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.
Click here for the conclusion of The Gibson Interview, where Rik talks about the challenges, and great joy, of making music in the 20 years post-Triumph. Plus he goes into great detail about his various Gibson guitars.