Guitar Wizard of Oz Tommy Emmanuel coming to Nelson

Australian guitar legend Tommy Emmanuel is playing at Nelson's Annesbrook Church on September 20 as part of a nationwide ...

Australian guitar legend Tommy Emmanuel is playing at Nelson's Annesbrook Church on September 20 as part of a nationwide tour.

Tommy Emmanuel has ticked off most boxes on a guitarist's wishlist, including a Grammy, touring with Eric Clapton, playing the Grand Ole Oprey and performing for a global audience of two billion people at the 2000 Sydney Olympics. 

However, the Australian native says even after 59 years of playing music, the journey of self-improvement is ongoing. 

"It's never like I get satisfied, I keep pushing it and see what I can learn - playing with people who inspire you - that's good for you."

Ahead of four New Zealand shows in September, Emmanuel is speaking from a Nashville recording studio, where he is laying down a track for a new album of duets with local artists.

"It's just a case of naming a tune, find a key and hit the record button - creatively it keeps you on the edge and really digging for the ideas and I like that, being able to push myself."

A Nashville resident for the last 14 years, Emmanuel says the city remains an enormous source of inspiration for him, as it does for so many others following their dreams in Tennessee.

"There are musicians here who will knock your arse around the creek, they play the hell out of it in every way."

The move to the USA was at the suggestion of his late mentor and friend Chet Atkins, with whom he won a Grammy in 1998.

"I was so lucky to be in his close circle of friends and then we became like family, he's always been a guiding light in my life. He passed away in 2001, but I still feel his presence in the music and I try to honour him whenever I'm on the stage."

Given his first guitar at age four, Emmanuel started working professionally just two years later in a family band, the Emmanuel Quartet. With his brother Phil, the pair created games that helped them identify chords and patterns. 

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Emmanuel's technical precision, virtuosic improvisations and his unusually broad repertoire encompasses not only country and bluegrass, but pop, jazz, blues, gospel, even classical,flamenco, and aboriginal styles.

His experience as a drummer has also helped shaped percussive aspects of his style.

"There are things that I do on the guitar that are different from other players because I can think like a drummer and that changes the way I feel time and how rhythmic it is  - some people say it feels like there is more than one person on stage but it's all a musical illusion I'm generating."

Last year, he recorded a performance of his first solo show at Nashville's Ryman Theatre, one of several venues in the city to host the Grand Ole Oprey,

The resulting album, 'Live at the Ryman', captures Emmanuel at the top of his game, albeit at the end of a gruelling 36-date tour.

"It was a bit of a blur to me -  I really just had to knuckle down and concentrate like crazy - you don't want to get carried away with your emotions because you're there for the audience."

His sets often feature interpretations of guitar standards like Classical Gas, which has become a crowd favourite ever since Emmanuel added it to his repertoire in the 1970s. 

"The first thing I did was change it to the way I wanted it, and that arrangement that started way back then is still evolving."

"The guy who wrote it, Mason Williams, lives in Eugene, Oregon and when I'm there he comes to the show...and has a bit of a laugh at how I've butchered his song ."

"I had to explain to him that because I'm playing it as a solo piece with no band or orchestra you need to get to the iconic pieces and showcase them early - I kind of took a lot of licence but it's out of necessity to give the audience a great time."

While Atkins and Hank Marvin are his biggest influences, Emmanuel has a similar level of respect for New Zealand guitar legend Peter Posa. 

"He was a very important guy in our lives, especially back in the sixties he was putting out records that sounded better than anyone else and that was part of the evolution of guitar music."

"I used to play 'White Rabbit' when I was a kid, but there was a lot of other stuff that Peter did that was more complicated than that, and my brother Phil and I worked out those tunes, along with the Shadows and stuff like that."

Emmanuel's other Kiwi connection is his stint as guitarist for Dragon in the mid-80s, recording the Dreams of Ordinary Men album with producer Todd Rundgren in New York.

"What an amazing experience that was and then touring with those guys - I'll always treasure the time I had." 

Emmanuel's musical legacy has even seen him been bestowed the title of honourary Kentucky Colonel, which he says has nothing to do with the military - or chicken for that matter - rather for his fundraising efforts in schools and hospitals in that state and for taking the musical style of Muhlenberg County to the world.

"I tell the story of Merle Travis and the Everly Brothers who came from that area, so it's an honour that the Governor gave me - what it really means is that I can get a free ticket to the Kentucky Derby."

Tommy Emmanuel plays Nelson at the Annesbrook Church on September 20. Ticket details for all NZ shows can be found at: 

Hamilton, Christchurch and Nelson 


 - Stuff


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