Chet Atkins was the most important guitarist of the 20th century.
Discover How Chet Atkins Became Mr.Guitar
Chet Atkins had an enormous impact on music lovers from the 1950's up to today. We're going to take a look at how a simple fingerstyle guitarist became Mr. Guitar, the worlds original Certified Guitar Player.
When you look at Chet's early beginnings it's hard to believe he would become the success that he became. He was born in 1924 in Luttrell,TN. Chet came from a musical family. His mother and father both played piano and sang and his grandfather played fiddle. Chet's half brother Jim Atkins played guitar and sang. Jim went on to work professionally with Les Paul.
Chet's first instrument was the ukelele. After that Atkins learned to play the fiddle. Chet's grandfather was a fiddle maker who made a fiddle for each of the grandkids. His father, a music teacher, taught Chet to read music.
Chet Atkins' parents separated and his father moved to the country in Georgia. Chet would periodically live with his father. Chet's doctors said the country air in Georgia would help his asthma.
By this time Chet had gotten a Sears Silvertone guitar and was teaching himself to play it. For most people who didn't live in the city, about the only way to get a guitar was mail order.
Sears was one of the leaders in mail order. The problem was that most of the mail order guitars weren't high quality and were hard to play.
Even though his guitar was hard to play Chet stuck with it. George Barnes, Django Reinhardt, and especially Merle Travis had a big influence on him. Atkins heard all of these musicians on a radio that he made for himself. This may be where Chet Atkins first discovered his love for tinkering with electronics.
Chet's main performance experience as a teenager was playing fiddle at local dances. He became a good enough fiddler to be hired for his first professional job at age 18. He played with the duo of Archie Campbell and Bill Carlisle.
Chet also continued to improve as a guitarist and began playing on different radio stations programs. Atkins was repeatedly fired from his radio gigs because his playing was too jazzy.
A tape of one of Chet's radio shows made its way into the hands of Steve Sholes. Steve Sholes was the head of RCA's country music division. Sholes had Chet come to Nashville to record. Chet Atkins also began playing on all of RCA's recording sessions in Nashville.
The following year, 1950, Chet was hired by Mother Maybelle and the Carter Sisters to play on the Grand Ol Opry. Chet continued to play recording sessions, including his own, and in 1953 he had his 1st hit record with "Mr. Sandman". With this success he was on his way and more hit records followed.
In 1957 Steve Sholes moved to New York to head A&R for RCA. Chet Atkins was made manager of the Nashville division. He also continued his own recording career and had a string of hit records.
Because of the demands of his "day job" Chet was only able to practice before and after work. But he still maintained the high "Chet Atkins" standards that we're familiar with.
When Steve Sholes passed away in 1968 Chet was made vice-president of RCA's country music division. He continued his association with RCA until 1982 when he signed with Columbia Records. Atkins recorded his own records with Columbia and recorded a series of duo recordings with other artist.
Besides being a guitarist, Chet was instrumental in discovering and recording dozens of other artists. They included Kitty Wells, Don Gibson,Skeeter Davis, Bobby Bare, Floyd Cramer, Hank Snow, and Eddy Arnold.
Chet Atkins was also the creator of the "Nashville Sound". The Nashville Sound smoothed the rough edges of country music by adding strings and background singers. This helped make country music more acceptable to pop audiences.
At the same time that Atkins was recording other people, Chet's own career was going full steam. There were one or two new Chet Atkins records released each year and live performances all over the world.
In interviews Chet told how he'd sit in a low chair to practice after a long day at RCA. When asked why, Chet said it was so he wouldn't hurt himself or break his guitar if he fell asleep and fell out of his chair.
Around 1954 Jimmie Webster from Gretsch started talking to Chet about playing a Gretsch guitar. At the time Chet was playing a D'Angelico that he liked more than anything that Gretsch offered. Then Webster offered to have Chet design a guitar. In 1955 the legendary Gretsch 6120 Chet Atkins model became available to the guitar playing public. Other new models followed with the Country Gentleman becoming the most popular. Chet remained involved with Gretsch until the mid 1970's.
Chet Atkins' playing style continously evolved over the course of his career, especially from the mid '50s to the mid 70's. We're lucky in that his recording career began at about the same time that television was coming into wide use. This let's us see examples of Chet's style as it evolved.
In Chet's earliest work you see him working out of chord shapes with the strong alternating bass that he was known for. He would also use his thumbpick like a flatpick to play both block chords and single note lines. He would often use his left-hand thumb fret the 5th and 6th strings.
This video of Villa from 1958 shows his early style of playing.
While Chet's involvement with classical guitar had an effect on both his left and right hand techniques, the basics of his early style stayed with him throughout his career.
Another trademark of the Atkins sound is the purity of his tone.
It's hard to think of anybody else that had such a clean and full tone on electric guitar.
Some of it was the equipment Chet used and the way it was set up. The other part was his touch. It seemed like Atkins could find the "sweet spot" on any guitar that he picked up.
In an interview with Guitar Player Magazines Jim Crockett, Chet said " Just as we all have different fingerprints, we all have a different touch when we play an instrument, so I believe in utilizing this gift." He went on to say " A clean, smooth sound will only come from hours of practice."
According to Paul Yandell, Chet's 2nd guitarist for 25 years, Chet's guitars were set up with a very high action. This allows the string to vibrate without rattling against the fingerboard and gives you a cleaner sound.
Chet told Jim Crockett later in the same interview that he practiced certain songs that were hard to play. He also practiced his tremolo and vibrato and exercises to strengthen his left hand's little finger.
Out of all these things that he practiced came the Atkins sound; a muted alternating bass, a relaxed feel, always in tune and a pretty sound. Chet's playing didn't shock your senses. It was a pretty sound that appealed to both musician and non-musician.
GUITARS AND AMPS
There are a couple of trademark instruments associated with Chet. Probably the one that stands out the most is the 1959 Gretsch 6122. This guitar was used on most of the recordings that Atkins made during his "Gretsch phase".
The particular model that he played had several modifications from the stock 6122.These mods included a wider neck, a re-wound back pickup and a neck pickup that had two blades instead of pole pieces.
Gretsch went on to produce several other signature models, but the '59 6122 was what was used on the majority of recordings.
Part of the Chet Atkins sound is the nylon string guitar sound. Chet started playing classical guitar partially to compensate for soft fingernails on his right hand. He then found that there were some things that he could play better on the wider fingerboard.
He owned and played classical guitars made by
Ramirez, Marcelo Barbero, Hascal Haile and an Oribe flamenco guitar. The problem was amplifying them for performance.
Chet Atkins had come up with the idea of a solid body classical guitar but he couldn't get Gretsch interested in it. He talked to Gibson, they made a proto-type and the Gibson CE was born.
He played various versions of that guitar throughout the rest of his career. Gretsches lack of interest in the CE and a decline in quality caused Chet to switch to Gibson guitars around 1980. Atkins played their Country Gentleman model from then on.
The amps Chet Atkins used the most were an old Standell model that he recorded with, a Baldwin that he could play both his electrics and electric classic through and, in later years, a 50 watt Musicman.
HOW TO PLAY CHET-STYLE
How do you start to play in the Chet Atkin's style? One important part of the sound is the steady, alternating bass that you play with the thumb. This seems to be hard for a lot of people to get. You really need to practice your thumb by itself until it becomes automatic. Here's how you start.
Turn your right hand palm up. See the part of the palm of your hand that's by your wrist ? The part opposite your thumb. O.K. Let that part of your palm rest on the 6th, 5th and 4th strings right by the bridge. The idea is to mute those strings when you play them with your thumb.
You want them to thud. I know it seems kind of weird to want a "thud" after all the time you've spent trying to have a clean tone but that's what we're going for.
Now let your right hand fingertips lightly rest on the top of the guitar. We'll worry about them later. Grab a regular ol' E chord down at the first fret. This will make it sound a little more interesting than playing open strings. Now play the 6th string then the 4th string. Boom Boom. Or thud thud. Now play the 5th string then the 4th string. Boom Boom. The 1st note that you played is the root of the chord. The next note is the root played an octave higher.
Next play the 5th string and the 4th string. Those are the 5th of the chord and the root of the chord. You're basically playing root-5 like a country bass player would. Now do this until you can do it in your sleep. The idea is to have this be a totally automatic set of motions.
Remember that we want to always play the root first. For example, if we were playing a C chord we'd want to play 5th string, 4th string, 6th string fretted at the 3rd fret and 4th string. This will be root-3rd-5th-3rd. It's a little bit different than when we played an E chord but it's right way to do it.
Now, how do you get your fingers going? Grab your first position E chord. Put the right hand thumb on the the 6th string and your 1st finger on the 2nd string. Play the pattern with your thumb that you've been driving the wife crazy with. But this time play the 2nd string at the same time as the 6th string. Play that until it feels automatic.
Next you'll add your 2nd finger. Keep your groove going but now when your thumb comes down on the 5th string play the 1st string with your 2nd finger.
So you'll be playing 6th string with 2nd string - 4th string by itself-5th string with 1st string - 4th string by itself. It's pretty simple after you practice it some.
For your 3rd finger try this. Place your 1st finger on the 3rd string, 2nd finger on the 2nd string,and 3rd finger on the 1st string. Put your thumb on the 6th string.
Now play these string combinations: 6/3, 4/2, 5/1 and 4/2 again. Play it slow enough to play it right. Don't get in a hurry and play sloppily. All that will do is train your hands to play sloppily.
Some people find practicing these kinds of exercises boring. If you do, only practice them for short periods of time- 5-10 minutes. The trick to learning from these types of exercises is to really pay attention when you're practicing.
To really get that Chet Atkins sound with your thumb, try using a thumbpick. It will help your muted thumbstrokes have more punch.
After much trial and error I've settled on using the Fred Kelly Slick Picks. I like the shape of the tip and the fact that it has a real smooth beveled edge. They also never wear out. That's my personal taste, yours may be different. Grab a few different ones the next time you're at the guitar shop and give them a try.
There's a ton of information available about Chet Atkins and his music. One great resource is the Mr. Guitar website. It's the official Chet Atkins web site and is full of great info. It's really easy to lose track of time reading the "Chetboard".