Berklee Riffs: Masters of Fingerstyle

Rob Hochschild
August 25, 2010
Visiting artist Tommy Emmanuel (left) and faculty member Guy Van Duser quickly run through a tune just before Emmanuel's July 23 clinic.
Tommy Emmanuel
Tommy Emmanuel (left) and Guy Van Duser
Photo by Phil Farnsworth
Photo by Phil Farnsworth
Photo by Phil Farnsworth

Tommy Emmanuel is the kind of musician who leaves his audiences gasping and shaking their heads, wondering how he is able to do what he does with an acoustic guitar in his hands. But Emmanuel's last two Berklee clinics have featured a guest guitarist—faculty member Guy Van Duser—who registers similar reactions among his listeners.

Known for creating a technique he calls "stride guitar" (he introduced Chet Atkins to it by teaching Atkins his arrangement of "The Stars and Stripes Forever"), Van Duser joined the faculty in 2007 after giving lessons to Rick Peckham, Berklee's assistant chair of guitar.

With those sorts of qualifications, it's no surprise that Van Duser found a few words to explain the seemingly unexplainable: Tommy Emmanuel's technique.

"The best thing about playing with Tommy . . . he is a listener," said Van Duser in an interview after Emmanuel's July 23 clinic. "While he's busy playing, he is also listening to exactly what you are doing. The alertness, the attention to detail—it's all instantaneous, and he can feed it right back at you."

Other keys, said Van Duser, include Emmanuel's background as a professional drummer—critical to him developing great rhythmic technique on guitar—and his unadorned sound. "He's doing it with no particular tricks. He plays a clean, steel-string guitar, just a little reverb. So in a sense, he's kind of back to basics."

During the clinic, Emmanuel and Van Duser played "Cannonball Rag" and "Trambone," two tunes made famous by Atkins. Van Duser said Emmanuel's choice of tunes is another reason he stands out.

"He can pull from the really cool history of the instrument—the '60s and '70s, when folk music and instrumental music just took off acoustically as well as electrically," said Van Duser, who teaches several popular fingerstyle labs at Berklee. "Tommy is authentic because he taps right into those recordings. He stays with stuff that an acoustic guitar can do."

Australia resident Emmanuel's only shortcoming is that he makes it here once every year or two. The good news for Berklee students is that the college has its own Emmanuel—Guy Van Duser—and he's helping students figure out fingerstyle every week. 

Berklee Riffs offer snapshots of day-to-day life at the college.