Two-time Grammy nominee Tommy Emmanuel is one of Australia’s most respected musicians. The legendary guitarist has a professional career that spans five decades and continues to intersect with some of the finest musicians throughout the world. A household name in his native Australia, Tommy has garnered hundreds of thousands of loyal fans worldwide. Tommy’s unique style – he calls it simply “finger style” – is akin to playing guitar the way a pianist plays piano, using all ten fingers. Rather than using a whole band for melody, rhythm, bass, and drum parts, Tommy plays all that – and more – on one guitar. Guitar legend Chet Atkins was one of the first to inspire Emmanuel to try this “fingerpicker” style as a child. Decades later, Atkins himself became one of Emmanuel’s biggest fans.
Emmanuel’s unusual talent and life are common lore in Australia. Born into a musical family, Tommy and his older brother Phil were considered child prodigies. Tommy got his first guitar at age 4 and was taught by his mother. He learned by ear, with no formal instruction, and has never read music. By the age of 6, he was already working as a professional musician in the family band, variously named The Emmanuel Quartet, The Midget Surfaries and The Trailblazers. Tommy played rhythm guitar and his older brother Phil played lead, along with their brother Chris on drums and sister Virginia on slide guitar. The Emmanuel siblings earned the family’s sole income for several years. Tommy doesn’t remember such responsibility as a hardship: “I’ve spent all my life from the age of four playing music and entertaining people. I never wanted to do anything else.” By age 10, Emmanuel had played his way across Australia.
In 1962, Tommy heard Nashville guitarist Chet Atkins’ music for the first time and was riveted by the complexity of Atkins’ solo sound. He spent hours trying to figure out the “fingerpicking” style and gobbled up each of the American star’s albums as they came out. Shortly after his father’s death of a heart attack in 1966, Tommy even wrote Chet a letter and, to his surprise, the famous artist and producer wrote him back. Chet would grow to become Tommy’s mentor and primary influence, but it would be another 15 years before the two would finally meet in person.
After his father died, the Emmanuel family was approached by Australian country music star Buddy Williams, who took them on the road until they were forced by the Australian child welfare department to stop traveling. The children were then sent to a regular school. During these years, Tommy was playing in The Trailblazers on weekends. He also taught guitar and made numerous television appearances in musical competitions. Emmanuel’s first brush with fame came when The Trailblazers won two televised talent contests and were able to produce an album.
Leaving school and home in his early teens, Tommy embraced big city life in Sydney in order to pursue his career as a professional guitarist. By the 70′s, he was playing in clubs all over the city and soon found himself in high demand as a session player and sideman, known for his versatility and easy-going personality. During the mid 70s and early 80s, Emmanuel played on recordings for Air Supply, Men at Work and dozens of other popular bands and artists, as well as thousands of commercial ‘jingles.’ He became known as one of the best modern guitarists in Australia. Some of his most notable appearances were on the Air Supply hit singles “Lost in Love,” “All Out of Love,” “Every Woman in the World,” and “Now and Forever.”
In 1980 Emmanuel made a trip to the United States and finally met and got to play with his hero, Chet Atkins, in Nashville. From that magical moment forward, the Tennessee master guitarist and producer took the twenty-something Australian ace under his wing and began introducing him to other guitar legends. Tommy speaks of his mentor with the love and gratitude of a son and Atkins’ influences are evident throughout his music and personal philosophy. Emmanuel’s technical precision, his virtuosic improvisations and his unusually broad repertoire – which encompasses not only country and bluegrass, but pop, jazz, blues, gospel, even classical, flamenco, and aboriginal styles – bespeak Chet Atkins’ legacy.
Emmanuel got his solo instrumental career off the ground with the release of the gentle and textural Up From Down Under album in 1988. In the 90′s his efforts blossomed and began to be recognised and rewarded by the Australian music industry and media. Sales of his albums set records that have yet to be broken.
Tommy was well-known in Australia, Asia, and Europe long before his presence was felt in the U.S. However, in 1997 his album Midnight Drive was in the top five for 16 weeks, which made him the “most added artist” on the NAC radio charts that year. In Nashville in 1999, Tommy was honoured by his mentor, Chet Atkins with the title of “Certified Guitar Player” for his contribution to fingerstyle guitar, a rare distinction shared by only four other people in the world (Jerry Reed, Steve Wariner, John Knowles and Paul Yandell). It was a crowning moment for Emmanuel and a title the self-proclaimed “humble, uneducated, country kid” from Down Under takes very seriously.
Emmanuel’s popularity in the US has grown by leaps and bounds in the last few years, aided by a non-stop touring schedule and increasing exposure in the media. 2005 kicked off a stream of US honours and awards. Tommy was inducted into the National Thumbpickers’ Hall of Fame in Muhlenberg, KY (the only non-American ever to be selected) and awarded with Thumbpicker of the Year and Album of the Year by the group, as well. He played Carnegie Hall for Les Paul’s 90th birthday Tribute Concert. His The Mystery album earned a Grammy nomination in 2006 for Best Country Instrumental for ‘Gameshow Rag/Cannonball Rag’. In 2008, Guitar Player Magazine and Acoustic Guitar Magazine named him Best Acoustic Guitarist and Gold Medalist – Fingerstyle category in the Readers’ Choice and Players’ Choice Awards, respectively.
June 14, 2010 was an unforgettable day in Emmanuel’s career. Tommy was honoured as a Queen’s Member of the Order of Australia which is bestowed on Australian citizens for meritorious service in a particular area or field of activity. Emmanuel was cited for his “service to the music and entertainment industries as a guitarist, and to the community as a supporter of Kids Under Cover.” Kids Under Cover is an Australian charitable organization working to build homes and provide scholarships for homeless and at risk young people.
“I was humbled and honoured to be awarded with the Order of Australia,” said Emmanuel. “To be so recognised by my country for making music and for serving the young people of Australia is incredibly wonderful and deeply fulfilling.”
In December 2010, Tommy was one of a small number of acclaimed musicians whose talents were tapped to complete the unfinished recordings on Michael Jackson’s posthumous record, MICHAEL. Emmanuel was asked to contribute a solo to the album’s closing track “Much Too Soon” which Jackson originally wrote in 1981 – during the Thriller era –but never released.
In all, Emmanuel’s catalogue includes over 20 musical recordings running the gamut of solos, duets, ensembles, cover tunes, originals, both electric and acoustic guitar. He has made 4 live performance DVDs, 3 additional instructional DVDs, and regularly teaches master classes on the road. At 54, performing live is more important to him than ever and he tours constantly, playing over 300 concerts a year. Guitar players of all levels come to his shows to watch the magic hands of the ‘guitar Wizard of Oz’, but his appeal goes far beyond musicians. His live shows are known for their humour, passion, and infectious joy. The power of his charismatic showmanship will be an enduring part of Emmanuel’s legacy. Tommy Emmanuel’s message is pure love for the music and his delight in sharing it with the world, one audience at a time.
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