A & E, Features

Tommy Emmanuel, CPG (certified guitar player)

Inspiring Australian virtuoso shares his love of music with awestruck audience

Eric Clapton called Tommy Emmanuel the best guitarist he’d ever seen. Given Emmanuel’s spectacular sold-out 2012 concert tour kickoff at the Palace of Fine Arts on Valentine’s Day weekend, I’d have to agree.

Recently voted the world’s best acoustic guitarist (again), Emmanuel is not content with mere virtuosity. He has expanded the possibilities of the acoustic guitar, exploring musical horizons with inventive rhythms, harmonic colorations of tone, innovative combinations of lush melodies, simultaneous bass lines, and surprisingly rich harmonies.

As a songwriter and session guitarist, the two-time Grammy nominee has worked behind the scenes with many of Australia’s biggest hit-makers – Men at Work, Air Supply and Olivia Newton-John, to name a few. He and his brother Phil took part in the closing ceremonies of the Sydney Summer Olympics, and Emmanuel is currently enjoying widespread recognition in the United States as the result of his well-received PBS specials.

Born into a musical family, he performed extensively across Australia as a child, and as a teenager, he wrote a letter to his hero, fingerpicking country legend Chet Atkins. The two eventually met after Emmanuel spent his last dime to travel to the United States to meet Atkins. Decades later, the two performed and recorded together – whereupon Atkins officially bestowed the honor of “certified guitar player” upon his worthy disciple.

Emmanuel’s delightful boyish charm and self-effacing Australian humor have endeared him to audiences worldwide. His infectious enthusiasm is uplifting, to say

the least.

While some musical acts can’t match their studio performances, Tommy Emmanuel is an exception. Hearing his music is one thing, but it’s impossible to fully appreciate his musicianship without witnessing his guitar virtuosity in person. His one-man-band arrangements of jazz standards and Beatles’ songs are thoroughly entertaining.

Emmanuel’s original compositions explore the musical spectrum from the ringing, ethereal beauty of “Morning Aire” to the mind-blowing sonic adventures of “Initiations,” which uses the layered interplay of exotic rhythms to weave an Aboriginal tapestry that captures the sound of the night in the Australian bush. A fascinating crescendo of incessant scratching, tapping and flurries of melodic texture paints a vivid picture that conjures up flying spirits, wild animals, uninhibited tribal dancing and

the hypnotic drone of a didgeridoo. Beyond his awe-inspiring technical facility is a deep connection with the divine, sublime aspects of the universal language of music.

Emmanuel’s jaw-dropping runs

and sparkling fretboard flourishes seem even more miraculous when you consider that he is profoundly deaf. Born with yellow fever, Emmanuel operates with only about 20 percent of his hearing. But that hasn’t seemed to slow him down in the least, as he maintains a whirlwind schedule that includes about 300 concert dates and workshops a year.

The secret? Good old-fashioned practice and determination – not to mention an undeniable God-given talent. Emmanuel believes in his gift and believes in sharing that gift with others.

And for that, we can all be thankful.

A version of this story ran previously in West Portal Monthly.

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