Guitar Virtuoso Tommy Emmanuel Advises Berklee Summer Students

Mike Keefe-Feldman
July 23, 2014
Finger-style guitar innovator Tommy Emmanuel delivers a clinic to Berklee Guitar Sessions summer students.
Photo by Dave Green

Without a visual cue, the uninitiated Tommy Emmanuel listener may not realize that what they are hearing is the work of just one man with a guitar. The Australian Emmanuel is often considered the best finger-style guitarist in the world, an heir to the late great Chet Atkins’s throne (the pair recorded an album together in 1997 that earned a Grammy nomination) and Emmanuel’s technique—which frequently blends bass lines, rhythm and lead guitar parts, and percussion simultaneously—enables him to generate sounds from the guitar akin to what one might expect from a full band.

On Tuesday, July 8, 2014, Emmanuel, a visiting artist with Berklee’s Guitar Sessions summer program, performed in the Berklee Performance Center (BPC), where he also delivered a clinic to an auditorium filled with inquisitive guitar students. Emmanuel has visited Berklee on several occasions and while the size of the student audience hungry for his road-tested advice and jaw-dropping performances has grown considerably over the years, in line with the guitarist’s expanding worldwide acclaim, Emmanuel has remained consistent in answering students’ questions in a refreshingly unguarded manner.

Watch an interview with Tommy Emmanuel at Berklee:

Below are some excerpts from Emmanuel’s recent remarks to Berklee Guitar Sessions students.

On his philosophy of life:

“Show up and do your best; that’s really the bottom line. Find what it is that you’re meant to do in your life and then run and do it. Don’t wait for anything or anybody. Run and do it with all of your energy, because life is not a rehearsal. This is the real gig, and you’d better get on with it.”

On his sources of inspiration:

“When inspiration comes to you, act on it immediately and don’t put it off until later. If you feel inspired, you’ve got to do something about it right away. I’m always trying to learn as much as I can from people who do things really well and people I admire—Jeff Beck, Larry Carlton, George Benson—and when I was a child, it was always about good melody. Some of the best melody-playing was by a band called the Shadows, from England, and their songs were absolutely memorable. They had hits on the radio that were instrumentals, and that was unheard of. That set me off on a path of looking for good melody.”

On being influenced by others:

“I believe it’s nature’s way that we all emulate someone, especially someone we really like or inspired by. Everyone has emulated someone else and stolen from someone else. That’s what we do. That’s how the music gets handed on from generation to generation. Nobody owns this.”

Watch Tommy Emmanuel jam with Berklee guitar student Nikola Stajic:

On practice:

“It’s up to you how hard you want to work and how dedicated you want to be. Where do you want to get with it, you know? But some people practice so much that they damage their hands because they’re trying too hard, so you also have to be careful about that. I don’t have any set routine. I just know when I have to work on my skills. I’m always trying to invent new things, so a lot of my practice is looking for new things to play.”

On timing:

“Timing is so important. Trying to become really super aware of your time is your first step. I like to work on my time using a metronome.”

On ear training:

“Music is its own teacher. Only use tabs as a roadmap, but try to use your ear to really learn what is going on.”

On a career in music:

“I sit before you today as an example of a person who makes a living playing the guitar. I don’t do anything else. I’ve never wanted to do anything else. And every night, I meet people and a lot of times they ask me the same question. They say, ‘How can my son or my daughter get started doing what you’re doing?’ And that’s a difficult question to answer because it’s hard to describe what I do. I tell stories without words. I bang on my guitar and I try to make people’s lives better by showing up and doing my best.

One of the first things I always tell people is, ‘Find some good songs. When you get up there, play something good and really mean it.’ If it’s a good song and you play it like you mean it, it will touch people. But no one wants to hear a mediocre repertoire, so you have to fight mediocrity tooth and nail. Look for the really good songs, spend time on the arrangements, work on your sound and your timing and your confidence on the stage. The quality and integrity of your music is what stands the test of time.”