The acoustic maestro on keeping things simple whilst noting his soundman’s chocolate preferences…
What was your first gig and how did it go?
“I was five and my very first gig was in the lounge room of our house and all the neighbours came over and we played about 30 minutes of Shadows tunes. Everybody had a great time and I remember the exhilaration of playing for people for the first time as a unit with my two brothers and my sister, and how it felt to be actually performing, even though it was a lounge room packed with people watching. It was just as exciting as if it was Carnegie Hall!”
Can you describe your current stage rig?
“It’s very simple. I carry my own microphone that I sing through, I have a Boss tuner, an AER Pocket Tools called a Dual Mix, an AER Compact 60 amp which is my own signature model and a guitar stand.
“I use the Boss tuner because it mutes and it’s easy to read – I don’t like those tuners where everything spins around and all that because you can’t read them on stage. They’re okay to tune off-stage. But all I want is a tuner where when it’s red, it’s wrong and when it’s green, it’s good.
“I have three Maton guitars all with the same pickup and mic system, tuned differently: one guitar has medium strings and is tuned down a whole step, and the other two have 0.012-0.054s one is permanently tuned in drop D and the other is permanently in normal tuning.”
What’s on your rider?
“There’s a technical rider and an artist rider. My technical rider has the stage setting, mic lines, where things should go, what kind of equipment we need, and what kind of PA.
“The artist rider has waters, towels, coffee, fruit and some snacks. Sometimes we do chocolate, because my soundman, Steve, likes white chocolate and I like normal milk chocolate and if I’ve got [fellow Certified Guitar Player] John Knowles with me, he likes dark chocolate.”
What non-musical item couldn’t you do without on tour?
“Water! You’ve got to stay hydrated…”
What’s your best tip for getting a good live sound?
“We could go on for hours about that! I would say, I use a Maton guitar and an AER amp because I know no matter what PA I’m playing through, no matter what room I’m playing, whether I’m playing loud or soft or in between, I can get a great sound from that couple.
“I still love the sound of a good Gibson or Martin guitar with a good mic on it – it’s a beautiful sound, but it’s not always practical. If you have to turn up, plug in and play straight away, nothing comes close to a Maton guitar and an AER amp. Total consistency; I can go from the Grand Ole Opry to the local pub and I’m going to get a great sound.”
What’s your best tip for getting the audience on your side?
“Some people get nervous and they fumble around, they worry, they’re self-conscious, blah-blah-blah. In that situation, just come out and say, ‘Hello, I’m nervous as hell but I’m going to do the best I can,’ and you’ve got them.
“If you’re not nervous and you’re ready to go, don’t waste any time - get out there and start playing. It’s really a matter of getting the audience’s attention – don’t walk out on stage and then start tuning as if everybody has to stop and wait for you. Too many players do that and it’s bad - you’ve got to be perfectly in tune, know what you’re going to start with, walk out there, plug in and go, ‘Here I am…’ Bang!”
What’s the worst journey you’ve had either to or from a gig?
“The day the rear axle broke on a pickup truck that I was driving and the wheel flew off and it almost rolled over. I had to get a guy with a truck to tow me off the road, get all the equipment out of the truck and then drive 80 miles to play for 15 people. I had to order a new axle, come up on the train… I could write a book about that day.”
What’s the best venue you’ve played in and why?
“Some venues have more mojo than others. When I play the Ryman Auditorium I’m on hallowed ground; I’m playing in a place that’s one of the biggest parts of my life, because all my favourite artists came from that room – the mother church of country music.
“This week coming I’m going to be playing The Great American Music Hall and that goes right back to Charlie Chaplin, Houdini and people like that and that’s going to be a place full of mojo as well. But I think New York Town Hall has probably the best vibe and the best sound.”
What’s the nearest you’ve come to a Spinal Tap moment on tour?
“I regularly have Spinal Tap moments on tour! I’ve had the chance to go out and get a cup of coffee and then I’m locked out of my own venue and I have to go back through the front where all the people are coming in, all dressed and ready to go with a cup of coffee in my hand.”
What’s the weirdest thing you’ve witnessed on tour?
“I’d say a person coming to multiple shows in a row and analysing every song and every show and making notes during the show and doing drawings, obsessing about every minute detail. I find that pretty weird [laughs].”
What’s your favourite live album?
“Friday Night In San Francisco – John McLaughlin, Paco de Lucía and Al Di Meola. It’s from 1984 or something like that [1981 actually] and it’s freakin’ unbelievable. The playing is so full of spirit and it’s mind boggling technique that not many people on the planet have ever reached, but it’s just the right combination at the right time.
“The influences of all that music coming together through three people: John McLaughlin comes from a whole different area, Al Di Meola is an incredible musician, but Paco de Lucía is the true soul of everything – he sucks it all in and makes it this real mojo-dripping experience. He’s the greatest of all time.”
Tommy’s new album Accomplice One is available now via The Players Club/ Mascot Label Group.