Rik Emmett was the leading force behind the success of Triumph. Rik is now working through a satisfying solo career. He tells us about his songwriting techniques and his overall career, as well as tips and tricks to becoming a better guitarist.
As a human being, Rik has been married 24 years and has four kids. He coaches sports in his neighborhood and keeps close contacts with his family. Not difficult to understand when you read these answers. An overall great person, as well as a fantastic musician. Check out Rik Emmett’s website.
“Every time you get up to go to the bathroom: every time you stand there doing the dishes: every time you’re walking down the street: hum a little groove to yourself….do what the hip hop guys do, and “mouth” a groove, and see what starts to develop….or whistle a little tune, right off the top of your head, whatever comes to mind.”
Also check out our interview with Rik Emmett’s manager, Bob Roper. He fills us in on what a manager should do and when it is time to look for a manager.
Guitar Noise: How long have you been writing songs?
Rik Emmett: Since I was 10 or 11 – about 36 years.
GN: What is (are) your main inspiration(s)?
RE: The root of the word “Inspiration” relates to the breath of the gods – being filled with the Muses. And so it is with inspiration – it is often ineffable, illusory. You have a sense of it, but by its nature it is almost impossible to conjur at will, or hold on to, if and when it comes.
For me, inspiration often comes from other things in art that move me emotionally: a well-written book, or poem, or newspaper article, or something dramatic in a picture, a painting, a movie or a play: something that gets me high on life, like holding a new-born baby, or romance, or a tender moment of demonstrated affection: sometimes grief, sadness, heartache, anger, frustration…I am a musician, so sometimes I stumble across a little acorn of a chord change, or a melodic phrase, or (more often) an implied rhythm married to a chord voicing, and I know there’s an oak tree waiting there…I may not know it’s full size, or shape, but I know that if I work hard, I can realize a full and complete organic thing from that seed of an idea. I’m also a songwriter, so sometimes the inspiration comes from a lyrical phrase, or a metaphor born from two disparate images merging together. I’m also a singer, and sometimes my mind is just wandering and I find myself humming a little phrase – and I run to my little tape player, hit RECORD, and capture it for a later appraisal. 80 or 90% of “inspiration” doesn’t necessarily pan all the way out….and the 10 or 20% I keep, usually reduces to a tiny fraction, and requires 95% perspiration to fully realize the oak tree. But that’s just me…
Sometimes my imagination feels very active, and the soil in my mind is very fertile…..Other times, it’s the dry season, and my life gets overly complicated and gets in the way of creativity/productivity. But I consider myself a professional writer, and so, when I have to, I strap on the harness and I try to plough the fields, because that’s my gig. I’ve had both good and bad results from both approaches – in other words, sometimes inspiration is not all that it’s cracked up to be, and sometimes plain old donkey work can be extremely rewarding. I think you have to be open to all approaches if you want to build a career with any longevity.
GN: When recording an album, do you use songs that were specifically written for the album or do you use songs that have been written at other times, perhaps years earlier?
RE: I’ve done both. I do a lot of rewriting. And my writing process is a long, drawn out one, usually. I do not come up with songs in 10 minutes (although it has happened, on a very rare occasion or two…). Usually, now, I write towards a specific project, and record it, and release it. Sometimes, a good song doesn’t ‘fit’ with the remainder of the current set of songs, and it hangs around waiting for an appropriate situation. Sometimes a song is just weaker than others, and in my humble estimation, doesn’t really deserve to be set free publicly.
GN: What problems occur when you write songs?
RE: Connective tissue….how to get from one idea to another seamlessly and organically, to service the “long line” that Aaron Copland defined……Also, condensing, and boiling away the chaff….Trying to fit Big Ideas into small spaces that can only hold a very few syllables…Finding the melody that marries to the lyric that marries to the chords that marries to the groove that marries to the atmosphere of the arrangement (a holistic synergy)….To be fresh and original and not just rework old territory without adding something worthwhile….
GN: You have written in both a band setting (Triumph) and in a solo setting. Are there any major differences in your songwriting techniques? If so, what are they?
RE: My techniques were always varied, and so I have remained relatively consistent. My collaborative efforts in Triumph were largely ones where I would be submitting my songs to the other members for band arrangement ideas, and not necessarily songwriting. Generally, I would offer other members more ‘songwriting’ collaboration on their efforts, and their input on my songs was more of a production/arranging input. On a few occasions we collaborated on the music tracks of my songs (hardly ever lyrically), often with mixed results that left me disappointed. Songwriting collaboration, and the inequity of it, and the difficulty of it, was one of the contributory factors towards my departure. The biggest hits of Triumph that have proved to have the longest legs were tunes that I wrote by myself.
I work in spiral notebooks, with a guitar nearby, and a small tape recorder. If I get an idea, I pop it on a cassette. I catalogue the ideas, and then try to flesh them out. I jam with myself a little, I sit with a pencil and book and ruminate, and I experiment and fiddle and diddle and build a song up, bit by bit – a rhyming couplet here, a melody there, a chord change or five or six here, ….and if I don’t come across something really solid and meaty and hooky within a few hours, I move on to another “seed” and start to build it. I usually like to have at least 3 or 4 songs on the go at any time, and I like to revisit them and test them for an organic solidity…If they don’t measure up, I deconstruct and rewrite. I go through this process until I’ve got about 12 songs for a CD.
GN: Does improvisation play an important role in your songwriting techniques?
RE: Yes, at early stages, very much so. Even just jamming by myself…free-forming. When something neat starts to happen, I hit RECORD and capture the idea for later review.
GN: Do you look for different methods of writing your songs?
RE: Sometimes different methods find ME….but I don’t necessarily go looking for them.
GN: A common question among the visitors to Guitarnoise: How do you resolve the issue of lack of inspiration?
RE: Inspiration as a source for creativity is overrated…It’s only momentary, anyway. If you’re working, and applying yourself, and playing your instrument, and thinking like a writer, and being a magpie for little acorns and nuggets of the little building blocks you’ll need, you can work your way towards inspirational moments, when you gain insight. That’s “flow”, as defined by Mihalyi Czikzentmihalyi (no typos there). I believe in process more than I believe in inspiration….but I believe you need both. I despair over neither, because that’s counterproductive. I work towards a ‘flow’ state.
GN: Do you ever see yourself, at some time in the future, not writing songs?
GN: Do you start with the music or the lyrics, or do you write both simultaneously?
RE: Usually music, then a seed or two of lyric, then a lot more music, then a great deal of lyric, to shape the concept…..then go back and rewrite like crazy. But I have also written complete sets of lyrics without a thought towards a melody or a chord change….and also, full lyrics, with a melody and a rhythm percolating in my head, but never once touching a guitar.
GN: You write both songs with actual lyrics and instrumental pieces. Do you intentionally start a piece as instrumental or is it just something that happens?
RE: Usually the content of the idea dictates the application…Occasionally I have ideas that could go either way, and, depending on the mood of the over-all project, or what I need, or what I haven’t been writing lately, I’ll have a leaning.
GN: Are there any techniques, methods, etc, that help you that you would like to share with the visitors to Guitar Noise?
RE: Every time you get up to go to the bathroom: every time you stand there doing the dishes: every time you’re walking down the street: hum a little groove to yourself….do what the hip hop guys do, and “mouth” a groove, and see what starts to develop….or whistle a little tune, right off the top of your head, whatever comes to mind. Free your mind as you brush your teeth in the morning, and see what music pops into it….Then, after you come up with these nuggets (acorns), rush to your little ghetto blaster and lay ’em on to tape. Collect a whole bunch of little two bar ideas. Then, when the tape’s full, relisten….A few of those things are going to reach out and tickle your fancy….Then you know you’ve got something worthwhile, because it came right out of your instinct, or your subconscious…(careful it’s not a total cop of something else you’ve heard before….and even if it is, that’s okay, as long as you know that you’ll have to mutate it some as you develop it into a full-fledged song idea.)
GN: Do you find it difficult to work with a small label rather than with a major label?
RE: Any situation is going to have certain frustrations and certain luxuries. Big labels give you more potential resources, and more restrictions, and more mainstream commercial thinking. Small labels give you more freedom, less resources, and the opportunity to guerrilla-market your own humble, personal artistic/musical attempts. You won’t be able to afford George Martin or Mutt Lang as a producer, or work at a big studio with a symphony orchestra, or have an executive decide to spend a million dollars on a video, or a promo campaign. But I find it relatively easy to get along with my small label’s president, the head of promo and marketing and A&R and legal affairs, ’cause they’re all me.
GN: Do smaller labels give you more liberty to do what you want?
RE: Answered above. If “liberty” is practically unlimited resources, like the Beatles doing Sgt. Pepper, (which would be amazing – I’ve never had that luxury) then, no, smaller labels can’t give you all the liberty you want. But if liberty is not having record company executives telling you what you should do, and not being afraid to put out funky little recordings that take some chances and don’t give a rat’s ass about the hit parade, then yes, smaller labels give you more liberty.
GN: Triumph were noted for their outrageous light shows. I remember reading about the band having used old car headlights as part of that light show. Could you tell us more about it?
RE: They were the same bulbs as 747 aircraft landing lights, actually, mounted in the drum riser and in a few banks hanging off the rear truss, for audience blasters. We also had a row of ’em that came up out of the front pit for a few blast fx. In the VERY early days, we had strings of ordinary household light bulbs, mounted in chaser strips, that framed the amp racks, the riser, the rear light truss, and the front light truss. It was a very Las Vegas-y looking kind of show.
GN: You have obviously put a tremendous amount of time and energy in your career. Do you sometimes feel as though you put too much in it?
RE: Nope. I have a great life. I have a wife that I love profoundly, and I’ve been married 24 years. I have four great kids, and I have spent plenty of time with them growing up. I coach sports in my neighborhood, and I do some charity work every now and then. I live close to my parents, and my younger brother and his family – and I have annual parties where I touch base with all of my old friends that date back to my high school days. I have begun teaching a college level music business course locally, at Humber College, and I have a tremendous team of wonderful friends and fans that keep my website, and my Network business, well-maintained. I have been blessed, and I have a lot to be grateful for….and I think the fruits of the labour of my career have played a big part in fueling a lot of these blessings. Besides – my focus is not so much my “career”, now, as my music – my musicianship, my songwriting, my recording. And the biggest part of my “career” came when I was but a role player, a cog, in the rock and roll machine called Triumph. And there were frustrations and unhappiness with the bars of THAT cage: but, as I wrote in the lyric for “Silent Revolutions” on the ‘Spiral Notebook’ CD, I have come to terms with the bars of the cage that I find myself in now (because we are all, after all, trapped inside certain cages inside cages inside cages, whether we are aware of them or not). I sleep pretty good most nights, and have very very few regrets.
GN: Do the pressures you face ever make you feel like just stopping?
RE: I admit that sometimes I fantasize about retiring, and having no expectations of others to fulfill. But I don’t think I could be happy without a creative existence. And I believe that some of my greatest gifts are writing, playing, singing….so recording seems like a pretty natural state of affairs, and the good news is, I can pretty much do it ’til I drop dead. I’d like to take a year off sometime, just to do some prose writing, just to see what would come out. I also love to draw and sketch, and do cartoons and things. I’d love to take some time off to pursue some of that. But, honestly, I am pretty comfortable in my skin these days (even if I could lose a few pounds off the tummy…).
GN: What would be your advice to someone who is just starting out?
RE: Be comprehensive. Read everything – practice and write and write and write some more. Don’t envision being a rock star: pick a humbler goal, and work towards it in increments. Figure out what your real character and personality truly is, your temperament and your spirit, and then find ways to put them into your music. Always place the music ahead of your own ego, but know that your music needs lots of your ego to stand on its own feet in public. Be humble and respectful and honest in the face of your audience, and place yourself in the service of the music as you bring it before the audience. Network. Build a great team to support you. Read Peter Spellman’s book, The Self-Promoting Musician (he teaches a music biz course at Berklee – his stuff is great!). He has a website at www.mbsolutions.com. Also, read David Baskerville’s “Music Business Handbook and Career Guide“. That will set you right up!
GN: What are the major differences between going on the road or recording solo compared to doing so in a band format?
RE: Solo live performances have been a real trip for me: right back to my roots, but with so much more ammo now, in my middle age. Very liberating, actually, and, obviously, not anywhere near as complicated (no sidemen, no road crews, no stage gear – very simple soundchecks, etc.) Band performances are fewer and farther between now, which makes them more special events that I look forward to, as they often take on different aspects of musical personality (e.g. is this a jazz venue? A bluesy kind of night? Or are we doing one of the classic rock, lots-of-old Triumph shows?). They are all fun and interesting and challenging in their own ways, and I enjoy playing with the sidemen I’m lucky enough to have gig with me.
GN: Triumph were famous in Canada. What are the major roadblocks to taking a successful act and making it international?
RE: The U.S. record deal is the first. Major U.S. radio airplay is the second. Major U.S. touring that doesn’t lose money is the third. You’ll notice that you asked about international success, and all I’ve talked about is the U.S., because that’s my experience. It’s the gigantic domino at the front of the line.
GN: When leaving a band and going solo, do you feel as though you have to start all over again?
RE: No. Triumph had a name, and a reputation. In some respects, it was actually a bit of a negative, but generally, it opened some doors, and gave me some opportunities that I never would have had if people didn’t know who I was. I do think, however, that being a forty-something year old guy, starting up his own little Open House record label a few years back and releasing a classical guitar CD, then a jazz guitar one, then a blues/rock one, then a xmas one, then a Live at Berklee one, ….now, that was starting something that was very grass-rootsy. It was a risk. A modest one, granted – I don’t think it was like starting all over again, but the way that it has actually caught on, and become a modest little success story…combined with the whole internet-website entrepreneurial angle, ….well, THAT is something that I don’t believe could have happened if I hadn’t had something special going on on the CDs and in the live solo shows…..I do think that, even though the old Triumph reputation got me a foothold, the climbing has been much more personally authentic this time around. And very personally satisfying, if that doesn’t seem too much like gloating.
GN: The fans respond positively to your music. Does this make the adventure worthwhile?
RE: Absolutely. To be a bit of the soundtrack of people’s lives is a sacred, beautiful thing, the greatest compliment I could imagine.
GN: You are one of the (too) few rock guitarists who also play the classical on albums and in concerts. Where did this (Love? Passion?) for the classical guitar come from?
RE: My older brother bought me an Andres Segovia record when I was about 13…and soon after, I bought a Julian Bream recording of some Bach stuff. In the very beginning, I had an old steel string acoustic, and a cheap electric or two that my parents had spent a hundred bucks (or less) on, but the first decent guitar I ever bought for myself was actually a YAIRI nylon string, a factory second, at a shop on Yonge Street in Toronto called Whaley Royce. So I had a nylon classical guitar for a few years before I got a decent Telly and a Fender amp. (I still have three of my first four guitars, actually, and the neck of a fifth – again, a Mexican nylon string guitar that became unplayable as it dried out over the years, and absolutely exploded into a million pieces one day when it got dropped. But I played a lot of coffeehouse folk gigs and parties on that old nylon string guitar).
GN: How did you acquire the speed you now have? Are there any special exercises you would like to share with our readers?
RE: There are plenty of little things that I share in my four book series, For The Love of Guitar … available at my web site, www.rikemmett.com.
My speed is a by-product of lots of things: I’m actually a left-handed guy who plays with his strong hand on the fingerboard, and I believe this helps me with ligado fingerings (hammering and pulling off). It’s also just good genes – I was a very “quick” athlete, and could sprint relatively quickly, and had good reflexes for lots of ball sports. I could always play guitar licks relatively “fast”, because I had strength, and a natural gift of agility….Once I had a knowledge of scales and arpeggios, and learned how to play in different positions, I had unlocked the fretboard. I also have my own way of approaching right-hand picking, where I really curl the pick around and use the edges to slice the string, instead of picking up/down with the flat face and back of the pick.
BTW – nowadays, I very rarely use a pick. Much like Jeff Beck, I prefer my fingers, and will only use a pick when I really need it to articulate a run, or play with a lot of brutality, or something. “Speed” was never much of an issue with me, really, (maybe because it did come relatively naturally) and I actually hated when guitar players played that way JUST to show off. I didn’t mind when it was well done, though. I always liked Alvin Lee’s “Goin’ Home” from Woodstock….it seemed natural to me. There are plenty of applications of “speed”, though, that just seemed like testosterone without intellect. I preferred guys like Ritchie Blackmore, Page, Beck, Clapton, Hendrix, Gilmour (Floyd), …. the guys that had the bluesy emotion, and only the occasional burst of speed. Mostly, they were just tasty. I also loved Jan Akkerman and Steve Howe – technically very adept players, capable of blinding speed, but also guys who used their chops tastefully.
GN: Which is your favourite guitar and why?
RE: Right now I love my YAMAHA Pacifica USA 1 because it is incredibly easy to play and has a rainbow of tones. I also love my custom YAMAHA AES 1500 and my stock AEX 1500 because they are great for the different archtop tones I crave. My classical right now is an unbelievable handmade Laskin from ’79, and my 6 and 12 acoustics are handmade L-55’s from YAMAHA in Japan, from ’81.
GN: How old were you when you started playing?
RE: Ten or eleven.
GN: Did you take courses or learn by yourself?
RE: Started by myself – took some Mel Bay book one stuff for about a year, then just started playing in basement bands. I had always sung in the church and school choirs, and also had several years of violin in high school. But the guitar was always my best friend.
GN: Do you tend to use classical techniques on the electric guitar and vice-versa?
RE: My technique has always been a little slap-dash….whatever gets the job done. I’m sure that purists from any school (classical, jazz, rock fusion, etc.) would watch me play and get plenty of chuckles. I don’t mind. I need to be able to wrestle the things that I can hear in my head, out of my head and on to the fretboard. So I don’t worry too much about technique, and worry more about simply trying to get the notes right. After I’ve been playing something for a while, I can usually find my way towards better techniques….but the INVITATIONS classical CD was really a bitch, for me, because it required a lot of disciplined playing over the course of a CD’s recording, and I’m perhaps not quite disciplined and academically-minded for that kind of exercise. Much better to flit from one style to another, and have the contrast of ripping loose on an electric rock thing, or strum on an acoustic, or swing on an archtop, and break up the disciplines…(jack of all trades, master of none….).
GN: Back in the eighties, I used to play with a very skilled guitarist. One of the songs we always wanted to do was “Fight the Good Fight”. The two of us together could not achieve all the guitar sounds from that song. How do you get so many sounds in your recordings?
RE: Generally, I used lots of different guitars on lots of tracks. FIGHT had a Telly through a little orange Roland amp as a clean rhythm bedtrack (it might have been doubled): a couple of scorching Akkerman tracks through an old 50 watt Marshall…a fingerpicky arpeggiating classical on the front and back end, and, if memory serves, a chorussed 12 string electric on the B verses. The Akkerman provided the solo overdubs, I’m sure…(although I used a Gibson Howard Roberts Fusion model on that Allied Forces record a fair bit – great guitar, which I was a fool to trade in years ago….). Just like Jimmy Page, I think the key to guitar texturing is often the CLEAN, tiny little sounds that provide the contrast to the big nasty dirty stuff…Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee, crush like a Tyrannosaurus Rex.
GN: A common questions from readers who play the guitar and sing: How do you go about combining playing a complicated guitar piece while doing lead vocals?
RE: I often sacrifice the guitar part for the vocal. The vocal is paramount: the guitar is accompaniment. I simplify an accompaniment until I can cut it – simple as that. For recording, you can cheat, of course, through overdubs (and don’t think I haven’t), but I try to build parts now that I can cut live. BTW – I think some of the best guitar players are guys like Bruce Cockburn, and Paul Simon, and James Taylor, and Leo Kottke types, who can just get this amazing right hand fingerpicking thing going. They don’t cheat, man. They keep that alternating thumb going, and it kills me!
GN: In your opinion, how important is guitar or music theory?
RE: Do you like Mike Stern? Pat Metheny? Quincy Jones? Steve Morse? Robben Ford? Vai? Satriani? Eric Johnson? I LOVE these musicians – I am in awe of many of their accomplishments. I know that they possess both chops and theory that I haven’t got. It doesn’t make me less of an artist, or a human being…[and I think I sing, and write a lyric, maybe better’n most of ’em]. But in my opinion, theory is a wonderful, awesome thing – just another amazing power tool in your tool box. I wish I had more of it. It’s on my To Do List for the new millennium. I’m thinking, 2012.
GN: Do you still spend many hours on practice?
RE: No. Wish I had more hours in a day. When I get big blocks of time, I write. Then record. Then try to fit in practice time to learn how to perform these things I’ve written and recorded. On a few occasions, I have learned a piece and really worked on it before recording, but Life does not often afford me that luxury. I do a fair bit of editing and punching to get my things down in the studio. Like I said – not exactly a disciplined academic kinda guy.