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Guitarist Tommy Emmanuel plays with joyful, adventurous virtuosity


His guitar playing is a lot like his laughter, both of which come easy.

Tommy Emmanuel is an instinctive performer, his repertoire untutored and emotive, a product of intuition, not training.

His relationship with his instrument of choice results in a sound akin to a conversation between old friends.

Think about what it takes for you to digest these very words, the act of reading has become second nature, right?

You don’t even think that you’re thinking.

Emmanuel’s playing is along the same lines, a sublimation of technique.

On the 58-year-old Australian’s latest record, “The Colonel and the General,” cut with British jazz guitar great Martin Taylor, Emmanuel can frequently be heard chuckling and whooping and goading on his cohort as he and Martin musically chase each other all over the place like a couple of hounds nipping at tails.

Emmanuel is a virtuoso, his finger-style playing on acoustic guitar so accomplished and involved, it would be easy for his albums to get suffocated by high-level instrumental proficiency.

But there’s a looseness, a spontaneity in both the man and his music. You hear it as clearly as you do his giggles of joy that bubble up through “The Colonel and the General,” giving the album a kind of natural effervescence.

“I’m not an analytical-type person,” Emmanuel says from his home in Nashville, Tenn., on a recent Friday afternoon. “Go for it, and if you make a few mistakes but it’s honest, I don’t really care. That’s pretty much me.

“I’ve always been a person who’s willing to wear the egg,” he adds.

Come again?

“If I mess up, I’m totally willing to wear the egg on my face,” he explains. “If you can cope with messing up or not coming up to the mark but really giving it your best, then what have you got to lose? Why don’t you be adventurous right from the start?

“Chet Atkins actually said something in an interview about me that struck a chord with me,” he continues. “He said, ‘This guy’s the most fearless musician I’ve ever seen. I’ve never seen another player who can go jam with a jazz band and then play Django (Reinhardt) tunes and then play Spanish music and then play all of my stuff.’ I don’t know whether it’s my ignorance or my innocence, but I’ve always felt that if I understood anything at all (about a certain style of music), I’d be ready to jump in and you can throw me a solo and I’ll have a go at it.”

It’s fitting that Emmanuel mentions Atkins, one of his greatest influences.

When a 7-year-old Emmanuel first heard Atkins on the radio, it was a transformative moment. Emmanuel had been playing since he was 4 and was already a working musician, touring Australia with the family band that his father assembled after recognizing the musical abilities of Tommy and his brother Phil.

“Most young kids our age thought we had a dream life, but what they didn’t know is that we admired and loved their life because they got to have a home, they got to be in the same place all the time and not to have to travel,” Emmanuel says of the rigors of touring Australia in the family station wagon.

He developed a sense of showmanship at an early age, which carries on to this day. Live, Emmanuel uses his guitar as a percussive instrument in addition to its more traditional use, keeping the beat in often animated fashion.

“Really, what I’m doing is playing a drummer’s ideas on a different-shaped instrument,” he says with a hearty laugh. “It’s new to the public, but it’s not new to me. I’ve always done it.”

Emmanuel is a one-man band, at least in the way he conceptualizes his material. He frequently begins with a melody, something he can sing even though his music is mostly without vocals, and builds from there, fleshing his songs out as if he was arranging them for a full group of players.

So, though his tunes are obviously guitar-centered, they don’t always sound like straight-up guitar instrumentals, but something a bit more accessible to nonmusicians.

Emmanuel needs to be seen as much as heard. His gymnastic playing as fun to watch as it is to listen to.

As such, Emmanuel received a significant career boost a decade ago when fans started posting videos of his performances on YouTube, even though Emmanuel didn’t know what YouTube was then.

“It wasn’t until, I think, 2005, that I really got to know about it and to realize that there were a lot of my videos up there and they were going all over the world,” Emmanuel says. “It explained a few things to me, because in places like Sweden and Denmark and Norway, places that I hadn’t played before, I was selling out concerts. I thought, ‘Well, how is this happening? How could people possible know me?’ ”

On the day we speak to him, Emmanuel is recording and filming three new songs for videos to be posted online, this after completing nine the day before.

“It’s stuff of the fans,” Emmanuel says. “I’m doing some unusual things that I haven’t put out before, multitracking stuff where I’m playing all the parts and everything. It’s challenging and fun.”

Of everything Emmanuel just said there, it all boils down to his final word.

“You want to enjoy yourself,” he says, speaking from experience. “You never want music to feel like a job.”

Contact reporter Jason Bracelin at jbracelin@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0476. Follow on Twitter @JasonBracelin.