Chet Atkins was born in Luttrell, Tennessee on June 20, 1924. His style was inspired by Merle Travis and his famed picking technique. Growing up poor meant he faced real challenges as a burgeoning guitarist, not least having to travel miles to find a power supply for his guitar amp, as his home did not have electricity.
A musical genius, Atkins took the Travis picking style and made it his own; while Merle used only thumb and first finger to pick the strings, Atkins combined his thumb, first, second and third fingers, hugely increasing his picking range.
His style was also shaped by Django Reinhardt, Les Paul, and later his friend and frequent musical partner, Jerry Reed. Atkins started his long, awe-inspiring career by playing with June Carter and the legendary Carter Family, and had his first hit in the early 1950s with his arrangement of Mr Sandman.
He also designed guitars for Gretsch and latterly became label boss at the Nashville division of the RCA Victor record company, helping to develop what became known as the ‘Nashville Sound’. In the process he made country music popular again, playing on countless hits for artists like the Everly Brothers, Jim Reeves and Don Gibson. He later recorded hit albums with both Mark Kopfler and Les Paul.
Like his protégé, Tommy Emmanuel, Chet was one of a handful of fingerstyle guitarists who could enrapture both the technique-seeking guitar-player fraternity, and the wider music-loving public. He is one of those few players who can make guitar players of any genre do an about-face with his beautiful tone, incredible technique and masterful arranging abilities.
Get the gear
Atkins used many guitars over his long career, from his Gretsch Country Gentleman and Chet Atkins models to various Martins, the ingenious Gibson CE nylon-string models, and later on instruments made by the incredible luthier Kirk Sand.
But you can play this style on acoustic or electric guitar, and I recorded this month’s track on a Gibson Custom Shop 1934 Jumbo.
Atkins released many albums over his lifetime and sold millions of records. Try the 1997 duo album with Tommy Emmanuel, The Day Fingerpickers Took Over the World.
Other favorite picks include Me And Chet with his friend Jerry Reed, The Atkins-Travis Travelling Show with Merle Travis, the Chester & Lester albums with Les Paul, and Neck And Neck with Mark Knopfler.
Examples 1 and 2. Chet Atkins style
[Bars 1-16] Like Merle Travis, Chet Atkins would often use the ‘thumb over the neck’ fretting and this was commonly employed on an F chord. It’s an idiosyncratic approach but integral to playing much of their repertoire so spend some time on the first four bars to get a sense of how they did things.
[Bars 26-32] From bar 26 onwards you’ll see how Atkins would ebellish chords with melody notes, as in the E7, and this formed the basis of how he created arrangements. Also check out the descending bass movement on the sixth string, from the Am all the way down to the F.