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.