Tony McManus - taking his place among the guitar greats
Tony McManus is standing in a line of guitarists at a photo call for American guitar manufacturer PRS in front of the music world’s press in Los Angeles. In the shot are Carlos Santana, Ted Nugent, jazz-rock wiz Al Di Meola, Orianthi Panagaris, the Australian rock goddess who starred with Michael Jackson, English folk-blues master Martin Simpson, and McManus, all of whom have had signature guitars made for them by PRS, the third biggest guitar company after Fender and Gibson.
“How,” thinks McManus to himself, “did I get here from the Star Folk Club in Glasgow?”
The flip answer would be the same response ascribed to comedian Jack Benny, but also to concert pianist Artur Rubinstein and others, when a passing musician asked how to get to Carnegie Hall: practice.
Paisley-born McManus has certainly put in the hours, mastering jigs, reels, Gaelic airs, pibroch and more recently Bach and Erik Satie pieces to earn a reputation as one of the finest acoustic guitarists in the world. The story of how he came to be in the photo mentioned above is a bit more involved than the Carnegie Hall rejoinder and it probably begins with McManus’s emigration to Canada in 2003.
“That wasn’t a career move,” says McManus down the line from Elora, a small town in Ontario that has at least one thing in common with McManus’s previous base, Edinburgh, in that it hosts a major arts festival every summer. “In fact, when I arrived in Elora, Kevin Bright, who is scarily busy and works with Nora Jones, Rosanne Cash, Bryan Adams, Cassandra Wilson – everybody – was living directly across the street and I was interviewed on the radio and asked why I chose Elora. I had to say I didn’t know because in a town of 3,000 people I wasn’t even the best known guitarist on the block and there seemed to me something unfair about that.”
A dozen years on, McManus, who returns to Scotland to play at Edinburgh Folk Club’s annual Carrying Stream celebration of folklorist and poet Hamish Henderson this weekend as part of a Scottish tour, is more concerned with his profile back home. He needn’t worry. The work he did before he left to begin family life across the water stands as testament to his talent and it’s really no surprise that he should now be a player prized by the most prestigious luthiers.
The PRS connection came as a result of an invitation McManus received from bluegrass legend Ricky Skaggs to visit his studio in Nashville.
“I was playing a gig there and the promoter said that Ricky had sent his apologies that he couldn’t make it but would I go to see him on the Sunday,” says McManus. “I had a gig in Memphis on the Sunday afternoon but I went to Ricky’s studio and there were all these fabulous guitars there, obviously prototypes, and it turned out that PRS, the third biggest electric guitar company in the U.S., were now making acoustics. I was wondering if Ricky was going to present one to me, because he has a reputation for being generous, but I left having played these great instruments and thinking, well, that was interesting.”
Two weeks later Skaggs called McManus to tell him that he’d had PRS owner, Paul Reed Smith, build him “a geetar” and a chain of events was set in motion that involved several prototypes being shipped to McManus, innumerable phone calls from Smith, the earliest of which was at 6am, lots of feedback from guitarist to manufacturer and the most terrifying gig of McManus’s career to date.
Having become fascinated by classical music as a sideline through being asked to play Erik Satie’s Gnossienne No 1 for the soundtrack to Neil Jordan’s Ondine (it wasn’t used in the end), McManus was challenged by bluegrass multi-instrumentalist Mike Marshall to learn Bach’s Prelude in E Major. Mission accomplished (by ear), his next challenge from Marshall was a Bach Chaconne, which took him seven months to learn and which he found himself playing at the New York Met Museum, at PRS’s request, with John McLaughlin, or “God” as McManus calls the former Mahavishnu Orchestra leader, playing before him.
It says much about McManus’s regard for his native traditional music that an invitation to play a pibroch, The Lament for the Viscount of Dundee with pipe major Bill Livingstone of the Toronto Police Pipe Band thrilled him equally.
“I learned it from Patrick Molard, the Breton piper, oddly enough, but I have gone out of my way to learn Scottish music, especially Gaelic tunes, and keep the musical connection even if I’m thousands of miles away,” says McManus. “I don’t dwell on technicalities. I’m more concerned with what can be legitimately translated onto the guitar and capturing the essence rather than the mechanics of pipe music.”
From The Herald, November 4, 2015.