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LIANE HANSEN, host:

The late American guitar legend Chet Atkins once called Tommy Emmanuel one of the greatest players on the planet.

(Soundbite of music)

HANSEN: High praise for someone whose name you might not know. The Australian-born guitarist has been honing his craft for more than 45 years, and he can play all styles of music. Tommy Emmanuel has also created a finger-style sound that is all his own.

(Soundbite of music)

HANSEN: Emmanuel has released a new CD called The Mystery. We've caught up with him on tour between performances. He's in the Metropolis Integrated Media Studio in Salt Lake City, Utah. Welcome to the program.

Mr. TOMMY EMMANUEL (Musician): Hey.

HANSEN: It really sounds like you have a lot more than five fingers on one hand.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. EMMANUEL: Thank you.

HANSEN: You've been playing guitar for a really long time. You must have picked up the guitar in utero.

Mr. EMMANUEL: Well, my mother said that when she brought me home from the hospital that the only time that I would sleep during the day is when she put me in front of the record player and put music on. So music was already soothing my soul when I was a week old. And then fast-forward to a couple of years later when I was running around the house in diapers. My mother would put the washing in the washing machine and pull a little lever on the side of the washing machine to engage the gear box, and away it go - clunk, clunk, clunk, clunk - and she said I would come running down the hallway so I could dance with the washing machine.

So I was fascinated by grooves and I was fascinated by music long before I could actually play it.

HANSEN: When did you pick up the guitar?

Mr. EMMANUEL: For my fourth birthday my mother gave me a guitar and showed me how to play a D and a G and A 7th and a C and an E. She played Hawaiian music on her lap-steel guitar, and I became her rhythm player, and that was my first - that was my first gig, man.

HANSEN: Wow, four years old.

Mr. EMMANUEL: Yeah.

HANSEN: Your style of guitar - you picked it up at four and, you know, started strumming some chords, and you know, now you're in mid-life. And we refer to you as having this finger-style guitar. Can you explain or demonstrate, actually, what that is?

Mr. EMMANUEL: I can. This style has its roots in the Muhlenberg County area in Kentucky. And the great Merle Travis, and the Everly Brothers' father, Ike Everly - they were the guys who really started this style, and a guy named Mose Rager. And then it was Chet Atkins who heard Merle Travis on the radio when he was probably 10 years old, and that forever changed his life, and the same thing for me. When I heard Chet on the radio in Australia, I was about seven years old, and that forever changed my life as a player.

So let me just describe it. What we do with out thumb, with the thumb on our right hand, we play what a piano player would play with his left hand, so you go...

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. EMMANUEL: ...a kind of accompaniment like that. And then with the fingers, we play the melody. So you get the thumb doing that and then the melody.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. EMMANUEL: So you get the general idea?

HANSEN: I get the general idea.

Mr. EMMANUEL: Okay.

HANSEN: And it's interesting that you heard - it was Chet Atkins that you heard on the radio.

Mr. EMMANUEL: Yeah.

HANSEN: You actually developed a very close relationship with him, right?

Mr. EMMANUEL: I did. When I was 11 my father passed away and I had several of Chet's albums, and I lived inside them. They were my whole world, you know? And one day I decided I wanted to write to him. So I wrote this letter, and I put on the envelope: Chet Atkins, RCA Record, Nashville, America. That was what I wrote on the envelope. And it got to him. And I was living in a little town in Australia in Parks(ph) in those days, and he wrote back to me and send me a really nice photograph, signed and everything, and a really nice letter.

And years later, when I was about 18, some friends of mine taped me playing in their lounge room and sent the tape to Chet and didn't tell me, and next thing I get another letter from him out of the blue saying, you know, if you ever come to America, here's my phone number. Please call me up and it would be great to get together. I love your playing. It was really mind-blowing for a kid from nowhere like me.

And I rang him when I got into America the first time the first time, in 1980 it was.

HANSEN: How old were you in 1980 when you met him?

Mr. EMMANUEL: Twenty-five.

HANSEN: Wow.

Mr. EMMANUEL: And I went over to his office and we played for like four hours. We had a beautiful time. That's how we hooked up, and then we just stayed in touch, and every time I came to Nashville I got invited to come and stay at the house, with Chet and Leona. He would do such wonderful things. He'd get some of his really famous guitars, he'd get them all cleaned up and new strings on them and put them on stands beside the bed so I'd have his guitars to play when I came in. It was just the most mind-blowing experience.

We became very, very close, like father and son, and when I made my album, Only, I flew into Nashville to do the mastering of the album, and I was there for three days. And Chet was in a period where he was in pretty good shape, and he didn't need help to get around and stuff like that. And he was very keen to know about my knew album, what was I doing and blah, blah, blah.

And so I remember this day really well. Everybody went out, and it was just Chet and I alone in his house, and he'd just got out of the shower and got all dressed and everything, and he called to me down the corridor to come into his bedroom, and he said bring your guitar. And he was laying on the bed, fully dressed in his denims and braces and the whole bit, and he was laying there looking up at the ceiling. And he said, can you come in and play your new album for me?

And I said, oh, you want me to get the CD? He said, no, I want you to come in and play it. So I sat on the end of the bed and I played the whole album, in order, for him, while he just laid on the bed, and every now and again he'd close his eyes, and then when I finished the song, he'd just say, yeah. And then I'd move on to the next one. And he listened to everything, totally and intently, as I played each song. And I'll never forget that experience.

HANSEN: You're self-taught. You taught yourself, really, right?

Mr. EMMANUEL: I am. It was learning songs that taught me how to play the guitar.

HANSEN: You don't read music.

Mr. EMMANUEL: No, I don't.

HANSEN: Ah. How do you compose the music, then?

Mr. EMMANUEL: Well, I use repetition, for a start, to be able to play over and over and over the same thing until you've got it down. Then you stop thinking about the motor skills and pour all your conscious part of you into playing the music properly.

HANSEN: Do you improvise a lot when you go out on the road on tour?

Mr. EMMANUEL: All the time.

HANSEN: Yeah?

Mr. EMMANUEL: Improvising is one of my great joys, and I'm playing a tune called Guitar Boogie, which goes like...

(Soundbite of song "Guitar Boogie")

Mr. EMMANUEL: Right? And that's a twelve-bar blues in E, so that give me a chance to fly my kite. So after I've played the melody and done all that, then I can go into, you know, whatever I like. So let me just do something here for you.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. EMMANUEL: Something like that.

HANSEN: How do you know when to stop?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. EMMANUEL: When the red light goes off.

(Soundbite of laughter)

HANSEN: There you go.

Mr. EMMANUEL: When people start leaving, you know? You know, I've never been a person who's been in a hurry, and I'm just doing what I do and sticking on track with it and just building an audience in each area.

HANSEN: You're going to play a tune for us from the new CD, Mystery, and this is a tune called Antonella's Birthday. Is there anything you want to tell us about it?

Mr. EMMANUEL: Well, Antonella's a friend of mine. She's the wife of Pierpaolo Adda, who runs the guitar festival in Soave, outside of Verona. And I wrote this song for her because we'd just done a long tour of England, where it was rainy and inhospitable every day, and we flew into Italy, woke up at like 8:00 in the morning the morning, and the sun was streaming in the window and it was such a joyous feeling to have the sun on my face again. And I could smell the cooking downstairs in the kitchen, and Antonella was down there making breakfast for us, and Pierpaolo said to me - first of all, I had this idea, this musical idea, and I came downstairs playing it, and he said, oh, that sound nice, and I said, yeah, it's my sunshine song, you know? A lot like that. And over breakfast he said, it's Antonella's birthday today. So I dedicated this song to her. Antonella's Birthday.

(Soundbite of song, "Antonella's Birthday")

HANSEN: Tommy Emmanuel, performing Antonella's Birthday in the Metropolis Integrated Media Studio of Salt Lake City. His new CD, The Mystery, is available on the Favored Nations acoustic label. You can hear Tommy Emmanuel perform with Chet Atkins on Tiptoe Through the Bluegrass at our Web site, npr.org.

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.

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