Tommy Emmanuel’s set list

How one of the world’s greatest acoustic guitarists crafts his set, converses with Chet Atkins and keeps his hands in shape

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Simone Cecchetti

In his attempt to reach Boulder Weekly via Skype a couple of weeks ago from the megalopolis of Wuhan, China, Tommy Emmanuel just gave up and brokered an old-fashioned long distance phone call. If the Chinese really are nicking the Pentagon’s pancake recipes, they’re probably not doing it from Wuhan.

“The Internet is so bad here, even with Skype, it just kept dropping out. So I had to call long distance on my cell phone,” he says with a laugh.

If the proposition of an Australian-born finger-picking country blues solo guitarist playing a sold out theater gig in Central China seems a bit unlikely — well, it really isn’t. Emmanuel has been spraying his uniquely frenetic six-string typhoon across the Far East since shortly after the 2008 Beijing Olympics, and the rest of his latest tour included two sold out nights in both Tokyo and Osaka. The Wuhan gig was his first in that city; it was also sold out.

One assumes that the abundance of YouTube views of Emmanuel’s stage performance has helped him reach mass audiences in places like Wuhan, with citizens who likely have limited access to, or appreciation of, American country blues guitar. And Emmanuel, who has held the rapt respect of stateside acoustic guitarists for decades, isn’t exactly a central-casting superstar. Somewhat rumpled and self-effacing, bearing a blunted but unmistakable Aussie accent, Emmanuel’s stage gig is part technical dazzle, part country humorist. A passable singer, most of his show is instrumental — a few originals, some familiar covers — and years of touring have instilled in Emmanuel the need to humanize his presentation by sharing jokes and stories from the road.

This, presumably, is a bit more challenging in a place like China.

“Well, you can’t tell too many stories,” he concedes, “and you have to speak really slowly and really clearly. The humor and the banter I use when I go onstage, it only really works with an English-speaking audience. But if you speak really slowly and really clearly, most audiences everywhere in the world will pick up most of what you say. Even in places like Italy and Croatia and Serbia.”

Currently touring behind his first all-solo studio recording in over a decade, It’s Never Too Late, Emmanuel has the luxury of drawing from a deep catalog. Longtime fans will peg his blistering read of Mason Williams’ iconic “Classical Gas” or a typically blown-out arrangement of Arthur Smith’s “Guitar Boogie” as Emmanuel staples, but the guitarist says the set usually takes on a life of its own.

“The biggest decision of the night is what do I start with. Once I start, that’s it, I’m off.

“How that first song goes, and not necessarily the audience response but how I play it, usually sets the tone for the night. There are times when I’ll start off with a really fast number, just to kick it into high gear straight away. In places like Sweden, I sometimes come out and start the show with a ballad. Just to give people a chance to hear all the tones and sustains and the beautiful overtones. It’s a whole different approach.”

Playing since his toddler years, Emmanuel has been performing since about age 10. A deep appreciation for tonality, the color of the guitar’s sound, is unquestionably one of the gifts Emmanuel inherited from his mentor and greatest inspiration, the late Chet Atkins. As a teen, Emmanuel discovered Atkins’ music through the sparsely available vinyl that made it to his native New South Wales. Emmanuel then wrote a letter to the Nashville legend and (unsurprisingly to anyone who knew Atkins) got a supportive and appreciative letter back, extending an invitation for the young Aussie guitarist to come to Nashville.

Emmanuel eventually made the trip, and from there the two struck up an enduring friendship, with Emmanuel later moving to Nashville. Atkins came to regard him as “one of the greatest guitar players I’ve ever seen” and bestowed his own “Certified Guitar Player” award to Emmanuel, recognition that Atkins only ever gave to three other players. The two recorded The Day Finger Pickers Took Over the World in 1997.

“He was the real deal. He was really like a daddy to me, took care of me and showed me a lot of respect,” Emmanuel says. “I sure do miss him, but the good thing is, you pick up a guitar and play one of Chet’s tunes, and there he is. You can hear his voice.”

Emmanuel’s been at this so long — 50 years as a performer — we wondered what he would be doing if he wasn’t doing this.

“There are other things that I like, but I’ve never really pursued them. Trying to write songs and come up with arrangements and entertain people and raise my family and do the best with whatever I’ve been given… that kind of sums up me and my art, you know? Work, work, work and spend my time off with my family. “ 

And having just passed 60 years of age, we questioned if Emmanuel does anything special to keep his hands in shape, out of the clutches of arthritis or other age-related infirmities.

“Guitarists who have trouble with their hands are usually trying too hard,” he says. “I do one thing to keep my hands in shape. Practice.”