Tony McManus:
reinventing the guitar

An interview by Tom Knapp,
October 2004

Anyone who's seen Tony McManus hunched over his guitar has seen magic happen. An undisputed wizard with the instrument, he has pushed the envelope in many directions to create a new artistic renaissance.

But the guitar wasn't always an integral part of the musical tradition. Introduced into Celtic music in the 1950s, the guitar met a great deal of reluctance from some quarters before it was accepted into the exclusive club with the fiddle, whistle and accordion.

What a difference 50 years can make. Now, Scotland's McManus is helping to break the mold that once restricted the guitar to a support role.

The guitar benefited greatly from the folk-revival boom of the mid-20th century, said McManus, who took a break for this interview at 2004's Celtic Colours festival in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. Now considered an integral part of folk music, "its route into the tradition was the folk ballad of the 1950s."

"It's a universal phenomenon," he said. "It's a very accessible instrument. It's portable. It's inexpensive."

The guitar's place in the tradition "varies from place to place," he said. For McManus, "I see myself trying to deal with the intersection of two obsessions: the guitar and traditional music. I'm trying to find the place where they overlap."

McManus, an intensely focused performer, is helping guitarists overcome the common musical misperception that locks them in support roles, and is trying to help the guitar find its voice as a folk melody instrument.

"Traditional culture is fairly conservative," he admitted. "But I haven't encountered a lot of resistance in Scotland. And here in Cape Breton, the people are so open to anything you can do with the instrument. It's a guitar-friendly place."

McManus follows in the footsteps of great guitarists who first took fiddle and pipe tunes and made them their own. He considers it a great compliment, he said, that Pipe Major Angus MacDonald once told him he'd "make a great piper."

McManus is no stranger to the road or studio, sharing his talents with a variety of musicians in need. (At last count, he has appeared with other artists on more than 50 albums -- so far.) On this Tuesday evening in North Sydney, he shared a stage with Appalachian multi-instrumentalist Bruce Molsky. "I was absolutely delighted," McManus said. "Bruce is a master musician no matter what category you try to put him in."

Often in the forefront of attention, McManus said he has no problem "almost sitting in the shadows and experiencing an audience's connection with another musician."

He always tries to learn from his various pairings and groupings along the road, McManus said. "Every encounter with a different musician expands the horizon. ... I relish each different role that the guitar has. And I try to expand what I do with each one."

A proud Scotsman, McManus is equally proud of his family's Irish roots. Still, it occasionally rankles that people sometimes discount the Scottish contribution to Celtic traditions.

"People read the word 'Celtic' in a blurb somewhere and assume Celtic equals Irish," he said. "But Scottish music is finding its voice a lot more in the last few decades. And Scotland is a lot more confident than it was."

As for the future of his beloved instrument, McManus is optimistic -- and very pleased to see modern guitar-makers exceeding the craft and putting once-untouchable vintage guitars to shame.

"In the guitar world, there's been a great resurgence of the good stuff," he said. "The instruments are better than they've ever been, both acoustic and electric. And now a handful of freaks and interesting brains are meeting the challenge to take the thing to new heights."

The guitar has secured its place in the musical milieu from folk to rock to jazz, he said. "This is a golden age for the guitar."

When asked to prognosticate the future of the guitar, McManus grinned. "I shudder to think. Part of the beauty of it is how unpredictable it is. It's the most common instrument in the world ... and it's impossible to say where it's going."

- Rambles
written by Tom Knapp
published 23 October 2004

[ visit Tony's website ]