Notes from Rick Beato’s Tommy Emmanuel Interview

A very insightful interview with a lot playing throughout!

Topics include melody, surprise moments in songs, process for creating arrangements, improvisation, and much more. Be sure to watch the jam with Mike Dawes at the end.

Full interview:

Cascading harmonics (1:00)

Tommy’s use of cascading harmonics were directly influenced by Chet Atkins (was first to make that sound on a record). Lenny Breau took it to another level.

I tried coming up with arrangements of songs that the public would know, like Michelle, Summer Over the Rainbow…”

Surprise moments (2:50)

Importance of having moments of surprise in your music.

Rick pointed out how Tommy adds sophisticated jazz harmony in his arrangements. “They are the surprise moments, Sting is so right about that, we need to be surprised, because actually, surprise equals entertainment, surprise to me is a beautiful thing…” 

Purposefully look for things (harmonies, chords) that are not predictable.

Doing piano things on guitar (4:40)

Tommy is trying to do piano things on the guitar in order to sound different, to stand out across guitar players.

Focusing on vocal harmonies (5:00)

When working on an arrangement, say a Beatles tune, Tommy will focus on playing the vocal harmonies.

A lot of vocal harmonies will go in the opposite direction of the melody, so they may be going up while the melody is going down. This creates a very cool effect.

Interpret the melody properly (6:00)

“If you want to learn a song and come up with an arrangement, you got to learn as the composer intended. Learn the melody properly first, don’t go learning all the other fancy-shmancy stuff that so many creative people do, learn the melody properly first, learn the right chords, then if you want to change it, make it your own thing, you can do that…”

Grab the audience’s attention (7:00)

When playing in bars, people have very short attention spans. You have to grab their attention. Keep it rocking. Things have to keep moving and grooving.

I always judge how something is going by the audience’s response. Because that’s my job. My job is to play for people. I judge what my work is like and how I’m performing it, how it comes out, by your response, you’re my quality control…”

Learning complicated songs (9:40)

When you’re learning a new song that’s complicated, you don’t play anything else, only that song, until you can play it well…”

You need to first get to the baseline level where you are no longer “wrestling” with the song, where you are free to play it properly and also add in embellishments.

When you’re working out a song, it’s not music yet, it’s a skill. You’ve got to work out, carefully, start out bar by bar, little bit by little bit, and practice it, practice it, practice it, until it comes together and something happens with your brain, your attention goes to the melody and everything else starts to feel good…”

You get to the comfort level so that when you’re playing the song, you can just think about how you want to make it feel

You work out the skill of playing it and with enough playing and enough dedication that skill turns to music…”

Things that are hard to play (12:00)

Tends to be the original tunes he writes. Tommy will write challenging things in order to push himself. This is something Pat Metheny discussed as well

Need to practice his songs in order to be able to perform them on stage. Otherwise will struggle with them. It’s about just playing the songs, attention to detail, practicing. 

Revisiting old tunes and sources of inspiration (17:50) 

“American Pie” by Don McLean, Christopher Cross’s self-titled album, Stevie Ray Vaughan, The Beatles channel on Sirius XM, 60s/70s/80s channels.

I’ve never been a guy who only studies guitar players, I couldn’t care less, the world is full with great players, and there are players out there who can play rings around me, I’m not in competition with them, I’m trying to do my own thing…”

Will listen to non-guitarists like legendary drummer Steve Gadd for inspiration – “I want to be influenced by someone as good as him, take his influence and put it to the guitar…”

I try to listen to everything out there. But if something doesn’t touch me, or I feel that it’s soulless, I don’t listen to it, turn it off immediately, because I don’t want to waste my hearing, life is too short…”

Performing on tough nights (21:30)

“You better have some good songs to play, even on my worst night, I can stand on my material. It’s going to be okay because I believe in this music…”

Music is all about feel (26:45)

That’s why we are in love when BB King plays something, he doesn’t play much, but the moment he plays, it’s all feeling…”

“People get too obsessed about technique and abilities, most of us that do okay in this business, we are not focused on that, we are focused on how good is the song, how much of my heart can I pour into it…”

Importance of a metronome (27:45)

Had to learn to work with a metronome, stop, slow down, listen and get in the groove.

“I work with a metronome a lot, it’s good for me, it shows you areas where you pull back or learn forward. If you can keep the pulse going, you can move it around for the cause of emotion…”

It’s groove that makes the body move (28:35)

“It’s all about groove and time…”

What to practice (29:00)

Like to improvise and change keys. Gives an example of jamming on a blues shuffle.

“Practicing going from one idea to the next without stopping, mistakes and all, just to get my blood flowing, then I may do a similar thing but at a different tempo…”

Importance of improvising (33:25)

“It’s fun to improvise. Every once in a while you put your fork in the ground and you hit a piece of gold…”

Mentions guitarist Jack Pearson as one of the greatest improvisers he’s ever heard.

Other notable improvisers: Larry Carlton & Robben Ford

Playing the melody like a lead singer (36:40)

Examples of playing just the melody, without many embellishments, focus on the melody and have the backing rhythm guitar add the colors and embellishments.

Dynamics (40:20)

I learned it from Sinatra singing, the great players that do it well…”

“What I’m trying to do is express it in a singing way, because I love singers, I love trying to do things that make the guitar more like a voice…”

“I’m not playing the guitar, I’m playing music on this instrument…” 

“When I grew up I realized I no longer needed to try and impress people (with technique), I needed to play the song with all my heart and that’s what matters, just play the song…”

Additional Insights

Check out my guest post on The Guitar Journal for additional insights from this interview.