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.