The Masterful Practice Advice Of Tommy Emmanuel
Legendary guitarist Tommy Emmanuel has a simple piece of advice for becoming a better guitarist: play songs. His advice holds deep wisdom.
As the pandemic shut down live touring, many musicians turned to online performances to compensate for lost revenue and stay connected with fans.
TrueFire, an online guitar learning platform, put on live video masterclasses with Tommy Emmanuel. This is how, late on a Saturday night, I found myself on my sofa, acoustic guitar in hand, on a Zoom call with a few other guitarists, getting advice from a living legend.
I’d heard Tommy give this advice before. Many times, in fact. It sounds simple. But this advice corrects a lot of bad habits guitarists are known for and suggests a path to mastery that has something to teach all creatives and not just musicians.
Understand The Fundamental Unit Of Your Craft
Tommy Emmanuel is a great guitarist with a brilliant technique and a discography full of wonderful recordings. But he’s at his best live, as a thrilling solo instrumentalist. Be it in a bar, jazz club, or concert hall, Tommy quickly wins over the crowd with his personality and fearless playing.
Tommy plays songs, and that entertains people.
He brings three guitars on stage. He doesn’t waste time retuning between songs. He has enough tech with him to sound good, but not so much it becomes a distraction. His guitar arrangements have plenty of bass and groove because the rhythm gets people in. But they always retain a strong sense of melody because that’s what people connect with emotionally.
The performance is built this way because Tommy understands the fundamental unit of his craft. Or, as he puts it:
Guitarist Often Don’t Play Songs
Most guitarists don’t play songs. They play bits of songs. It’s an odd habit we seem to acquire as beginners. When I was young, a lot of my friends had guitars. Back then, young people dreamt of being rock stars rather than video creators. It was pretty common to get together after school or on weekends and jam.
Sweet Child o’ Mine was one of those songs everyone tried to learn. Most could play a version of the introduction. Some learnt the fills, and a few learnt the solo. All the flashy bits. But no one learnt the rhythm guitar parts, the background that held the song together. A five-minute song – and no one could play it all the way through.
“Everyone talks about Clapton’s lead playing, but you should check out his rhythm work.”
In my late teens, I got a job in a guitar store. I worked Sundays, and it was slow. Mostly I cleaned up, dusted guitars, emptied bins, that sort of thing. One Sunday, Steve, the store owner, was in and an Eric Clapton compilation album was playing. As I dusted guitars and rearranged music books on their shelves, we talked about the importance of rhythm guitar for making songs work.
“Guitarists sing along to solos, but ordinary people sing along to choruses.”
Steve was dropping the truth bomb that day. We talked about how rhythm guitar “made the song work”. He suggested I watch Tommy Emmanuel live. At that stage, Tommy was becoming well known in Australia, but he played with a band rather than as a solo instrumentalist. Pretty soon, I was learning every little detail in rhythm guitar parts for my favourite songs, including Sweet Child o’ Mine.
Play Songs Because Everyone Loves Songs
Learning an instrument is hard. It’s easy to get discouraged, particularly if what you’re learning isn’t interesting enough to share with anyone.
Unable to play full songs, my friends couldn’t get into bands or entertain other people, so gradually they all gave up. Their guitars disappeared to cupboards or classified listings. If I could travel back in time, I’d say the same thing at every jam session.
People want to hear songs.
The sad irony is that a love of songs was what got my friends into guitar in the first place. They wanted to emulate their favourite artists and the songs they sang.
One of the reasons Tommy Emmanuel suggests playing songs as the foundation for practice is because it gives you instant gratification. You need a reward for picking up your instrument. Your creative craft is competing for attention with a whole lot of other less demanding paths to a dopamine hit.
Can playing random scales compete with watching Netflix or YouTube for an easy buzz? At least playing your favourite songs stands a competitive chance. And playing songs for people is a whole other buzz.
Fill Your Practice With Craft
Guitarists aren’t the only musicians who get side-tracked. Drummers are prone to playing ever more complex rhythms as a way to master the technical aspects of their instrument. Keyboard players often get seduced by ever more complex chords because their instrument allows them to play so many notes at the same time.
The technical and theoretical possibilities of music can turn practice into some kind of athletic or mathematical competition. Much like the solo-paying guitarist, any musician can spend a lot of time on things that don’t immediately relate to making the song work.
It’s easy for a musician to fill their practice time with things that might not be put to use in the songs they perform.
That’s where the playing songs advice helps again. It encourages putting theory into practice. It helps identify which techniques require the most focus.
Every Craft Has A Fundamental Unit (Or Two)
Every craft has a standard – the thing (or things) people most commonly enjoy from that field. Writers have essays, poems and short stories. Photographers have photos, of course. Music has songs.
This isn’t really about commerce. We’re not talking about marketing the things you make. It’s about how people enjoy the fruits of your creativity.
It’s about learning to appreciate how those units work. Playing more songs helps you become a fan of good songwriting, which, in turn, is a never-ending well of inspiration for your music making. The same is true of learning to love good essay writing, or the craft that goes into making a photo that makes people stop and look.
Mastery Comes From Making Things For People
It’s tempting to think of mastery as a solo journey based on the acquisition of skills. But another way to look at mastery is the attention you give to the fundamental units of your craft.
Or, to put it simply, making things for people.
This helps fill your efforts with joy. If you excel, then you might make things for lots of people. But even if you don’t get that good, you can still share what you make with friends and loved ones. And you have the validation that comes from making a thing that exists in the world.