Tommy Emmanuel and Martin Taylor’s Stringed, Fretted Fun

Guitarists join up for a delightful, laidback acoustic duo set

Tommy Emmanuel and Martin Taylor
Tommy Emmanuel

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In general, guitarists do not play well with other guitarists. Someone always needs to be faster or louder. But that is not the case on The Colonel & the Governor (Mesa/Bluemoon), the debut album from the international guitar duo of Tommy Emmanuel and Martin Taylor. Entirely acoustic, The Colonel whips up standards, pop songs and Martin originals by way of conviviality, not tension. There’s no sense of competition here, just stringed, fretted fun.

Originally from Australia but a resident of Nashville since 2003, Emmanuel, who is recognized as one of the best fingerstyle acoustic guitarists in the world, remembers the first time he worked with Taylor. After catching the guitarist on Australian television in 1991, Emmanuel arranged for a collaboration as soon as possible. “He just blew everybody away,” says Emmanuel, 57. “He was amazing. I found out where he was staying, I rang his hotel, and I invited him to come and play with me the next night. He was playing in a club that night, and then the next night I was playing at a beautiful theater in Sydney. And so I invited him down and he just tore ’em up. It was really great. And we became instant friends.”

They’ve been playing together ever since. Emmanuel sees the duo as having united over, among other things, a love of form and composition. “It works because we’re both song players,” he says. “We’re not just, you know, free jazz and let it fly. We like to have a song to play, a melody to play, and then do something with it.”

“I grew up in rock and roll, blues, country, with a little jazz,” Emmanuel explains later. “And Martin’s history is all jazz, but melodic. And I really love that about his playing. You can sing his phrases.”

From England but now living in Scotland, Taylor, best known for his solo performances and 11-year stint with violinist Stéphane Grappelli, finds that the two-man band clicks because the guitarists complement each other. Emmanuel is the extrovert in the partnership while Taylor plays it somewhat cooler. “Tommy is an absolute showman, you know, and he’s totally in your face when he plays,” Taylor, 56, says with a chuckle. “It’s just, like, when Tommy gets up and plays you feel like you’ve been hit by a train. You go, ‘Wow, that sounds amazing!’ It’s an amazing experience. But what I do is different in that there is still a similar level of musicianship but the showmanship is slightly different, because my personality is different. So it’s a bit more, kind of, laidback. But it has its moments.”

Laidback, perhaps, but no less interesting. Martin’s joyous, African-inspired “Down at Cocomo’s,” for instance, features the composer on a guitar that sounds eerily like an African thumb piano, or kalimba. “The effect I get on the guitar is very simple,” says Taylor. “I just get a piece of cardboard and weave it in between the strings so it bends the strings. That’s all it is. It’s not any kind of electronic effect. It’s a totally acoustic effect. You just imagine sort of a cross between African thumb piano and steel pans.”

Emmanuel’s creativity takes center stage at one point, too. Near the end of The Colonel, he offers a tender, harmonics-heavy solo reading of the 1953 Doris Day number “Secret Love.” “I’ve known the song since I was a kid,” says Emmanuel. “And one day I thought, ‘I wonder if I could find a way of being able to play the melody all in these bell-like sounds.’ So I went looking for it and I eventually found it. And it was a mental conundrum the first time that I went looking for it. You’ve gotta really practice and work up the skill of doing that.”

The Colonel is more than just a good-natured jam session, though. It’s a continuation of the work begun by the duo’s guitar heroes, a sort of thread through time. “Lucky for us,” says Emmanuel, “recording was invented when it was, and we got a chance to hear Charlie Christian playing with Benny Goodman, and Eddie Lang playing with Bing Crosby, and Les Paul, and all the early ones, and Django and all that. Thank God for recording, because we have so much material to steal from and to learn from, you know?”