Interview with Rik Emmett

Photo by: Darko/HRH

Article by Dave Alexander (Edited by T. Morel)

On Wednesday, February 7, 2002 I had the privilege of interviewing Canadian guitar great, Rik Emmett.

I wanted to get his opinions on the direction Canadians are taking with their playing as well as his own styles, influences, gear and more.  I found him to be extremely insightful in his observations of trends and of himself.  His honesty and candidness is refreshing and he came across as being completely unpretentious.  So here it is, an interview with Rik Emmett.*

CGPA - How do you think Canadian guitarists are viewed on an international level?

Rik - I think there's a fair amount of respect.  In fact I'd venture to say it could be disproportionate if you looked at it from a population or actual sales point of view'internationally, I think people look to Canada as a place that has a pretty healthy, very eclectic kind of community.  I think that on all different levels, Canadian guitarists are pretty well respected and thought of pretty highly.

CGPA - Reputations aside then, how do you feel about the current pool of guitar talent that's out there recording and playing right now?

Rik - I think that generally speaking, the whole world has gone through a time where guitar playing sort of became less important and the selling of songs and images have predominated, but I do think that fashion and style are things that tend to be cyclical.  After the initial wave of enthusiasm with groups like the Beatles, who made sure that every kid in every garage or basement was trying their hand at playing guitar.  Then out of that thing grew this aspect of guitar players that were seriously trying to 'woodshed' and go to Berkley and GIT and become very, very profound, technical kinds of players.  But then that went away in as big hurry and the whole aspect of Grunge and Punk came along and things returned to a very fundamental, basic kind of approach'.Now it's not necessarily about the art or craft of becoming a great guitarist, it's all about trying to become a rock star.  Which, there's nothing wrong with that, I think that's fine, but it doesn't speak to the aspect of that sort of level of profound technique'of being VERY musician/artist oriented.  I think it'll come back to those sorts of things.

CGPA - In light of that, over your career, how do you feel your own playing has evolved?

Rik - When I first started, I tended to have a pretty eclectic approach; I played nylon stringed guitars, electric guitars and played folk gigs, country gigs, played Jewish weddings and was a jobbing kind of guy on a lot of different levels.  Essentially, everybody got to know me as a rock guy, playing in a rock band.  If someone said to me 'What's your principal strength?' I'd kind of have to say I have a rock sensibility, but rock & roll was a bastard child to start with.  You know, take a little bit of country and take a bit of boogie woogie and some jump and mix it all up in a pot and whaddya get?  So I tend to think that now, in a way, I sort of returned to my roots, leaning more on the acoustic guitar, nylon string finger playing and acoustic kind of singer/songwriting and certainly my next two CD's that's what I'm doing.  But by the time I go through that process, I'm itching to pick up the electric guitar and start banging away again.  You know, I wanna play rock again.  So I tend to remain eclectic and I think I focus more for a while because it's a sort of a boutiqued up world and  tend to say 'O.K. I'm going to really get into the classical for a while and I do that'but for me, I think that I can't lock myself into just one thing.

Six or seven years ago, I started to get acrylic nails put on and always made sure that I always had a good set of right hand nails and that really changed my life, because playing rock before, I would always break my nails and I couldn't become a finger style player.  I got away from using a pick and funnily enough that's helped evolve some of my rock technique because now I tend to play on my rock guitar more in a Jeff Beck approach, with different tones and colours and I switch pickups now more than ever, because I'm looking for more tonal variation.  I've become a little bit more of a purist and simplify my approach so that it becomes more of  not necessarily chasing a style, but just trying to find my way to a very pure, artistic way of playing and capture that as a recording or present that as a live performance.

CGPA - When you started out, as well as currently, who were your main influences and who are your influences now?

Rik - When I first started, Paul McCartney and the Beatles.  I said 'I wanna be like that guy' although he wasn't a guitarist, he was a bass player, but you know, he was the one that the chicks really thought was great so that's the one I wanted to be, hehe.  Then there was the whole Hendrix, Clapton thing.  I actually liked Clapton a little more than Hendrix, although I realized Hendrix was the more wild one.  I really liked that whole Yardbirds schooling, you know, Jimmy Page and Jeff Beck.  Those were the early influences.  Then I quickly started to pick up on people like Ritchie Blackmore/Deep Purple and Jan Ackerman/Focus and especially Steve Howe/Yes, so I guess the progressive school, then it was the Jazz/Fusion with Al Dimiola and along the way, I was an avid reader of guitar magazines and so I was starting to pick up on people like Roy Buchannon.  Now by this time, people were saying 'If you are serious about playing guitar, man, you should be listening to people like Joe Pass and Wes Montgomery'.  Those were the sounds and the tones that I had to figure out.  Now, as I said earlier, there's this aspect of returning to ones roots.  Nowaday's I listen to somebody like a Pat Metheny.  I really enjoy listening to my Segovia recordings on CD.  Acoustic Alchemy plays around the house a lot.

CGPA - Would you encourage newer players to emulate their guitar heroes or do you recommend developing your own style from the beginning?

Rik - I think developing your own style is 'part-in-parcel' of emulating your heroes.  And I don't see anything wrong with it at all.  I can remember being in High school when the Wishbone Ash album came out and guys were talking about that.  There was a song on there called Handy and it was essentially just blues, but I learned it so that I could play that solo note-for-note. Lazy on Machine Head by Deep Purple, I learned that note for note so I could be able to play that solo'.I think that's part of developing your vocabulary that you will then use in your own style.  I think that one of the big mistakes that guitar players make ' lot's and lot's of guitar players ' is that they don't learn how to play full things.  You know, somebody says 'Oh man I love that Jimmy Page, Stairway to Heaven thing' and they learn a few of the opening chord changes and they learn a couple of licks in the solo and they go 'Ya, I know Stairway to Heaven'.  You go 'OK great, play it for me' and they can't play it.  They can't get from A to Z.  You know, they haven't actually learned to string all the parts together and I think that's also part of developing your vocabulary.  If you were talking to Mike Stern, he'd go 'Oh man, I used to transcribe sax player solos note-for-note.  Write them all out and then learn how to play them'.  So part of the reason Mike Stern has the incredibly great phrasing that he does, is because he learned, you know, Coltrane solos and God knows what else.  I really think that's an important part of development.

CGPA - In light of that, many guitar players can't read music at all.  For beginners, do you feel that learning music theory right from the start is important or jump in, learn by ear and go from there?

Rik - Well, I'm not going to say that there's any way that's preferable to another, because I think in the end, making music is not necessarily about having to be able to read fly shit on paper.  But I will say this, the guy's that can, have a huge advantage.  They have way more tools in their tool kit than the guy's that don't and I count myself as one of those guys that doesn't really.  I've been pretty much a self taught player and my reading is awful.  I make charts for side men, they come to sessions and they laugh.  They think it's hilarious that I have such a reputation and I'm such an incredibly bad hack.  And of course, I teach at Humber College and in an environment like that, you've got guys like Ted Quinnlan who are frighteningly good guitar players.  But if you sit and talk to him, he'll tell you about his days at Berkley when Pat Metheny came to town and made him feel like he was not a small fish in a big pond, but a microscopic, tiny nothing in an ocean.  So, there's levels and then there's levels and I do think in the end, you gotta make your own music.  What kind of a tool kit do you need to assemble in order to make the music that you really, really like?  If you really want to be the guitar player in Marilyn Manson's band, you don't need to learn how to read, it won't matter.  You should learn about how to put on make-up at the Revlon counter, cause that'll be important.  I'm not trying to be judgmental here.  Entertainment and show business is about other things than learning how to be a good reader, but if you want to be a studio guy, you wanna be a jobbing musician who can get calls all the time, to play all kinds of circumstances, man, you better be a reader, because that's what that requires.  Those guys can read fly shit, so you better learn how to read.

CGPA - On a more personal note, how do you practice?  Do you have a special room you go into or do you just play in front of the TV?

Rik - You're talking to a 48 year old guy that's got four teenage kids.  I have a studio in my basement and it's my cave.  I come down here and get away from everything and I have my recording gear and all my guitars.  I don't necessarily practice at this stage in my life, I write.  I'm executing in one way, shape or form.  I'm either composing and I've got the guitar in my hands or I'm recording and I've got the guitar in my hands or I'm rehearsing to go out and do some live shows and I've got the guitar in my hands, but I don't have the time.  As I said I teach, I sit on the board of the Songwriters Association of Canada, I coach baseball at a fairly high level, so my life is pretty full.  I think the time you have to put in your 'wood shedding' is your teenage years and your twenties because that's when you're trying to develop a certain kind of ability  and range.  Once you've got that, then it's just a question of how can you execute within the range that you've created.  I write my own music and play my own music so I don't really push the envelope of my own technique too much.  I do a little bit, because I think that's part of the equation, but essentially, I know what I can do and I don't ask myself to do things outside that.

CGPA - We've had two members request that we ask you this question.  How important do you feel it is for a student, when practicing, to be alone when nobody's listening so they can relax and practice?  Do you think that breeds stage fright or do you think that's a real requirement?

Rik - I think that solitude is part of an artistic process and a creative process certainly, but I think that performance is critical.  So I would say, for every session that you spend closeted up in solitude, you should be getting out in front of people and trying to perform a couple of times or three times.  The ratio should be more about performance, because in the end it is a performance medium.  Whether you're performing for a microphone in a recording studio or you're performing for people in a concert situation, what you're supposed to do is perform.  You've gotta take what you do and you've gotta deliver it.  And you've got to deliver it in a way that people can emotionally connect to it.  So if you spend all your time closeted up and thinking that you're realizing something by being closeted up, well you know, ya, masturbation is a form of sex, sure, but you know, really, really good sex?  That's when people who really love each other really connect.  So music tends to be a really spiritual kind of thing, a very metaphysical kind of thing and that requires more than just your own ears.  You've gotta find your way into somebody else's heart and soul, so performance is a critical aspect of it.  I think a lot of guitar players end up not knowing how to finish that aspect of the equation, how do you connect with people?  They spend too much time locked in their room.

CGPA - Do you ever have to deal with stage fright?

Rik - Always.  Every single time I'm gonna get up to play, I feel the butterflies and anticipation, but the adrenaline you get and in some cases it has made me play poorly, but most of the time I'm able to use the adrenaline and control it because it's your friend really, it can help you raise your level of performance.  It's juice!  As long as you can control your tempos and keep yourself even and smooth, man, sometimes your hands will just feel like they're invincible vise-grips and it'll be a fantastic thing.  Plus, there's no better feeling when you get that connection.  When you open yourself up and you get that audience right into it and they're giving back, so that whole kinetic flow thing is going on, that's as good as it gets, it's very addictive.  I miss it when I haven't played for a while.  It's all tied up in ego and the DNA strands of who I am.  I'm a performer and it's a big part of what I need.  It feeds the whole cycle.  When you come off a good performance and you come back and write and you're recording again, you have this kind of unwritten, unspoken understanding of making those kinds of connections, so it helps you raise the level of the music you make, so that you know what it is that makes people pay attention, makes them get excited, makes them cry.

CGPA - What are your favourite guitars?

Rik - I've always been a Yamaha guy and they just sent me a brand new AES 1500 guitar which is a semi-acoustic arch top guitar, it's gorgeous, I love it.  But it's not my principal guitar.  Lately I've been playing on a CGX 1500 which is a Yamaha classical that's got a cutaway and a pick-up in it.  It's in fact not even a very high end one and they've got a new line coming out in April.  I had it modified so that I have a volume  knob on the face so that I don't have to be fiddling around trying to find the sliders up on the edge of it.  I play a Pacifica electric, which is a double coil, two single coil, sortta looks like a Tele, sortta looks like a Strat.  It was custom made for me in the custom shop in Hollywood.  It's a maple board, very high gloss neck and a Tele shaped kind of body.  I got them to move the volume knob down out of the way.  I don't like Strat styles where the volume knob is too close to the strings.  I like to have some space there just because of my technique.  I tend to wrap my hand low there, so I like the knobs and switches out of the way.  I've got an AEX 1500 which is a jazz guitar.  It's a single cutaway with a single floating pick-up with a peizo in the bridge which I hardly ever use.  I really like that guitar a lot.  And I have two acoustics, a 6 and a 12, they're L-Series, L55 Jumbo sized guitars, handmade in the early 80's.  So I use those a fair bit, the twelve string goes out on every single gig and I beat the crap out of it.

CGPA - Are your guitars at home different than the guitars you use on stage or do you practice with your performance guitars?

Rik - I have a Laskin Classical that I use to record, but I don't take it out on the road'.it's my baby, I love that guitar.  I've got all kinds of guitars that I've gotten over the years, but I hardly ever touch them.

CGPA - How many guitars do you own?

Rik - Hold on and I'll count them'(he actually counts them out loud) There's probably about 35 that are here and around the studio and on the wall down the hallway.  They go right back, I still have the first acoustic that my grandfather ever gave me and the first electric that my parents ever bought for me.

CGPA - What do you use for a tuner?

Rik - I use different ones in different circumstances.  A kid that I met through the 'Make A Wish Foundation' sent me a Sabina tuner'I use that a lot, but of course these days I use a POD to play through and it's got a tuner built in and Yamaha has boxes like the DG Stomp and the AG Stomp and I just got the AG Stomp and both of those things have tuners built in.  When I go out on gigs, I sometimes take my DG80 Yamaha amp and it's got a tuner built in and sometimes I use the line 6 single 12 amplifier with a pedal board and that board has a tuner built in, so can't you buy fridges now with a tuner built in?  I'm not constantly checking my tuning, but you have to check it after every take.  Live, I tune up before the show and I tune up at half time.

CGPA - What strings do you use?

Rik - I'm a D'Addario guy, I always have been and I don't have an endorsement, I wish I did, because I have a lot of guitars and I require a lot of strings.  For my acoustic steel strings, I like the John Pierce strings and I use those, a medium gauge.  On my electrics, I go a light top, heavy bottom, so it's a .010 - .052 EXL 140.  But I have jumbo frets so it's pretty easy to bend those things around.  On the classical, I use D'Addarios that are the Pro Arte composites.  EJ46C's and they're very consistent; I've found those to be the best ones.

CGPA - Your process for writing guitar parts'when you go into the studio, is it generally improvised or do you tend to plan it out note-for-note?

Rik - The structure of the song is completely composed.  The structure of the melodies, the main themes, that's completely composed, but there'll be sections of the songs when I want to improvise a solo.  There'll be times when the second bar and the eighth bar are good, but everything else is crap, and so, modern digital technology being what it is, you can save those things and you can cut-and-paste, or you can save those things, listen to them and refer back to them and start incorporating them back into the next pass that you do.  The next pass you get bar 1, bar 3, bar 7 and then by the time you've finished the thing, what you've done is composed the improvised solo.  So it's a little bit of everything.  If it's a pretty straight forward circumstance, I can just roar and whatever happens, happens, but more than likely, I tend to do several passes and keep doing it until I'm getting into a ballpark that I'm starting to feel comfortable in and by that time,. I've pretty much almost written the thing in my head and I'm playing a composed solo.

CGPA - The Canadian Guitar Players Association is very young and we are still quite small.  Our mandate is to promote Canadian Guitar Players, not only abroad, but within Canada as well.  We also want to provide a central location for players to go to access guitar specific resources, but adding to our mandate, we really want to provide a united voice for guitar players in Canada.  Do you feel that there's a need for an organization like ours?

Rik - There's always a need for that kind of stuff! Sure, I think it's great!  As I said, I'm involved with the Song Writers Association, you have to be careful that you don't become too parochial or too closed in on yourselves.  Guitar playing is part of a community.  There's songwriters, there's record producers and there's country music and there's jazz music and there's blues music and there's all these different kinds of things, and so you do have to see yourself as a player in a big scene.  Because there's academic and educational kinds of things but there's also showbuisiness and entertainment kinds of things.  For me the guitar has always been the central thing of what gave me a career.  The people I've met in my life like Chet Atkins, God rest his soul, Peter Harrison was one of my first teachers, etc., the guitar was this touchstone that was really an icon for many people.  It's an icon on the level of Bruce Springsteen, and the rock hero is often holding up that guitar at the end of the day and it'it's Excalibur, you know what I mean?  You're as likely to encounter a guitar in the jungles of Brazil as you are to find it being the principal instrument to win somebody a Grammy award or captivate an MTV video audience.  It's a beautifully, wonderful, versatile thing and for you guys to be setting up an association and be trying to become something that represents that aspect of the guitar as the icon and the touchstone and all those kinds of poetic metaphor kinds of things, I think that's great.  As long as you don't make it too small and too narrow.  You know, I get involved all the time in organizations called, you know, 'We're the classical guitar society of Tacoma, Washington' and they're so narrow, they end up being almost like weird religious cults!  And you've got your Folk Nazis and you've got your Jazz Nazis, you know, and there's an aspect of that, that really turns me off.  I wrote for Guitar Player Magazine for years and I have always been somebody who has said, 'Look, discriminating taste, that's a great thing, sure, fabulous, have discriminating taste, but don't make it be that you try and devaluate what other people do just because you're trying to promote what it is that you like.  Just because you don't like it, doesn't mean it's bad.  And that's one of the things about the guitar.  Because it's such a huge pluralistic instrument, it's like a piano you can put on your lap.  But a lot of people don't see it that way.  You've got kids that don't even know how to tune the damn thing and they'll call themselves guitar players.  You gotta go ' 'Right on, sure you are', you know what I mean?  And then you've got guy's that'll play that thing'hold on'I've got a quick story I've gotta tell'

I'm on stage, playing with Steve Morse, Kim Mitchell and a bunch of other guitar players, it was the Night of a Thousand Guitars in 1987 in Toronto.  We're jamming on something, I can't remember what it was, Jeff Beck's Freeway Jam or something at the end of the night and Morse plays something that is just mind bogglingly good and it's just so phenomenally up there, Kim Mitchell turns and looks at me and he mimics slicing his hand off with a saw.  Like, he's just sawing his own hands off.  Now that's a whole other ' ah ' like, you get the kid, the kid that doesn't know how to play and he say's 'yep, I'm a guitar player' and then you've got guys that are just so humble about it, but God Almighty, they're such amazingly good players.  And so, the range is so phenomenal, that you always have to remind yourself, that 'ya, it's a question of personal expression, it's a question of being able to pick up the guitar and say 'You wanna hear what my soul is like?  Here's what my soul is like!'.  That's a very individual thing, so in the end, it's not about technique.  All those things are important but it's more about being able to express yourself.  So as long as you guy's have a pluralistic approach, hey, I'm a big supporter!


You can get more info about Rik, such as pics, show schedule, biography and tons more on his website!


Copyright 2001-2003 Canadian Guitar Players Association. All Rights reserved.