Chet Atkins’ best moments on guitar

By Sergio Ariza

When the world knows you as 'Mr. Guitar' and you're the visible face of one of the most important guitar companies in history, to say you've left your mark on the guitar world falls short. Chet Atkins left a dinosaur-sized footprint in the history of the six-stringed instrument. With 88 studio albums, countless collaborations and a career spanning from the early 1940s until his death in 2001, choosing just 10 great moments is nothing more than a small introduction to the work of a giant who forever defined the sound of country music, but who also managed to promote jazz, classical music and even rock & roll.

Guitar Blues (1946)

Chet Atkins was obsessed with the guitar and music since he was a child, but it was in 1939, at the age of 15, when he had the revelation that would lead him to create his own style. That year he heard Merle Travis for the first time. The country artist played the guitar using the thumb for the bass lines and the index finger to play the melody. By practicing Atkins would be able to add the middle and ring fingers to his famous 'fingerpickin' style. By the time he recorded his first song, Wally Fowler's Propaganda Blues, in 1946, he was already a master. So much so that when he made his first appearance in the Grand Ole Opry he was eyed strangely for not sounding "country enough". In Atkins' incredible technique you could notice his appreciation for blues and jazz, something that was already evident in his first solo recording, also in 1946, Guitar Blues. A song that, besides its incredible contribution to the guitar, also included a clarinet solo, with a lot of swing, by Dutch McMillan. Most likely he recorded this song with his Gibson L-7, to which he added some P-90 pickups himself, or his Gibson L-10, a gift from his brother Jim who, in turn, had got it from his bandleader, Les Paul himself.

Black Mountain Rag

His first big break came when he was signed by Steven Sholes for RCA and shortly thereafter, in 1949, he began working with the Carter family, specifically Maybelle Carter and her daughters June, Helen and Anita. It was thanks to this money that he bought his famous D'Angelico Excel guitar. A luxury model at the time that Chet ordered 'customized' to his taste with a Bigsby pickup and other small variations. John D'Angelico was not at all convinced but he complied with the wishes of his young client and gave him the guitar in August 1950. Not content with those modifications Atkins decided to modify the guitar himself and added a P-90 pickup, among other things. With this guitar he would record many of his early 50's classics like this Black Mountain Rag, which is one of the first examples of his use of open tunings.

Country Gentleman

His incredible technique and elegance with the guitar earned him the nickname 'Mr. Guitar' but Atkins was also known as the 'Country Gentleman', a nickname that came from this classic engraving (co-written with Boudleaux Bryant) in 1953 and would end up giving a name to one of his models for Gretsch. But let's not get ahead of ourselves, Atkins was still playing his D'Angelico. The song was recorded in Atkins' garage, where a small studio was being built in which he would record most of his elegant solos.

Mr. Sandman

Although he had not yet achieved success on his own, Atkins' reputation as Nashville's most important guitarist had crossed over the Tennessee border. So Gretsch contacted him to agree to be sponsored by the brand. Chet didn't particularly like Gretsch but after a series of conversations with the company they adapted a number of the guitarist's ideas and gave him a guitar he couldn't refuse. It was the Streamliner prototype of the Gretsch 6120, the guitar that would inaugurate the long relationship between Gretsch and Atkins, perhaps the second most important in history between a guitarist and a brand, behind Les Paul's with Gibson. But back in 1954, it wasn't just Gretsch who was looking for Atkins. That same year Ray Butts, an electronics magician, decided to find Atkins and give him his latest invention, the first portable amplifier called EchoSonic that also had an echo effect that would be fundamental for the propagation of rock & roll. Atkins was delighted to receive the amplifier and Gretsch's prototype and put it to good use in the most famous song of his career, his instrumental version of
Mr. Sandman that would give him one of the greatest hits of his career and make his Gretsch line a success. As for the EchoSonic, although Butts made less than 70, Sam Phillips would get one and pass it on to Scotty Moore who would use it in the recording of the mythical Mystery Train by Elvis Presley, setting fire to the sound of rockabilly forever. 


Don Gibson - Oh Lonesome Me

So far we have only listed recordings with Atkins as a solo artist but Chet recorded thousands of songs as a session musician. In 1957 when Steven Sholes was put in charge of the pop department of RCA, as a consequence of his success with Elvis, in which Atkins gave him a hand, he put the guitarist as head of the country department of RCA. There Atkins would leave his mark by defining the sound of Nashville for decades to come. As producer one of his first works was this Oh Lonesome Me, by
Don Gibson, which Neil Young would cover in After The Gold Rush, and apart from producing, he was in charge of providing the great guitar solo with his Gretsch and EchoSonic.

The Everly Brothers - All I Have To Do Is Dream

Chet always had a good ear for any kind of music, like when he first heard Elvis he knew there was something unmatched there, which made him bring his wife to witness the first recording of Elvis with the company, Heartbreak Hotel, with Atkins playing the acoustic guitar. The same thing happened when he heard a friend’s sons, the Everly Brothers, and knew that in those harmonies there was a diamond in the rough. Chet contributed his guitar on their first hits like
Bye, Bye Love or Wake Up Little Susie, but his best moment came with All I Have To Do Is Dream, from that initial chord that opens the song, his contribution with those chords full of tremolo is totally iconic and helped the song to become the first single that was #1 at the same time on all the Billboard charts.

Yakety Axe

Atkins was particularly proud of his Gretsch 1959 Country Gentleman, with contributions from Ray Butts, even though the iconic f-shaped holes were painted on it. This was his main guitar during the 1960s and he used it in songs like his famous Yakety Axe, a version of Boots Randolph's Yakety Sax, in which he uses all his tricks to adapt the fast melody to the guitar. In 1990 he recorded it again with Mark Knopfler
for his joint album, Neck and Neck, with a much slower tempo. If the melody sounds you familiar, it may be the fault of the Benny Hill Show.


The Entertainer

Chet Atkins loved the sound of the Spanish/Classical guitar, in fact one of his favorite guitars was a 1969 Ramirez that he kept in his room and played it often. He also recorded several pieces of classical music such as Recuerdos de la Alhambra by Tárrega
or Ave María by Schubert. But he also played this type of guitar for his album Chet Atkins Goes to the Movies, in which he recreates songs from different movies, such as The Entertainer, a rag composed by Scott Joplin in 1902 and which was popularized by the movie The Sting.

Poor Boy Blues
(with Mark Knopfler) (1990)

Chet Atkins made great albums in collaboration with other guitarists like his beloved Les Paul or with disciples like Jerry Reed, but one of the most special came in 1990 when he joined another guitarist in love with fingerstyle. It was Mark Knopfler and the album they recorded together was called Neck and Neck and their best-known song Poor Boy Blues, where in addition to singing, the two guitar myths exchanged 'licks' with the same fluidity as two nightingales singing. The guitars chosen were a Gibson Chet Atkins Country Gentleman and a red Pensa Suhr with koa body for Knopfler.


Jam Man

When Chet Atkins recorded Almost Alone
in 1996, he was 71 years old. The album was basically just him with his guitar, one of the few songs that had 'overdubs' was this Jam Man that would win the Grammy for Best Country & Western Instrumental and would become one of his best-known melodies when it became the omnipresent soundtrack of a famous insurance advertisement.