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The Gibson Interview – Rik Emmett

Rik discusses reconciling with his bandmates in Triumph, the early days of the band, their future, and why he’s always been compelled to teach music to others.

Sean Patrick Dooley | 07.13.2010

While fronting the Canadian trio Triumph from the mid-’70s through the late-’80s, guitarist and co-lead singer, Rik Emmett, gained international acclaim for his dazzling fretwork and his soaring tenor voice. In the years since leaving Triumph, Rik has created an immense and widely varied catalog of music, including extensive forays into classical, jazz, folk and acoustic pop. From “stealing the show” during Heavy Metal Sunday at 1983’s US Festival (in front of nearly half a million people) to winning Best Smooth Jazz Guitarist of 2005, Rik Emmett is simply one of the greatest guitarists of the modern era (No. 7 on Gibson’s Readers Poll of All-Time Great Guitarists). Rik recently sat down with Gibson.com to discuss Triumph’s recent reconciliation, the early years of the band, sharing his gift with others, and just what makes him tick as an artist.

You’ve been doing a lot of press these days for Triumph’s Greatest Hits package. How’s that been going?

Well, I’ve still got some more stuff I’ve gotta do tomorrow, then I’m free. Nothing but interviews day after day for a little while, ’cuz I promised those guys as part of the whole reconciliation reunion thing that I would help out in the promotion of their greatest hits package when they finally got it to market. I’ve been talking my stupid-fool head off in the last couple of weeks. You do get kind of sick and tired of talking about yourself, but this is kind of nice, too, just to get the chance to finally talk to somebody at Gibson in the face. It’s great.

We’re scheduled to go for a dinner tonight with a couple of guys from Live Nation that have flown into town and want to take us to dinner. I’m sure there’s going to be some sort of a pitch. The rumors that have been sort of blowing in the wind are that Van Halen want to go back out yet again next year, but they’re going to need some sort of support to make the packaging a little more interesting. Because Triumph hasn’t really ever toured in any kind of a nostalgia way, I think Live Nation kind of goes, “Oh, yeah, you guys would be perfect for that.” So, we’ll see sort of the size and the shape and the glitter of the golden carrots that they have.

How do the other guys in Triumph feel about it?

The drummer, Gil Moore, is not really keen. He runs the Metal Works Studio. He started an offshoot thing as many as ten years ago where he has a school as sort of an adjunct to the studio. The thing kept growing and growing. Then he opened up his own sound and lights production end of the business, so he’s got a little empire where he’s got these three businesses that he runs. He’s making all kinds of money and has all kind of business stress, 12-hour days in the office, that sort of thing. So, I’m not sure he’s going to be sort of willing to put his pen down or his laptop or whatever it is that you put down and pick up the drumsticks and go out and want to be a drummer again. We’ll see what happens.

Seems like Gil has always had that entrepreneurial side to him, even in the early days of Triumph.

Oh, yeah. When the band first started and I first met them, Gil was running sort of a quasi-P.A. rental business out of his garage. Even when he was a kid in high school, he was a bit of a wheeler-dealer. He was literally buying and selling used cars when he was still in high school. When I met him – and I would have been 22 or 23 at the time – he already had a house that he was living in, and he was renting out space to other musicians who were living in this house with him. The guy had a house, three or four cars in his driveway that he was buying or selling, he had a garage that was just full of crap – old P.A. bins and racks of power amps and stuff. Yeah, he was always into that stuff. He loved that side of things of the music business.

A born entrepreneur!

Yeah, I give him credit. In terms of being a guy in a band, his skill set was invaluable. We literally ended up kind of managing ourselves. Practically, he would road manage the band from time to time and function as a tour accountant if we needed it. Nobody could get away with anything because Gil was always kind of hip on the kinds of deals that everybody was making with sound and lights providers and truck drivers, and he knew the business as well as any manager in the business. He was a good guy to have in the band, you know?

Sounds like, early on, you guys were never lacking for equipment!

No, although a lot of it was junk. In those early days, we’d show up at a bar gig, and the people in the audience would see these massive PAs and lights that were hanging off of truss rods that were made of old television conning towers. It was all just kind of junk, but it looked incredibly impressive, and people would go, “Man, these guys came to play a bar, and they drove up in a tractor trailer truck!”

We recently spoke to Alex Lifeson of Rush. Did Triumph and the Rush guys know each other back in those early days?

Yeah, I had seen their band at a couple of places, a couple of bars in Toronto. I do remember when Triumph was playing at the Gasworks, a legendary Young Street bar in Toronto. Alex came down to one of the gigs that we were playing there. Mike Myers used a kind of a version of the bar – an incredibly idealized version of the bar – in one of the Wayne’s World movies. It was just this long, narrow thin bar right on the Young Street strip. It was kind of like a proving ground – if you played there, you were now sort of into the bar circuit. I’d seen Rush there. Geddy had his nails painted black.

My strongest memory was Alex just tearing it up. He played a version of Jeff Beck’s “Going Down,” and he just tore it up on a 335. He came to say “Hi” and we had a drink at the bar, that sort of thing. I’ve known Alex through the years, and from time to time he and I have gotten together. There’s a thing up here – a guy named Brian Murray runs a thing called Guitar Workshops Plus – and he’d been trying to get Alex out there for years and years. Finally we did one together. That was two or three summers ago. That was a lot of fun. We spent the day just hanging and telling stories and jammed together at night on acoustic guitars, then electrics after that as sort of a closing finale of the day. Alex is an extremely gracious guy. I don’t really know the other guys well. I don’t know Geddy and Neil very well at all. But every time I’ve ever had the pleasure of being in Alex’s company, he’s been an extremely gracious and humble type of guy. And he’s not such a bad guitar player either!

You spoke about doing a workshop with Alex – it seems you’ve always had a passion for teaching, even going back to your time writing a column for Guitar Player magazine. Is sharing your gift important to you?

Yes. I just think it’s a part of my DNA. I’m pretty sure if I hadn’t ended up being some sort of recording artist, musician, touring kind of guy, I definitely would have been a teacher on some level. I really do enjoy it. It’s not just a question of, sort of, giving back, but that definitely does play into the equation. John Wooden just passed away, and he was one of those kinds of guys who was a real inspirational motivational-type leader, and he had all kinds of great expressions that he would use to try to get people going. There’s one he had in his office, and it’s one of my son’s favorites. I’m never going to remember it word for word, but it was along the lines of “Talent is God-given, so be grateful. Fame is people-given, so be humble. Ego is self-given, so be careful.” So, I kind of think the whole idea of education kind of gets boiled down into that.

For me, part of the process of teaching is that I’m exposed to students that are hungry for knowledge, and they’re already making connections in a world that, in a way, has already passed me by. So, it helps to keep me vital and current and connected that I have these young people. You know, these young people, with their energy and their ambition and their dreams – I get to almost play vampire to be near that and be connected to it.

So, I’ve always felt that when I need to explain something to someone and articulate it, it helps me get a clearer understanding of it myself. If it’s something I haven’t revisited in a while, I get a new perspective on it when I have to explain it to someone. I think it helps me stave off my Alzheimer’s a little bit. I just think it’s the greatest thing of all. I’ve always felt that music was a calling for me, and it wasn’t necessarily just a job. Because of that, I’ve always thought that there was something spiritual involved in the process. The education side of it is almost closer to a true spirit sometimes than the rock and roll industry, which often is a perverted bastardized kind of place, you know?

You can really hear that spirituality in the music and lyrics you’ve written over the years.

Yeah, I try. I always tell students in my music classes, songwriting classes and recitals that I’m adjudicating that one of the things you should try to do with music is offer people something money can’t buy. It’s not just a kind of commercial pursuit. I don’t care if you’re a guy sitting in a restaurant playing quiet guitar while people are eating pasta or whether you’re a rock guy in a bar where your primary job is to try and sell beer or whether you’re a recording artist and your job is to try and sell records, I still think that job is trying to give people something money can’t buy. The music has to have something in it that opens people up – their hearts, their souls – that captures their imagination. When I write songs, I’m writing little folk anthems on my acoustic guitar and bringing them into rehearsal and trying to turn them into pop songs.

Hey, congratulations! No. 7 on Gibson.com’s Readers Poll of All-Time Great Guitarists! That had to feel good.

It was, and it was a lovely surprise. Kind of shocking. I kept thinking someone was stuffing the ballot box somewhere along the line, but I think that’s great. And, wow, what a beautiful and select group of guitar players to be a part of. Yeah, it was really nice.

After leaving Triumph in 1988, Rik Emmett also left the beaten path for more esoteric pursuits. He declined invitations to join other big-name stadium acts and focused on a smaller-scale, but more artistically satisfying solo career. Over the past two decades, he has dabbled in flamenco, classical, blues and jazz — even winning the Canadian Smooth Jazz Award for Guitarist of the Year in 2005. In Part 2 of The Gibson Interview, Emmett talks about the reasoning behind those decisions and his collection of Gibson guitars.

In the 20-plus years since you left Triumph, you’ve been able to put out an immense and varied catalog of music. Is this what you envisioned for your future?

Yeah, I think that’s true. I was definitely going to defy any sort of shoeboxing of my career. But I also think, in a way, it wasn’t like I had some sort of incredibly solid concrete master plan that I was following, because I think, in a lot of ways, part of the process is, you just sort of go organically day to day, week to week, month to month, year to year, and certain opportunities come along and present themselves. And sometimes you say, “Sorry, not for me” and other times you go, “Yeah!” and “I’m gonna chase this one because this one feels right for me now at this point.”

I look back over my career and, after I left Triumph, there were some offers that came by from time to time. Tom Scholz was looking for someone to sing for them on a Boston tour. When the Damn Yankees were starting up and I was talking on the phone with Jack Blades, I got a call to become the guitar player and singer on an Asia tour. Those kinds of things I turned down. I’m sure they would have been nice opportunities and they might have led to something, but I didn’t want to just end up in another band.

To address your question, I think I got to a point in my life around 1995 or ’96 where there was just no record company on the Planet Earth that was interested in a guy my age that had made the music that I’d made, had the track record that I had, because there’s been such a huge change that had happened in the industry. At that point, I said that if I wanted to keep playing, then why don’t I just make my own record. And I think that was a really big moment for me in my life. You know, you don’t think of it as a big moment when it’s happening. It just seemed like it was the only logical and natural thing to do. I bought myself a little digital board, set up a little studio with a computer in my basement, thought, “You know what? I’ve always wanted to make a finger-style nylon-string guitar record. That’s what I’ll do! Little classical pieces. I’ll start there, start a little record label, put it out on my own and see what happens.”

I made all my money back on that album in the first three weeks. How expensive is it to record your own little classical guitar record? It was pretty cheap and simple. So after that I thought, “Gee, I’d always wanted to make an arch-top blues swing record, I think I’ll do that next. Oh, geez, I’ve always wanted to make a real hard-rocking kind of blues record or a more pure kind of blues record.” In the first two or three years, I put out this trilogy of stuff that… I’d always saw it, like in the process I was going through at the time, I’d just write whatever I felt like and record whatever I felt like, then I’d figure out how to put this onto an album and make it a sort-of boutique marketable something or other. Those were the first three formatted piles that I came up with. One of them would be in an acoustic finger style. One of them would have been sort-of swing arch-top-ish kinds of things. And the third one was sort of an electric blues and bluesy-based kinds of things.

Not an A&R person in sight. You’re doing it all yourself.

Yeah, exactly. And in truth, not much of a market at the end of any of those roads, and that’s why a record company wouldn’t be interested. They’d go, “Yeah, you put it out, and you sold 2,200 units. Great. But we can’t have a business function on that level. That doesn’t work for us.” But I was fine with that. I was starting to realize that this was gonna kind of be what my life would be like anyway. The guys that make jazz records for a living, that’s what they face right from the get-go all the time, unless you’re one of the really true big lions of that end of the market. A jazz guy is gonna have to scuffle along all his life, just trying to cobble it together and have a day job from time to time, teach on the side. I thought, “That’s an honorable pursuit, that’s not such a bad life.”

Early in your solo years, you turned to the Internet to help your career. You were really on the forefront as far as other musicians go…

I think part of that approach was that I realized that if I didn’t have a small loyal kind of group of fan/followers, and I didn’t listen to what it was they were hoping to get from me, from time to time, then I was doomed. There were a couple of folks early on, a girl named Nicole Dowdy and a guy named Greg Troy. They both started up these kind of fan website things on the Internet, and they’d send me stuff and ask me if I approved and if it was okay with me. They wanted me to be happy and didn’t want to do anything to make me unhappy. At the time, I just went, “I think this is great. Now, your spelling on the homepage is a little funky, and you don’t quite have your facts right in that bio that you’re putting on that sub-page…” Before too long, I was sort of drawn into this thing and saying, “Hey, why don’t you two guys collaborate, and I’ll literally put an official stamp on this, and we’ll try to get it right.”

One thing led to another, and I decided that I should probably register my own domain name and that I should sort of be the general manager of this thing, and you people can be sort of helping me out, and I’ll give you some guidance and things. So, that’s kind of how it all got started. I always just thought of it as I was going to have this kind of store in this giant mall, which is the world wide web, and it’s open 24-7. If it’s going to be a really good one, then I have to be in the store. I have to have a presence, you know? You can’t be just some sort of an empty shell of something that’s just trying to sell records. It has to be something that interacts with fans and gives them the opportunity to feel like they’re rubbing elbows and that sort of thing. The dynamic of a website isn’t that much different than a meet-and-greet after a gig. That’s been one of the great things about the Internet. It has allowed this incredible proliferation of information. The average guitar player that I see now is so much better than the average guitar player was ten years ago, twenty years ago, and there are just so many more of them because there’s just so much great information that’s available with the click of a mouse.

Tell us about your Gibson guitars.

I have a 2007 Les Paul that’s one of the chambered ones. It’s a Les Paul Standard, chambered, with a flametop. I’ve got a black one that was a ’60s reissue, I think it was from 2008. They’ve got the ’60s style necks on them. To me, it’s just about the perfect instrument. I just love it. The only thing I didn’t change – I don’t really need the four-knob configuration. Because I do a lot of singing, I don’t have a lot of time to be looking down to be adjusting the two volumes in order to get sounds. I wish I did. I wish I had the luxury of being able to be looking down and fiddling around to set those volumes just so. I change it up so I just have a master volume, and there’s a master tone, but I hardly ever touch it. So, I have turned the four-knob configuration into two.

Now on my black Les Paul, I just recently did a mod where I put in a piezo-style bridge. Then I put back in a pot that now functions as a blend pot between my ceramic magnetic pickups and the piezo one in the bridge. I haven’t been using it too much, but it’s just nice to have it as a bit of an option. A lot of times when I have to do fly-in gigs, I won’t have the luxury of taking two or three or four guitars when I’m really only taking one. So, I take the black Les Paul, and if I need an acoustic kind of sound, I can kind of dial it in. It’s not ideal, but it gives me an option.

I have a double-neck that came from the Custom Shop. A white one. It’s fantastic, although I’m getting a little old for that. My neck and back complain sometimes.

It’s a big guitar!

Yeah, and there’s no way around that, really. But it’s a really good guitar. I’ve read stuff where people talk about, you know, Gibson and the Custom Shop, and, “No, the ‘vintages’ are better,” and I don’t believe that. I’ve had an extensive guitar collection since I first got interested in guitars. I’ve had my share of vintage guitars. You know, old Gibson double-necks, old 335s. The stuff I got from the Custom Shop – they’re really top-notch guitars. They’re really high quality guitars. They’re extremely well made.

I have an ES-345, a cherry one, and I love it a lot. The only problem for me is when I play a 345, it makes me look like I’m a shrimp. They dwarf me a little bit! I’ve always kind of had a taste for arch-tops, and I just really love how the strings are really high up off the face. There are just things about them that I really like. I think I would be more of a 335 guy — 345 guy when it comes to tone and stuff — if I didn’t play in such high volume circumstances over time. But the Les Paul, in the end – it’s the tone machine when you’re trying to compete with a rhythm section that’s getting up there in terms of level and stuff.

The idea of chambered Les Pauls was like a perfect marriage for me because I kind of like the “thunk” you get out of an arch-top. Like a 335 has just a little bit more of a percussive front end on the note. They don’t have quite as much sustain as a Les Paul would. When the Les Paul was chambered, it gives you back a little bit of that kind of front-end “thunk”. That’s one of the things I really like out of a guitar. I like when I can hit it hard, and it gives me more. That’s why I really like those guitars.