emmanuel said. “There is some sense of letting go, somehow. When I am around people in the last stages of cancer, I don’t become overemotional – somehow, I remain kind of calm, like a vessel myself. It seems to be one of my callings. When people are in the last stages of their life, they are like love machines – they just want to love on you, and the thing to do is be there and let them do it.”
A half dozen or so years ago, Emmanuel received a call from his agent, who told him a fan named Peter who’d seen him play in Holland and Germany wouldn’t be able to attend an upcoming show because he was dying. Emmanuel asked to go see Peter, and his family welcomed him, but also warned him to be prepared, as the man was very near his end. When Emmanuel arrived, Peter somehow summoned the energy to play along with him.
“We played and we sang and had a beautiful time,” Emmanuel later told Acoustic Guitar. “And he gave me his guitar.”
The guitar was a rare 1934 Kalamazoo Gibson, and it has become one of Emmanuel’s travelling companions. In this way, the song of a dying fan rings on through the music made by his favorite guitar player.
Much else lives through Emmanuel’s music. He has the ability to wordlessly evoke places and people in his songs, a mysterious kind of musical alchemy that suddenly makes bodies of water appear in the song “The Finger Lakes” and the presence of the late George Harrison arise in “Papa George”. It’s not hard to see why people near the fading of the light often turn to Emmanuel and his music. His is ultimately a music of thankfulness, thumping and plucking and banging and dancing for the joy of every single moment. He is a guitar star shining brightly.
“Attitude and gratitude, man, those are the two things,” Emmanuel said. “That is the way to go. Somebody said to me years ago, ‘Show me one unhappy grateful man.’ Therein lies one of the keys to us waking up every morning and being happy with our lot – being grateful. Milk it for all its worth, like I try to do with every note that I’m playing.”
Tommy Emmanuel plays the Redondo Beach Performing Arts Center Feb. 7 at 7:30 p.m. See kalakoa.com for tickets and more information or call 800-595-4849.