Tommy Emmanuel and Amy Helm take the stage at Guild Hall on Tuesday, August 13, at 8 PM — the next in the “Portraits” series with Amagansett resident and guitar star G.E. Smith, and produced by Taylor Barton.
Since he taught himself to play as a toddler, the guitar has been Emmanuel’s real first language. Influenced by Chet Atkins’s fingerstyle of guitar picking, Emmanuel developed his own style of solo guitar playing — no loop pedals, no overdubs, just one man and 10 fingers.
“Chet was the name on everyone’s lips when I was a kid,” he recalled. “I heard him on the radio one day, and it just galvanized me. I just said to my dad, ‘He’s playing everything at once.’ And that was my destiny and I knew it.”
He wrote Chet Atkins a letter, and Atkins wrote back. “He sent me a black-and-white photograph of himself, signed to me.”
Tommy Emmanuel was playing guitar professionally at six years old in his native Australia.
How did that come about? “I had been playing guitar since I was four,” Emmanuel told The Independent. “We were a family band, with my brothers and sisters. We got on TV, and radio shows, and started traveling around Australia — making a living playing music. My father quit his job, sold the house, and bought two cars and a tent and a trailer, and away we went.”
The Emmanuel Quartet, as they were known, traveled until Emmanuel’s father died in 1966, when Tommy was 11.
In 1980, Emmanuel finally met his hero, Chet Atkins. “And I played for him,” he said. “And he really encouraged me, and we stayed in touch.”
By 30, he was a rock-and-roll lead guitarist burning up stadiums in Europe. “I didn’t play solo until the late ’70s,” he said. “Prior to that I was always in bands; either the lead guitar player or the rhythm guitar player, and the harmony singer. Or playing bass or drums and singing harmonies.”
In 1999, he became one of five people ever named a Certified Guitar Player by his idol, Chet Atkins. “It’s not only a tremendous honor to be honored by your hero, but it’s a big responsibility. Our goal, Chet and I, was to take fingerstyle music all around the world, to encourage young people to pick up the guitar and play, and fill the world full of beautiful music.” Today, Emmanuel plays hundreds of sold-out shows every year from Nashville to Sydney to London. “And every time I walk on stage, I still feel that responsibility. I want to give my best. I’ve got to lead by example.”
Emmanuel’s album, “Accomplice One,” is a series of collaborations with some of the finest singers, songwriters, and, yes, guitarists alive today — a list including Jason Isbell, Mark Knopfler, Rodney Crowell, Jerry Douglas, Amanda Shires, Ricky Skaggs, and many more.
Although he’s known today for playing solo, Emmanuel enjoys collaborating just as much. “I like playing in bands. I like playing in orchestras,” said Emmanuel. “And I like playing solo as well.”
As far as where he plays, “I just like venues where the sound is always good, and the people can see well. Everything from concert halls to clubs, to small venues, to big venues.” He’s recently performed at folk and bluegrass festivals as well. “What I do seems to fit just about anywhere,” he said.
Still, one of the high points for him happened in 1995. Emmanuel was playing a showcase in Nashville “and Chet came to see me both nights, with a record producer” — at that point, Emmanuel and Atkins were signed with the same record company. “That was the first time he actually saw me play in front of an audience, and they went pretty crazy,” he said with a laugh, speaking about his fans.
“When I got back to Australia, he called me and asked if I wanted to record with him. My life came full circle,” Emmanuel said, with emotion in his voice. “And my dream came true.” He paused. “It doesn’t get any better than that.”
Concerning the show at Guild Hall, “I will probably play first, and then Amy will come out and wow everybody. She’s a great singer,” Emmanuel added. “I’m really looking forward to meeting up with G.E. Smith. I’ve been a fan of his for a long time,” he said. “I used to see him with Hall & Oates, way, way back, and used to watch him on ‘Saturday Night Live.’ He’s a great leader, and a great team player, and a great all-around guitar player, full stop. I’m looking forward to seeing everyone there,” he said.
Tickets for G.E. Smith’s “Portraits” with Tommy Emmanuel and Amy Helm are available at www.guildhall.org.