Aussie guitar wizard Tommy Emmanuel on playing with Chet Atkins and looking after Lenny Breau



By Steve Newton

When I was in my early 20s, I made what for me was a major investment. I bought a near-new, shiny black Fender Stratocaster. The fact that I couldn’t even play guitar at the time didn’t matter; I figured anything that cool-looking had to sound good, even in my untrained hands.

I was wrong, though.

My cherished Strat hibernated in its case until I happened to make friends with a couple of Chilliwack guitar teachers. Scotty, a bassist-vocalist who taught at a local music store and played in a wedding band on weekends; and Smokin’ Joe, a pedal steel/mandolin/harmonica player who taught at his home and played in a touring country-rock act. Between the two of them, they got me learning barre chords and blues scales, and before long I was a master of tricky progressions like the one in Tom Petty’s “Breakdown”. I had lucked out by coming across musicians who truly enjoyed spreading their knowledge around.

As a kid growing up in Australia, Tommy Emmanuel didn’t get the same fortunate treatment.

“The old guys out in the country were a bit strange about me, because I was this kind of wonder kid,” says Emmanuel, calling from New York en route to Vancouver and three Music West appearances. “I’d ask, ‘Well, how does that go?’ and they’d say, ‘You’ll have to figure that out. I don’t want to show you because these are my licks.’ That was their attitude; it was very strange.”

The reticence young Emmanuel encountered from his fellow players didn’t dissuade him, though, for he has gone on to become the king of guitar Down Under, and a five-time winner of Australia’s best-guitarist award, with multi-platinum album sales and the biggest-selling instructional guitar video in the country.

As well as playing with Ali Farka Toure and Ben Harper at the Vogue on Thursday (May 12), he’ll be happily unloading his own secrets at the Vancouver Trade and Convention Centre on Saturday (May 14) at 1:30 p.m. (Prior to his workshop, also at the VTCC, Emmanuel will take part in a noon panel discussion titled “Who’s Zooming Who: Artists Dealing with Managers”.)

“I’ve done [workshops] for years in Australia,” says Emmanuel. “I’m kind of a streetman’s player in that I don’t read music, so I teach people the things that work for me, as in the way to get an arrangement together and things to be aware of, like your groove, your time, your tone, and touch–all those things that we like about players.”

Emmanuel’s latest recording, The Journey, features guest solos by the likes of Joe Walsh, Dixie Dregs violinist Jerry Goodman, and his childhood hero, Chet Atkins, who Emmanuel first corresponded with while in his mid-teens. Atkins originally invited Emmanuel over to the States after hearing a tape of him in the ’70s.

“I made a trip to Nashville in 1980,” recalls Emmanuel, “and I had the most wonderful time playing with Chet and Lenny Breau that day. We played all afternoon, and then Lenny was playing in Nashville that night, so I took him to his gig and kinda looked after him. And then when I came back [to the U.S.] last year to make The Journey, I gave Chet a call and said, ‘I’m making an album,’ and he just said, ‘Well, would you like me to play on a track?’. It was great.”

If The Journey wins yet another award for Emmanuel, it won’t be because of its big-name guests or his stature as a guitar god so much as for its wealth of world-class tunes.

“Apart from the performance, the strength of the songs is really what allowed me to make my mark as an instrumentalist,” says Emmanuel. “I’m not out to prove I’m the world’s greatest guitar player. I just love playing songs and I love playing music for people, and that’s it.”

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