5 Contemporary Fingerstyle Guitar Players You Need To Hear- #3: Tommy Emmanuel


No list of finger style guitarists would be complete without Tommy Emmanuel. With nearly a lifetime of playing behind him, 2 Grammy nominations and 2 ARIA awards, Emmanuel is nothing short of a master when it comes to all things guitar-related. His work includes collaboration with the likes of Eric Clapton, Doc Watson and the late Chet Atkins- the latter of whom labelled Emmanuel as one of only 5 guitarists to ever receive the ‘Chet Atkins Certified Guitar Player’ seal of approval.

While not proficient in the art of reading and writing music, Tommy Emmanuel has long since had an extraordinary ability to identify even the most complex of chords and melodic patterns by ear. It should be noted that Tommy Emmanuel does not strictly limit himself to finger style picking, however for the purpose of this article I intend to focus on pieces which involve either the use of a specific finger style technique or thumb-picking method (I will discuss this particular style of picking later in the article).

An Amazing Live Performer

I have often emphasised the importance of developing your ability to deliver a convincing live performance. As a beginner guitarist, you might be tempted to hide away and practise all of your pieces in private. Practise is great- and is absolutely crucial to developing your technique- but I’d highly recommend venturing out in front of a crowd whenever possible. This is because live performance leaves little room for error, so it’s a really great learning experience. Live performance demands a constant attention to expressive detail, with even the most technically advanced pieces capable of losing an audience if not delivered with any emotional conviction. Tommy Emmanuel takes this idea to the next level.

If you were to compare a track from one of Emmanuel’s CD recordings to one of its many live versions, I can guarantee that you will find a myriad of differences between the tracks. Emmanuel’s live performances will often feature extensive melodic embellishments, outstandingly technical fill- in licks and occasionally even segments of purely improvised content. In Over the Rainbow, Emmanuel’s use of vibrato, quickly executed chord-fillers and some exceedingly technical harp-like harmonics are just some of the ways he manages to entrance his audience for nearly six minutes with what could be considered a highly repetitive melody. Take a look:

A Man of Many Genres

There’s no use limiting yourself to one genre of music. If your interests span across multiple genres- like most musicians’ will- then go ahead and explore each musical style as much as you can. Some of the world’s best musicians are able to transition seamlessly from a heartbreakingly beautiful ode to an entertaining, upbeat tune without leaving their audience feeling at all jolted by the sudden change in mood. In the world of finger style guitar playing, no one can dispute Tommy Emmanuel’s ability to do exactly that.

From this classic rendition of Amazing Grace:

To the quick-fingered, percussive mastery of Mombasa:

There is no doubt about it- Tommy Emmanuel is indeed a man of many genres. So take a lesson from him and don’t be afraid to mix up your repertoire with something different every once in a while!

The Thumb Pick

I want to finish up by addressing a particular picking technique used by Emmanuel in some of his pieces- the integration of the thumb pick. Before I go on, take a look at Classical Gas:


As you can see, the thumb pick is a small picking device that you attach to your thumb, which basically serves to amplify each stroke of your thumb while your other fingers perform as they usually would. I recently penned an article on Travis Picking, which you can take a look at here. The simplest way for me to explain how to get started with the thumb pick is to try using it while practising your Travis Picking technique. Once you get the hang of that, try using the thumb pick while practising your regular fingerpicking technique- you’ll be playing like Tommy Emmanuel in no time!

The reason I’ve chosen to focus on Emmanuel’s use of the thumb pick in Classical Gas is simple- it’s an example of how easy it is to diversify your picking techniques. Emmanuel is not strictly a finger style player. Sometimes he uses the thumb pick, other times he’ll use a regular pick. Occasionally he might use a hybrid picking style- which involves holding a pick as you usually would- between your thumb and your index finger WHILE also using the rest of your hands in a more traditional fingerpicking style. The lesson here is that there is no right way to pick. Often, your choice of picking method will be a stylistic choice. Maybe the song sounds better with a thumb pick because it allows you to place more emphasis on the lower bass notes. Maybe you don’t want to use a pick at all because bare fingers achieve a softer timbre and match the mood of a particular song better. The point is that each picking style has its place and I can think of no better example than Tommy Emmanuel as to why you, as a beginner guitarist, should try to develop proficiency in each of these styles. After all, there’s no sense limiting yourself, right?

To check out more from Tommy Emmanuel, visit his WebsiteYoutube or his Facebook