William Thomas “Tommy” Emmanuel AM (born 31 May 1955) is an Australian virtuoso guitarist and occasional singer and songwriter, best known for his complex fingerstyle technique, energetic performances and the use of percussive effects on the guitar. Although originally a session player in many bands, Emmanuel has carved out his own style as a solo artist in recent years, releasing award winning albums and singles. In the May 2008 and 2010 issues of Guitar Player Magazine, he was named “Best Acoustic Guitarist” in their readers’ poll. In June 2010 Emmanuel was appointed a Member of the Order of Australia (AM).
Emmanuel was born in Australia in 1955. He received his first guitar in 1959 at age four, being taught by his mother to accompany her playing lap steel guitar. At the age of seven he heard Chet Atkins on the radio. He vividly remembers this moment and says it greatly inspired him.
By the age of six, in 1961, he was a working professional musician. Recognizing the musical talents of Tommy and his brother Phil, their father created a family band, sold the family home and took his family on the road. With the family living in two station wagons, much of Emmanuel’s childhood was spent touring Australia with them, playing rhythm guitar, and rarely going to school. The family found it difficult living on the road; they were poor but never hungry, never settling in one place. His father would often drive ahead, organize interviews, advertising and finding the local music shop where they would have an impromptu concert the next day. Eventually the New South Wales Department of Education insisted that the Emmanuel children needed to go to school regularly.
After his father died in 1966, the family settled in Parkes. Tommy eventually moved to Sydney where he came to be noticed nationally when he won a string of talent contests in his teen years. By the late 1970s, he was playing drums with his brother Phil in the group Goldrush as well doing session work on numerous albums and jingles. He gained further prominence in the late 1970s as the lead guitarist in The Southern Star Band, the backing group for vocalist Doug Parkinson. During the early 1980s, he joined the reformed lineup of leading 1970s rock group Dragon, touring widely with them, including a 1987 tour with Tina Turner. He left the group to embark on a solo career.
Throughout his career he has played with many notable artists including Chet Atkins, Eric Clapton, Sir George Martin, Air Supply, John Denver, Les Paul, Edgar Cruz, Martin Taylor and Doc Watson.
In 1994 Australian music veteran John Farnham invited him to play guitar next to Stuart Fraser from Noiseworks for the Concert For Rwanda. Emmanuel became a member of Farnham’s band. He had previously been a member of Farnham’s band during the early 1980s and featured on the album Uncovered.
Emmanuel and his brother Phil performed live in Sydney at the closing ceremony of the Summer Olympics in 2000. The event was televised worldwide with an estimated 2.85 billion viewers. When performing together the pair sometimes share and play just one guitar with each having one hand free.
In October 2002 he was invited to perform the Australian folk song Waltzing Matilda at a service at the Washington National Cathedral held for the victims of the Bali bombings.
In December 2007 he was diagnosed with heart issues and was forced to take a break from his hectic touring schedule due to exhaustion, but returned to full-time touring in early 2008.
In late January 2010, after the 2010 Haiti earthquake earlier in the same month, Emmanuel announced that he would be auctioning off three guitars, that he personally played and owned, on eBay, in order to raise money to donate to UNICEF in Haiti.
Tommy is currently a resident of Nashville.
Emmanuel has said that even at a young age he was fascinated by Chet Atkins’ musical style (sometimes referred to as Travis picking) of playing bass lines, chords, melodies and harmonies simultaneously using the thumb and fingers of the right hand, achieving a dynamic range of sound from the instrument. Although Emmanuel’s playing incorporates a multitude of musical influences and styles, including jazz, blues, bluegrass, folk and rock, this type of country fingerstyle playing is at the core of his technique. While Emmanuel has never had formal music training, and does not read or write music, his natural musical ability and intrinsic sense of rhythm has gained him fans from all over the world. As a solo performer he never plays to a set list and uses a minimum of effects onstage and he usually completes studio recordings in one take.
His main stage guitars which he plays on his solo shows are made by Maton. He usually travels with two custom EBG808 TE models and one TE1 model, both of which are Tommy Emmanuel artist signature models. He has been playing Maton guitars for most of his career and is somewhat of an ambassador to the company due to his long-standing association with the brand. Emmanuel has come to be known for the battered and worn-down appearance of his guitars. This is a result of his dynamic, energetic playing and percussive techniques; one of his signature performances, for example, involves striking the whole body of the guitar in various places with his hands or a drummer’s snare-drum brush to emulate the sound of an entire percussion kit.
Emmanuel usually keeps one EBG808 in standard guitar tuning (E-A-D-G-B-E), while he tunes his second EBG808 to D-G-D-G-B-E (G6 tuning) and his TE1 to C♯-F♯-B-E-G♯-C♯. He generally uses 0.12 gauge (light) strings on one EBG808 and 0.13 gauge (medium) strings on the second EBG808 and on the TE1. This allows him to quickly change tuning by swapping between guitars during a show if needed, rather than spending time onstage retuning one guitar.
Emmanuel can often be seen curling his left-hand thumb around the neck of the guitar onto the fretboard to play certain notes rather than using only his fingers to play, contrary to how a classical guitarist would play, but usual for jazz and country guitarists. He frequently plays common three-finger chord shapes with just two fingers. He commonly uses a thumbpick, a flat pick (plectrum), his fingers or a combination of these in his playing, a style known as hybrid picking. Amongst his trademark rapid virtuosic licks and cascading harmonic progressions, he can also often be seen using a technique which imitates an electric guitar’s vibrato system on his acoustic guitars; by pressing the palm of his right hand against the sound board of the guitar near the neck joint, while maintaining forward pressure with his left hand on the top of the headstock, the guitar neck slightly bends away from the body and consequently affects the pitch of the strings to achieve the desired sound.