Tommy was born in Australia in 1955. He received his first guitar in 1959 at the age of 4 - being taught by his mother to accompany her playing lap steel guitar. At the age of 7 he heard Chet Atkins on the radio. He vividly remembers this moment and says it greatly inspired him.
By the age of 9, in 1964, he was a working professional musician. Recognizing the musical talents of Tommy and his brother Phil, their father created a family band, sold the family home and took his family on the road. With the family living in two station wagons, much of Emmanuel’s childhood was spent touring Australia with his family, playing rhythm guitar, and rarely going to school. The family found it difficult living on the road; they were poor and were often hungry, never settling in one place. His father would often drive ahead, organize interviews, advertising and finding the local music shop where they'd have an impromptu concert the next day. Eventually the New South Wales Department of Education insisted that the Emmanuel children needed to go to school regularly.
After his father died in 1966, the family settled in Parkes. Tommy eventually moved to Sydney where he came to be noticed nationally when he won a string of talent contests in his teen years. By the late 1970s, he was playing drums with his brother Phil in the group Goldrushas well doing session work on numerous albums and jingles. He gained further prominence in the late 1970s as the lead guitarist in The Southern Star Band, the backing group for vocalist Doug Parkinson. During the early 1980s, he joined the reformed lineup of leading '70s rock group Dragon, touring widely with them, including a 1987 tour with Tina Turner. He left the group to embark on a solo career.
Throughout his career he has played with many notable artists including Chet Atkins, Eric Clapton, Sir George Martin, Air Supply, John Denver, Les Paul and Doc Watson.
In 1994 he became a member of the John Farnham Band. Australian music veteran John Farnham invited him to play guitar next to Stuart Fraser from Noiseworks for the Concert For Rwanda.
Tommy and his brother Phil performed live in Sydney at the closing ceremony of the Summer Olympics in 2000. The event was televised worldwide with an estimated 2.85 billion viewers. When performing together the pair will sometimes share and play just one guitar with each having one hand free.
In October 2002 he was invited to perform the Australian folk song Waltzing Matilda at a service at the Washington National Cathedral held for the victims of the Bali bombings.
In December 2007 he was diagnosed with heart issues and was forced to take a break from his hectic touring schedule due to exhaustion, but returned to full-time touring in early 2008.
In late January 2010, having been deeply touched by the tragic 2010 Haiti earthquake earlier in the same month, Emmanuel announced that he would be auctioning off three guitars, that he personally played and owned, on eBay, in order to raise money to donate to UNICEF in Haiti.
Tommy has said that even at a young age he was fascinated by Atkins’ musical style – sometimes referred to as Travis picking – of playing bass with the thumb and melody parts with the first two or three fingers at the same time. This technique became the basis of Tommy's guitar style.
While Tommy has never had formal music training, his playing ability has won him fans from all over the world. He is known to play percussion parts on the body of his guitar. As a solo performer he never plays to a set list and uses a minimum of effects.He usually completes recordings in one take.
He frequently uses his left thumb to fret bass notes on the 5th and 6th strings as well as playing chords such as Am and E with just two fingers. He uses a thumb pick mostly, a flat pick or just fingers.
His main guitar is a small-bodied custom Maton EBG808, that is fitted with a pickup and an internal condenser microphone, to which he has given the nickname "Mouse" due to its quieter volume unplugged but massive sound when plugged into an amp. Two of his three main stage guitars, notably his signature TE1 Maton dreadnought, are battered and worn from his excessive playing and percussive techniques on them. He recently stated at a workshop during his annual festival, Tommyfest UK (2008), that all three of his stage guitars have been broken and repaired numerous times over the years.
Association with Chet Atkins
As a young man in Australia, Tommy wrote to his hero Chet Atkins in Nashville. Eventually Atkins replied with words of encouragement and a longstanding invitation to drop by to visit.
In July 1999, at the 15th Annual Chet Atkins Appreciation Society Conventi Chet presented Tommy with a Certified Guitar Player award, an honor Atkins has bestowed on other guitarists.This award gains its fame from being bestowed by Atkins himself, a widely recognized leader in guitar music. The award states: "In Recognition Of His Contributions to the Art Of Fingerpicking." Tommy performs at the Chet Atkins Appreciation Society (CAAS) in July each year in Nashville.
In 1997, Emmanuel and Atkins recorded as a duo and released the album The Day Finger Pickers Took Over The World, which was also to be Atkins' last recorded album before he died.
- 1979 From Out Of Nowhere
- 1987 Up From Down Under
- 1990 Dare to Be Different
- 1992 Determination
- 1993 The Journey
- 1993 The Journey Continues
- 1995 Initiation
- 1995 Terra Firma (with Phil Emmanuel)
- 1995 Classical Gas
- 1996 Can't Get Enough
- 1997 Midnight Drive (US release of Can't Get Enough)
- 1997 The Day Finger Pickers Took Over The World (With Chet Atkins)
- 1998 Collaboration
- 2000 Only
- 2001 The Very Best of Tommy Emmanuel
- 2004 Endless Road
- 2005 Live One
- 2006 Happy Hour (with Jim Nichols)
- 2006 The Mystery
- 2008 Center Stage
- 2009 Just Between Frets (with Frank Vignola)
- 2010 Little by Little
- 2010 Tommy Emmanuel Essential 3.0
Tommy released the DVD "Live At Her Majesty's Theatre, Ballarat, Australia" on 11 July 2006 and also the "Center Stage" accompanying DVD in late 2008.
Tommy has produced 3 instructional videos: Guitar Talk (1993), Up Close (1996), Emmanuel Labor (2008)
"Smokey Mountain Lullaby", a duet with Chet Atkins, was nominated for the 1998 Grammy award for Country Instrumental Performance but did not win. His song "Gameshow Rag/Cannonball Rag" won "Instrumental of the Year" at the 35th Tamworth Country Music Festival on Saturday, 27 January 2007, and also was nominated that year for a Grammy for "Best Country Instrumental Performance".
In the May 2008 and 2010 issue of Guitar Player Magazine, Tommy Emmanuel was named as "Best Acoustic Guitarist in the World" in their readers poll.