A lot of people, sadly, have no knowledge of Mister Guitar. Let’s just sum up quickly as this man’s contributions would take tens of thousands of words to do even remotely right. As creator of the “Nashville Sound”, he won 15 grammys, was the Country Music Award’s Instrumentalist of the Year 11 times. Inducted to the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1973, at age 49, he was the youngest ever and received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences in 1993, placing Chester Burton Atkins in very good company. Rolling Stone magazine places Chet 21st in their list of the top 100 guitarists of All-Time. He quite literally saved country music from near extinction in the 1950s when rock and roll was lionizing the music industry.
Those in the country music world, great players like Tommy Emmanuel, Brent Mason, Steve Warriner, Steve Earle, Brad Paisley and Vince Gil all cite Atkins as a guitarist that influenced them heavily. But honestly, he really was that to all of us players though his music and efforts as a producer at RCA Victor in Nashville and don’t discount his love of Mel Bay. He holds several guitar patents and helped design the famous RCA Studio B where so many greats recorded. He signed or discovered Dolly Parton, Willie Nelson, Eddy Arnold, Roy Orbison, Elvis, Charley Pride (the first African-American country singer for RCA), Waylon Jennings and appeared on hundreds of songs as a session guitarist for RCA Victor. During the peak years of his career, Chet was a loyal Gretsch player using the 6120 and later, his very own Country Gentlemen model (6122) named from the song on the Mister Guitar album.
My connection to Chet Atkins started with Smokey and the Bandit. Huh? Well, alongside Burt Reynolds in the 1977 classic, a well known country singer and guitar player by the name of Jerry Reed played the Bandit’s partner, Cledus the Iceman. Jerry is one mean player, one of the best fingerpickers in history with “The Claw”, any naysayers please observe this TV special with Jerry playing alongside Chet in Jerry’s Breakdown, make sure to notice Chet sweep picking arpeggios at approximately the 1:59 mark. Back to the Bandit. This fun movie, lost to the youngest generation, features Sally Fields and Burt Reynolds racing from Texarkana to Atlanta escorting Reed as he ferries illegal beer while Jackie Gleason as the Smokey tries to catch the woman (Fields) who’s just stood his half-wit son up at the alter. This movie introduced me to Jerry Reed who’s best friend was Chet Atkins. Hah, you’ve just experienced 6-degrees of separation via the Headstock Exchange. With that minor schizoid episode, we’re back to Chet.
Chet was a huge fan of fellow finger picker Merle Travis (Chet’s daughter is named Merle) and cites him as his main influence. Like Travis, Chet incorporated a bass line and melody that he would intersperse guitar licks (you know, little”tricks”) in more of a Jazz fashion. Travis tended towards more of a gallop and just used his index finger to pluck the melody lines. Chet used a thumb pick like Merle but used all of his right hand to pluck, sometimes counter to the rhythm, other notes. Take a listen to his version of Mr Sandman from 1954, he covers the song melody and carries the vocal lines at the same time, this song is amazing despite the hokeyness of it. His playing caught the ear of the execs at RCA Victor and they brought Atkins as a signed artist in 1946 but initially the album sales weren’t there. What Chet had, however, was a great ear for production and began driving arrangements, producing songs and playing sessions. He also did live radio programs and by 1951, was a lifelong member of the Grand Ole Opry.
The two primary guitars Chet used throughout his career were hollow body guitars by Gretsch, as mentioned earlier, the 6120 and 6122. There are numerous similarities, both have laminate maple bodies, a maple neck with an ebony fingerboard with thumbnail inlays, Grover tuners, body binding, 25.5 inch scale length, 12 inch fingerboard radius and gold hardware.
The primary differences were a reduced control set for the Country Gentleman (an overall master volume and tone control, pickup selector and another volume for just the bridge pickup), a custom shaped tremolo arm, painted instead of real “f” holes and pickups designed by Ray Butts, the FilterTrons (there is much conjecture if these beat the PAF Seth Lover created for Gibson in 1954). The 6120 featured Harry DeArmond’s “Dynasonic” pickups, had routed “f” holes, the standard Bigsby tremolo arm and a independent volume control for both pickups.
There’s something so very special about these guitars, the gentle vibrato possible with the Bigsby, the projection of the 6120 acoustically, the very unique sound of the pickups (we’ll get back to this in a future post) and master volume for the output of the guitar, an idea so brilliant it spawned the volume pedal. The players that use(d) Gretsch guitars is a who’s who of rock and rockabilly: the Edge, Billy Gibbons, Duane Eddy, Billy Duffy, Reverend Horton Heat, Brian Setzer, Eddie Cochrane, Malcolm Young, Brian Jones, George Harrison and many, many others have slung the hollow body guitars over their shoulders.
Okay, back to Chet, from the late 1940s to early 1980s, he held sway in Nashville, always involved with Music City in one way or another as the VP for RCA. After increased differences, he moved on in 1982 to sign with Columbia. He was unhappy in the restrictions on what he could sign to the label and what music he could personally release as he was branching beyond his country roots into more jazz and world music. Shortly prior to that departure from RCA, he felt disconnected from Gretsch when quality was slipping and didn’t want his name associated with an inferior product. Thus, he switched from Gretsch in 1980 to Gibson. He recorded right up to his death in 2001 from cancer though his last performance was in 1999. His memorial brought luminaries from every corner of the globe and industry, he really was unequaled as far as his reach from common man to record company executive.
Chet Atkins was one of the first “guitarist’s guitarist”, the one players wanted to watch, no matter what genre of music. Mark Knopfler, Jerry Reed, Les Paul, Merle Travis, Lenny Breau, Ravi Shankar and Tommy Emmanuel all recorded albums with Atkins. I’d have to say that Jeff Beck is that guy today, where any guitarist on earth would stop and listen to any words he might say. Never a purveyor of anything other than upbeat, feel good music, Atkins serves as a role model to the way we all should treat each other, with honesty, careful consideration and professionalism. He was fun, caring, creative and simply a remarkable instrumentalist. I close my post on Chet with a fun tune, recorded live in 1991, called Yakety Axe. Please join me next time when I tackle Joan Jett’s Melody Maker Gibson. Thanks for stopping by.
KSK February 2017