Guitar Man 

Certified master of the six-string, Tommy Emmanuel, to play Fine Arts Center

You will not find a guitarist with more credentials than Australian fingerpicker Tommy Emmanuel. A bona fide master of the six-string, Emmanuel has played with everyone from Eric Clapton to symphony orchestras to Stevie Wonder.

But the big names that are dropped throughout his rsum are just the beginning. Here are just a few of his other accomplishments:

He served as Music Ambassador for Australia from 1989 to 1990.

He was named best guitarist by Rolling Stone magazine in 1990.

He was nominated for a Grammy Award for a 1998 recording he made with his hero and mentor, Chet Atkins.

He won Best Country Instrumental Recording at the Nashville Music Awards in 1998.

His album Midnight Drive was on the jazz top five for 16 weeks.

But Emmanuel's most telling credential is the "CGP," which appears after the musician's name on all his CDs and press materials. It stands for Certified Guitar Player and it's clearly Emmanuel's favorite honor. The title was bestowed on Emmanuel in 1999 by his guitar-playing god and guru, Atkins, for his contribution to the art of finger-style guitar picking.

"[Chet] figured that there are people who study and devote themselves to something and get a bachelor of arts [degree] or who become doctors of this or that, and he thought that guitar players should have something like that," Emmanuel explained.

It's no wonder Emmanuel wears the badge with great pride. "I was about 7 when I heard [Atkins] on the radio playing his tune, 'Windy and Warm,' " Emmanuel said. "I could hear even then that he was playing everything at once. It became my mission to work it out. Years later, when I played it for him, I found I actually had the technique right."

Like his mentor, Emmanuel is not one to be boxed in by the notion that fingerpicking belongs solely in country and bluegrass. Just as Atkins was drawn to styles such as the classical guitar and jazz, Emmanuel infuses his tunes with jazz, bluegrass, R & B and blues.

All those influences come pouring through the generous helping of original songs in his most recent CD, Only, a solo instrumental album that offers all the body, groove and melody of a three-piece ensemble. On numbers such as "Mombasa" and "Train to Dsseldorf," he slaps out funky bass lines and grooves with his thumb, while his other fingers are picking out deliciously soulful melodies as counterpoint.

"I've always been drawn to music that had a strong melody and a strong groove, and that comes through listening to Chet Atkins and onwards," Emmanuel said. "I have pretty eclectic tastes -- bluegrass, jazz, R & B, country -- and add to that the influence of The Beatles, Eric Clapton and Stevie Ray Vaughn."

Emmanuel picks up a lot more via his travels around the world and passed on a lot of what he heard to his friend Atkins, whose declining health prevented him from traveling in his later years. (Atkins died this summer in Nashville.) "In some ways, I had kind of become [Chet Atkins'] ears and eyes around the world, because I know how interested he was in what other people were doing. So I'd call him from Thailand or New Zealand and sometimes even have people play to him over the phone."

Global influences aside, Emmanuel's musical roots lie in country with performers like '70s country phenom Jerry Reed. "If you go back and listen to tunes like 'Amos Moses,' it's just guitar, bass and drums and it's so good and so fat and so funky. His style of songwriting has influenced me a lot. People have not yet really realized how many songs for guitar instrumental he's written that are so damn good."

As for Emmanuel, he wrote his first song, an instrumental titled "Tommy's Song," when he was 9 years old. He's been writing ever since, producing his first album in 1978, and delivering a new recording every two years since the late '80s. In 1998, he got a chance to record with Atkins on The Day the Finger Pickers Took over the World (Sony/Columbia). The recording was nominated for a Grammy that year.

But Emmanuel's talents aren't just put to use in the studio. He's constantly touring all over the world, opening up big events like the Sydney Olympics, or playing before acts ranging from the Rolling Stones' Bill Wyman to Olivia Newton-John. On stage, Emmanuel's a real entertainer, mixing cute between-song banter with energetic instrumental performances.

Audience connection is clearly a big part of Emmanuel's shows, which often feature the guitarist improvising new riffs or arrangements into old tunes, or even making up completely new compositions on the spot based on suggestions from the audience.

"Sometimes people who know my show will call out 'improvise something,' and then I'll ask them to give me a chord. And people usually say, 'A-flat' or something unusual and I'll just improvise with that. A lot of times I take a tune and do something else with it, to see if I can push myself a little further with the song. It keeps me fresh."

Despite his talents and accomplishments, Emmanuel insists that, for him, music is not about credentials or letters after his name. "I tell people, 'I'm not in the music business, I'm in the happiness business,' because that's what I do. I play music that makes people feel good. That's my job in life."


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