Tommy Emmanuel: Certified Guitar PlayerFeb 22nd, 2012 | By admin | Category: Feature Articles, Lead Story
by Adam St. James
Finger pickers can’t take over the world until everyone on the planet knows Tommy Emmanuel. Tommy’s workin’ on that. Steve Vai is too. Vai signed the Australian acoustic master to his recently formed Favored Nations Acoustic label, the result of which is the brilliant disc, Only.
And Vai isn’t the only one to recognize how phenomenal a player is Tommy Emmanuel. He has toured or worked with everyone from Eric Clapton to Stevie Wonder, from John Denver to Bill Wyman, from Leo Kottke to Joe Walsh. Late guitar legend Chet Atkins, who recorded his final album, The Day Finger Pickers Took Over the World, with Emmanuel in 1997, called Tommy “the greatest finger picker in the world today.” We aren’t going to argue with Chet, who bestowed the prestigious title “Certified Guitar Player” on Tommy shortly thereafter.
In this in-depth interview, Tommy told me about his relationship with the late, great Mr. Guitar, shares tips on warming up before an important gig, and reveals how the former member of a rock band called The Midget Safaris has built a solid acoustic solo career for himself. Keep on pickin and grinnin’.
St. James: Hello Tommy. You’re in Denver today?
Emmanuel: Hello. Yeah, I’m playing here in Denver tonight, then Colorado Springs tomorrow, then Albuquerque, then I’ll be in Ireland after that.
St. James: How has your U.S. tour been going?
Emmanuel: It’s been great. It’s been getting better all the time. It’s a slow build, you know? I’ve been coming here for years. I think things are really starting to move along now, so I’m really pleased with that. It’s been an interesting way to do this. I’ve pretty much done it the same way in every country that I’ve toured in: I just start out in smaller places and build my way up, build a crowd.
St. James: I notice you’re playing tonight at a music school. I imagine that performance is in part aimed at the students of that school and meant to be an inspiration to them. Do you do a lot of that?
Emmanuel: I do workshops all over the world, and I do play at music schools. Tonight’s show is at a music school, but it’s also a good concert venue. I’m out there to play for the public, and along the way I try to show students and the younger generation that there’s a lot of great things about playing the guitar, and a lot of great things about being in music in general. It’s a very positive thing.
And of course when I do workshops I tell people about the realities of the business and the realities of the kind of dedication and the kind of sacrifice it takes from yourself and your family. And I do my best to give people the absolute real deal on how it goes.
St. James: How long have you been recording and releasing albums?
Emmanuel: Well, my first recording was made in 1960, with my family. I was a very young little boy at that time. We made an acetate recording at a radio station in Australia. We’ve played it on the radio a few times. Unfortunately I dropped it and broke it when I was about 25 [laughs], so it’s gone forever.
My first album that I made under my own name was called From Out of Nowhere. It was Australia’s first direct-to-disc album, made in 1978. And then in 1986 I recorded the album Up From Down Under. That wasn’t released for awhile because I was trying to get a record company to release it and of course they all turned me down and said there was, No market for what you do. So I went out and created one.
I got myself on tour with John Denver in 1988, and then EMI came through with a release, and the album debuted in the Top 10 (Australia). That caught everyone by surprise. And although I’d been in bands and playing on people’s records for years the public perceived me as a new artist. It was a good thing. The next two albums following that were both No. 1 albums in Australia. The third album, Determination, was in the ARIA chart (The Australian pop charts) for 111 weeks. And I won a lot of awards. That particular year I won Songwriter of the Year, Adult Contemporary Album of the Year, and Best Male Artist, at what we call the ARIA Awards like your Grammy Awards over here. It would be awfully nice to have a Grammy though. It’s a goal of mine.
St. James: You were nominated for a Grammy for the album you did with Chet Atkins, The Day Finger Pickers Took Over the World, weren’t you?
Emmanuel: Yeah, I was. I went to the Grammies, actually, with Alison Krauss and her band. And she won, and that was wonderful. The track that they won with was just so damn hot!
St. James: You’ve played in bands as well as doing the solo thing?
Emmanuel: I’ve done that all my life. I only started playing absolutely solo back in the late-80s.
St. James: What spurred you to go solo?
Emmanuel: I was playing in bands and I’d do a little spot on my own. The crowd seemed to go nuts, and it just seemed like something that was a natural evolution. And now I enjoy it a lot. It’s challenging writing music that stands up on its own, and to play the guitar just totally self-contained. Have you heard my new album?
St. James: Yes, it arrived this morning.
Emmanuel: Well thank you so much for taking the time to call after you’d heard something. I really appreciate that.
St. James: I do also have The Day Finger Pickers Took Over the Worldalbum, I listen to that once in awhile too. You were quite close to Chet weren’t you?
Emmanuel: Yeah. We were really like father and son. Making that album with him was a pure labor of love. He was wonderful. His health wasn’t very good and I had to really get everything prepared so he could do his parts. The songs that we needed to play together, that we actually had to do as a duo, we got those done pretty quickly. And everything else he had a little time to work on. And I kind of did all the backing parts and mapped out his parts for him, then he just went ahead and did his solos and harmony parts.
St. James: Did you perform live with him?
Emmanuel: Yes, we did the Grand Ole Opry a couple of times, and we did a show called “Prime Time Country” on TNN. And we did a lot of interviews and things together. Columbia was actually very pleased with the album because it was more like his roots, which is more what I wanted to do for him. I felt that that’s what he should have been doing at his time in life, just playing fingerstyle guitar, which is what he did best. And that’s why I pushed for the album to go in the direction that it did, and wrote some of the songs.
And we had a whole schedule ready the record company and myself had put together a promotional schedule with a promotional company for Chet and I to, to bring him back to the public eye. But unfortunately his health just wouldn?t allow it. And after he had the brain tumor operation, from then on he had to stay home. He was all right. It wasn’t actually that that did him in. I think he just ran out of steam. But he was such a wonderful person.
St. James: Was he a big influence on you throughout your life?
Emmanuel: Yeah, right til the end. It was more than just his guitar playing and his touch and things like that. It was his sense of melody and groove and arrangement ideas ? just having an ear for good songs. And of course the way that he treated me from the moment I met him was a very quality and human experience, to be treated with such respect and love, being a total stranger. The thing about Chet was, no matter where you went whether it was in the presence of the President, or a waiter he treated everyone just as well.
St. James: I suppose you’re involved somehow with the Chet Atkins Appreciation Society?
Emmanuel: I’ve been attending each time since I got the invite, which was 1996. I’ve gone every year since. [Editor’s Note: The Chet Atkins Appreciation Society is an organization dedicated to the memory and music of guitar great Chet Atkins. The CAAS sponsors an annual event in Nashville that features hundreds of guitarists, famous and still undiscovered, who gather to play and learn together. ]
I tell people all around the world about it. And I’ve been teaching players in far reaching places like Borneo and Malaysia when I’m there, and they end up coming to Nashville and playing. So it really is fingerpickers taking over the world. There’s a couple of young guys in the northern part of Borneo who have been so inspired by fingerstyle playing, mainly by Chet and myself, and these guys are taking traditional Asian music and making it into fingerstyle arrangements. It’s wonderful. It’s just another side of it, and expanding it out into the world, and giving people something good to focus on.
St. James: I’ve spoken with Muriel Anderson about the gathering a couple of times.
Emmanuel: She’s been a big part of it too. And she’s a wonderful friend. I’ve played her All Star Guitar Nights a few times. It’s good fun. [laughs]. In fact, the last one I did, I was on the show with John Sebastian. And when you’re on the stage with him and you do “What a Day for a Daydream” with the guy who wrote it, it’s pretty extraordinary. And then I played “Dueling Banjoes” with Eric Weisberg, who wrote that and did the original version. That’s a pretty rare thing. At the Chet Atkins convention, in one night, I played with Chet, Duane Eddy, and Arthur Smith. How good does it get?
St. James: Let’s talk about you. Tell me about the hours you put into playing guitar, and the dedication required to reach your level.
Emmanuel: When I was a kid see I’m one of six children, and most of us played music. So when we heard a song on the radio, my brother Phil who was older than me had an incredible ear. He would work out the melody and the chords and then he would show me how it goes. Then I would work out a rhythm part and we’d play that.
When I got older and heard Chet, I spent most of my waking hours after school and homework playing guitar. I’d be in the room there with the record player listening to things and trying to work them out. Then I’d eat dinner and go back and do it again. So when I was younger I was totally dedicated to it and totally obsessed with it.
A little bit later when I was a teenager and I had been on the road for some time with a traveling show, and I had discovered Django and Les Paul and George Benson and Joe Pass and people like that, and I started to listen to different music I then heard Jerry Reed I think I went through a period there where working out and learning songs in as many keys as I could took up all my time.
I can remember when I moved to Sydney and I used to sit and play the guitar all day until I couldn’t stand it any more and I had to eat something. I’d get pizza or something, then play until 11 o’clock at night. Then I’d go out and play with a band or something, get home at 4 o’clock in the morning, sleep an hour or two, then get up and do it all again. I did that for years. I didn’t need a lot of sleep; I needed to learn to play.
And the thing that intrigued me was that the first couple of weeks of doing that I discovered that I could really do it if I just kept at it. And it excited me so much that I just didn?t want to do anything else but that. I was living in a tiny little place and my rent was like $9 a week. It was just a little room. But that’s all I needed was a place to lay down and sit and play. When I wasn’t there I’d be haunting the music shops, playing guitar in the music shops, playing for people, teaching whatever. That’s what I did in those days.
Nowadays, because I play so much on the road, when I’m home I tend to just play the guitar a little bit each day, unless I’m writing something. When I’m writing something I play all day, all the time. That’s really what it takes to work on things. I always give people the same advice if they want to get better at what they’re doing, apart from not quitting: Have a little cassette player and record yourself, then listen back and hear how it’s going and what areas you need to work on.
When you’re just going at it all the time you can become deaf to your own playing. You don’t want to do that. You don’t want to let that creep in. So record yourself, listen back, and get another perspective on it. It also keeps you fresh with the songs that you’re playing. You might want to change things, or work on certain areas.
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St. James: Do you have a routine of exercises or warm-ups?
Emmanuel: When I pick up the guitar I tend to play tunes at a medium tempo, then maybe practice some harder things. But the guitar is always with me, so I don’t tend to need a warm-up type of thing only if I really feel like it. If I’m feeling a little stiff in the hands, I’ll pick some tunes, and play some scales or chromatic exercises, backwards and forwards. But mostly, the thing that gets me going the best, is playing a couple of tunes that you would play on stage, then sing a song or a couple of songs, and get that creative side woken up. Get that adrenaline in your blood, long before you go on stage. I kind of get into stage mode before I go out there.
St. James: Do you sing in concert?
Emmanuel: Yes I do. I do a little bit. I’m not very good at it, but I do love it very much. Let me just say this too, from a purely technical point of view: A good thing to do for your motor skills and for your expression and your ideas, is to sit down and play a 12-bar blues. I’ll pick a tempo that I like, usually a shuffle, and start to improvise, and then at the end of each 12-bar cycle, move up a fret and play in a different key.
If I start in E I then play F, F#, G, etc. And I keep improvising and I don’t stop. If I mess up, I don’t stop. I just keep going and go for ideas. After you’ve done that for a little while, you’ll find you’ve started to sweat and you’re a little breathless, and you’ve tapped into what happens on stage. And that also makes you create something. That’s a good thing, I think.
St. James: Do you record your playing just to capture ideas, as well?
Emmanuel: Totally. That’s a good idea because sometimes things only happen once, and then they’re gone.
St. James: I know that all too well. I always remember the notes I played, it’s the feel of the rhythm I can’t get back. It’s the rhythm that goes away. That’s a really fleeting thing.
Emmanuel: That’s for sure.
St. James: You use an Australian Maton guitar. Tell us about them.
Emmanuel: They’re made in Melbourne. I got my first Maton in 1959. They’ve been around a long time. The one that is on the cover of Only is my main touring guitar. They’re beautifully made guitars. Mine is a 00 size with a real slim neck. They’re so comfortable to play.
St. James: What kind of strings do you use?
Emmanuel: I vary them. I don’t use the same strings all the time. I discovered that when you use the same strings over and over, the top end of your guitar slowly drops off. I think the guitar gets used to those strings. To keep it real bright I change strings right before every gig and I vary the brands. Sometimes I’ll use D’Addario, GHS.
Last night I tried John Pearse strings. I’m trying out the Everly Brothers? strings at the moment as well, so I put those on occasionally. Elixir gave me some strings last week but they sucked a rotten egg. I put them on and tuned up, then took them off immediately. Why put on a set of strings that sounds like you’ve already played them in too much? It’s such an individual thing.
There was a guy in the bluegrass band that opened for me last night that had a beautiful sounding dreadnought, and he had Elixirs on them that sounded like a million bucks. So people always ask me, ‘What’s the best string?’ and I always say, ‘The one that your guitar likes. If your guitar sounds great, feels good, and really tunes up well, that’s a good string.’
For instance, my small-bodied Maton guitar, I can’t put Martin strings on it. I can’t get it to be perfectly in tune, and the third string always feels the wrong gauge. But I put Martin strings on my other guitars and I love them. So the rule is: The best strings for a guitar are the ones that the guitar likes.
And people always ask, What’s the best guitar? and I always say, The one that you really love to play. Who cares what name is on it and how much it cost? If it works for you then that’s the one.
St. James: That’s right. What gauge strings do you use?
Emmanuel: On the little guitar I use .012 to .054, and on my dreadnought I use .013 to .058.
St. James: Do you use picks at all?
Emmanuel: Do you mean fingerpicks?
St. James: Either fingerpicks or flatpicks?
Emmanuel: I use a thumb pick and a plectrum. And I can swap them around. Because of being a rhythm player for my brother Phil who is mainly a lead player, and then taking solos, I had to work out a way to flatpick with a thumbpick, and also fingerpick with a plectrum. I can swap over and do either. Most of the songs I play I can play with either one.
St. James: What do you do in concert?
Emmanuel: I play some songs with a plectrum, some songs with a thumbpick. And some songs I play without picks at all. It just depends on what’s right for the song.
St. James: But even when you?re playing with a plectrum you’re doing hybrid picking using the other fingers on your hand, right?
St. James: You’re not just strumming?
Emmanuel: Oh no, no, no.
St. James: So what inspired you to do this new disc, Only, with no other musicians?
Emmanuel: Well I’ve always wanted to do that. I’ve always wanted to make an album of totally original music, solo acoustic. Because I had been touring for a long time and playing a lot of concerts just on my own, but the only CDs that were available were the ones that I’d done with bands and with orchestra and stuff like that. So people kept saying, We just want to hear you on your own.
So it gave me the idea in the first place about five years ago, and I since started writing for that. Most of the songs for the Onlyalbum came on the road and through real-life experiences.
St. James: Actually I guess the question should have been, Why didn’t you do it sooner?
Emmanuel: Yeah! [laughs] I was busy trying to do other things. Everything evolves in life in it’s own way, and you’ve got to go with it when it’s time. My next album will be solo acoustic as well. I’ve got all the songs written and I just can’t wait to get in and record them.
St. James: Had you previously toured with other musicians backing you?
Emmanuel: I had a band in Australia. I had a six-piece band, and I played electric as well as acoustic and nylon-stringed. I did a bit of everything.
St. James: This was recently?
Emmanuel: From 1989 through 96. And then I kind of just went totally solo after that.
St. James: Well, I’ve known about you since around 96, and I always thought of you as a solo acoustic player. For you to say you were fronting a band playing electric, that’s news to me.
Emmanuel: Right. That’s what I did. It evolved from the band into the solo thing.
St. James: What kind of stuff were you playing with the band?
Emmanuel: Original material. Stuff I wrote.
St. James: But not along these lines?
Emmanuel: Some of them. I did a lot of rockabilly type stuff as well kind of country-rock. As a songwriter it’s melody and a good feel that I’m after. I think as I wrote for the electric I really tried to make sure that the melody was strong and it was honed and it was always standing up there. And I always gave myself plenty of room for improvisation on stage.
St. James: When you are playing these solo pieces in concert, do you play them different from night to night?
Emmanuel: Yes. A tune like Those Who Wait, the first track on Only, that one kind of speaks for itself. I don’t feel that I need to do anything to that. I feel that everything is where it ought to be, so I play that as best I can, and I leave it as I originally wrote it. But some of the other tracks, I’ll do little variations. I’ll vary the verses or whatever. And some nights I’ll play them a little faster than the records, or some other nights I’ll play them however I feel like. That’s one of the joys of playing on your own. You do what you damn well like! [laughs]
St. James: Do you ever find yourself recording something that, when you go out to play on the road, it presents a challenge to you? That you really out-did yourself and you really have to work on that one to be able to pull it off live?
Emmanuel: Oh sure. That happened years ago with some of the things I had written, and I really had to knuckle down and practice them. I nailed them in the studio cause I’d done them over and over again. I nailed it and was feeling good; had headphones on and so I didn’t have to push. The difference is, when you’re playing live and there’s intensity and adrenaline, you’ve got to try to slow your muscles down so they can perform properly.
It’s like a motor skill thing. If it’s too intense, you can’t pull off something you know you can do in the dressing room quite easily. You go out there and you’ve really got to concentrate. It’s a different matter. I walk out there and I’m totally captivated by the audience and so conscious to make a real good connection with the people, and talk to them and play for them, and try to do my best. But sometimes you forget about the motor skills and you find yourself in deep water. That takes concentration and real effort to try to make everything nice and clean.
St. James: What have been some of your favorite musical experiences the past few years?
Emmanuel: Some of the things that I’ve enjoyed over the past 10 years have been flying to places like Africa and Thailand and Vietnam and teaching and playing at schools. That’s been the greatest joy for me. To go to a place like Hong Kong and play in a very cultural theater, and have the room half-full of Americans who love Chet Atkins music, that again is yet another thing that I really love. Playing over here in America to a lot of Australians wherever I go, it?s really good.
St. James: Do you find that Chet Atkins is a kind of international icebreaker?
Emmanuel: Sometimes. There are a still a lot of people around the world for who I’ll play some of my fingerpicking tunes that are deliberately written in that style, and they’ll say, Wow, where does this come from? And that gives me a chance to tell them about the long line of players that goes back to Kennedy Jones and Merle Travis, and Ike Everly and Mose Rager, and Chet Atkins, and Jerry Reed and that lineage of players and people who influenced the world of guitar.
St. James: When you were young and first starting to play guitar, did you ever imagine that at this point in your life you’d be playing this style of music?
Emmanuel: I wasn’t quite sure when I was a kid, because we were so enthralled with the Beatles and the Shadows and Duane Eddy and people like that. They were big on radio and TV. But when I heard Chet play for the first time, I’ll never forget that. And when I wrote to him I was only a kid. My father had died when I was 10, and so I really lived in my own world, even though I was part of a family ? a pretty big family. But I still sort of lived in my own world. And when Chet wrote back to me, it really gave me hope.
St. James: He wrote back to you that first time you wrote to him?
Emmanuel: Yeah, when I was 11.
St. James: Wow, that’s so cool! So where do you live now? In the United Kingdom?
Emmanuel: Yeah. I live in an area called Suffolk, north of London. North-east of London, right close to the coast.
St. James: Did you move there within the past few years?
Emmanuel: Yes, four years ago.
St. James: How did that happen?
Emmanuel: Well, we wanted to be closer to my in-laws, who are in Denmark. And I wanted to get going in England and Ireland and Scotland. I’d been going over there for some time, and just those long trips back to Australia were just too much. And I’d really done about as much as a person could do in Australia, to be blatantly honest. I could have just kept going around and had a comfortable life, but I think my creativity would have went down the tubes. And I’m the kind of person who needs new challenges and new places all the time. I’m just so used to it. I’m thinking of calling my new album The Endless Road, ’cause that?s the way it seems.
St. James: How much of the year are you on the road?
Emmanuel: I do, on an average, around 300 shows a year.
St. James: Wow, that’s a lot.
Emmanuel: It’s a lot.
St. James: Why didn’t you move to Denmark, if that’s where your in-laws are?
Emmanuel: I wanted to move here, to America. This is where I want to be. But when you have a wife and family who want other things, then you give them what they want. That’s the way it goes doesn’t it?
St. James: Yes, it sure does.
Emmanuel: Life is full of compromises and sacrifices, and that’s just the way it is. Like John Lennon said, Life is what happens to us while we?re making other plans.?
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Parts of this interview may have previously appeared on or in the following publications: Guitar.com, Musician.com, Guitar World, Guitar Edge, Guitar, Guitar Shop, Guitar World Acoustic, Frets, Bass Player, Maximum Guitar, Guitar for the Practicing Musician, Los Angeles Daily News, Miami New Times, Denver Westword, Orange County (CA) Register, Fender Frontline Magazine, MusiciansFriend.com or any of the other 50 or 60 publications I’ve written for since the mid-’80s. But hey, I wrote it, and this is my archive — Adam