What A Wonderful World: Tommy Emmanuel balances taste and technique

November 13, 2017
What A Wonderful World: Tommy Emmanuel balances taste and technique

I was introduced to this arrangement of Louis Armstrong’s “What A Wonderful World” the other day in one of my online Q&A sessions. I’m a huge admirer of Tommy Emmanuel’s playing, like virtually every other guitarist who’s ever heard him. But what I love most about this arrangement is that it’s relatively simple. There are a few stretches that may be challenging for those with smaller hands, and a couple of quick passages. But for the most part, he plays the unadorned melody with some added harmony notes and chordal fills. It’s a great example of tastefulness AND virtuosity, and accessible to the average intermediate player. We’re going to start off with a simplified version, but first watch Tommy!

There’s a lot to digest here, so let’s break it down. This shortened arrangement sticks to the primary melody and simplified chord parts. The embellishments he adds will be easier to understand once you’ve learned the basics. Download the tab here and let’s get started! I would also suggest opening the accompanying close-up video of this version in a separate window for easy reference.

The breakdown

We’re in the key of F, playing the melody primarily on the first and second strings. The opening gesture is a simple statement of the first phrase. Start with a partial barre on the 5th fret to play the first lick in 5th position.

The melody is harmonized in 6ths in measures 2 and 3. Use ring and pinky fingers to play the notes on the 10th fret, and then middle and ring to play frets 8 and 9. Move the same two fingers down two frets for the next chord on frets 6 and 7, and then index and middle to play the chord on fret 5. From here, it’s relatively easy to jump into the next two-note chord with index and pinky, resolving to middle and ring for the end of this sequence.

Performance note: notice that I’m using a pick in the video. Tommy uses “grace notes” frequently when playing these two-note chords; I’m accomplishing this by playing the lower note with a downstroke and following immediately with an upstroke on the higher note. In some cases, the picking hand middle finger is used to pluck the high string simultaneously along with the lower picked note. The video should make it clear which technique is being used where, but you can feel free to use either or simply to strum the two-note chord. Sometimes this will require muting the string between the two notes, which you can accomplish with the side of the fret hand finger that covers the lower note.

At the end of measure 4, jump to the pinky to play fret 6 of the B string. This will free up the rest of your fingers to play the three-note Db chord, which is a stripped-down variation on an “A-shape” barre form. Extend the index finger to reach the low G bass note, keeping the little finger on the 6th fret if you can. If you can form a barre with the index, do, but it’s not essential. The figure concludes with more 6ths, using a similar fingering to the 6ths you played in measures 2 and 3, leading into a 4-chord turnaround in measures 7 and 8.

With the exception of the Db chord in measure 5, most of the chords in measures 2 through 7 are implied. It takes 3 notes to form a complete chord, but the 2-note forms (“dyads” in theory-speak) create a harmony line that give a sense of the chordal movement. It’s a great illustration of how our ears can fill in missing information, especially with a song as familiar as this one. We don’t need to hear the full chords, because the harmony notes are enough to complete the picture.

Repeat of A section melody

The melody returns with some embellishments in measure 9. Notice the chromatic Db passing note in measure 11. Play the sixth at the downbeat with middle and ring, followed by the 6th fret Db with the index. Reach up with the pinky to play the 8th fret C note and then glide down a fret to play the two 5th fret notes with index and middle. As before, switch to the pinky at the end of measure 12 to set up the Db chord in measure 13. Notice how the single-note licks echo and embellish the melody AND still imply the chord changes!

At measure 14 you’ll need to extend the index finger to barre the notes of the G minor chord. You could leave the barre down for the entire measure if you like, or release it after the first 3 notes. The 3rd fret note at the end of the measure can be played with the fingertip or with the edge of the extended barre finger. Either way, this should set up the barre F chord in the next measure. The fill that follows is a little tricky, pay attention to the guide finger slides.

The B section

The B section of the arrangement is a pretty straightforward combination of single-note melody, simple chord fills (measures 18 and 20), and some open position chords in measures 21-23. Watch for the climbing 3-note chords in measures 23 and 24, and see if you can sustain the C bass note at the end of measure 24 as you reach for the pickup notes that bring back the A section melody.

The return of the A section introduces some more melodic variations. Pay close attention to the fingerings, using the video as a reference. If you’ve gotten this far, you should have a good sense of the logic behind the fingerings. Basically, the goal is always to try to “set up” the next note, either by maintaining a common finger and shifting or using a free finger to prepare.

Remember your practice method!

If you find this challenging, don’t despair! Take it slow, refer back to the reference video, and remember that you may need to break things down. Isolate trouble spots and practice them individually. Sometimes that might mean focusing on just one or two notes! If you need a reminder of how to break down challenging passages into manageable bits, refer to my post on effective practicing.

On the other hand, if you’re ready for a greater challenge you can download the complete, accurate transcription of Tommy’s performance here. We’ll take a closer look in a subsequent post.

Leave a Reply