The late Chet Atkins was many things: A self-taught guitar virtuoso and multi-instrumentalist. A technical revolutionary, who built on Merle Travis’ fingerstyle approach to reach a level of sophistication previously accessible only to classical guitarists.
As a record label executive and producer, Atkins was the prime mover in transforming Nashville into a music industry mecca. He was also the founder of the most exclusive guitarist club in the world. The only way in was to be anointed by Atkins himself. Just four got the nod during his lifetime, three of whom survive to this day.
Tommy Emmanuel, John Knowles, and Steve Wariner share the distinction of being Certified Guitar Players (CGPs), along with the late Jerry Reed and Atkins’ longtime guitar partner Paul Yandell, who was invited into the group by Atkins’ daughter Merle after her father’s death in 2001.
Their bona fides are many and varied: In recognition of his musical accomplishments, Emmanuel has been named both a member of the Order of Australia and an official Kentucky Colonel. Knowles gave up his career as a physicist to pursue music, win a Grammy, and inspire guitarists with his FingerStyle Quarterly. Wariner is a triple-threat whose instrumental prowess mirrors his accomplishments as a songwriter and CMA Award–winning singer with more than a dozen No. 1 hits to his name. Pages more can be written about each of their achievements.
All three guitarists recorded and performed with Atkins and parlayed what they learned from the master guitarist into their own unique styles. The one thing they hadn’t ever done was get together as CGP honorees to discuss Atkins—not until the day they gathered at Nashville’s Gruhn Guitars for a few hours of picking and reminiscing about their mentor and friend.
Photos by Donn Jones
Acoustic Guitar: What does Chet Atkins mean to you?
Emmanuel: He was the name on everyone’s lips when I was a kid. Of course, when I grew up and got to know him, I realized that he was just like the rest of us, in that his love for playing was the most important thing to him. But there were so many other things. He was such a vast dimension of a person. He had a great ear for songs. He had a great way of production. He understood sound. And if you think back on how in-tune he was on these records—and there were no digital tuners in those days—he must have had an amazing ear as well.
Wariner: What he did was to start with awesome singers and performers. The concept starts there, with incredible talent. He had an ear for that, didn’t he? My dad was a wonderful teacher. I remember when I was really young he’d play me a Jim Reeves record and say, “Chet produced that.” He’d play a Don Gibson record: “Chet produced that.” Everything was connected to Chet. I can’t even imagine my world without him.
How did you begin investigating Chet’s work?
Knowles: I remember getting that record Finger-Style Guitar. I picked out “The Glow Worm” because it was in the key of A and it didn’t have a lot of chords. For a long time I just played the bass part. Then I was like, “The melody is up here [high on the neck], but the chords are down here [toward the bottom]. So I started having to really extend my knowledge of the fingerboard. I knew what he was doing. But I just couldn’t locate everything. Eventually I got to where I could kind of find my way around and then I’d make up the rest, which I realize now is the way to do it.
Emmanuel: I wasn’t aware that Chet was playing with a thumb pick. All I knew was that he was playing everything at once. Of course I didn’t know how he was doing that, because we had no TV—not that there were any programs. So I worked out how to go like that [plays the boom-chuck groove] with this [holds up a flat pick]. Then I worked out [picks melody with two fingers over the boom-chuck]. And I’d do [plays Elizabeth Cotten’s “Freight Train”] and so forth. That’s how I started playing fingerstyle. I had the idea and I was starting to work out tunes. But then in ’64 his album The Best of Chet Atkins came out, where he’s playing the green Gretsch on the cover. And there he was, with a thumb pick on! I had one of those moments… [slaps his palm against his forehead as Knowles and Wariner laugh]. It was like I opened the gate and the horse bolted in. I’d been tethered by this thing [holds up a flat pick]. So I got a thumb pick and I was off, I’m telling you!
One characteristic of Chet’s technique is that he seemed to exert no effort at all, as if he were almost playing in his sleep.
Emmanuel: Chet was smart because he was always looking for the best way to play something, the way that required the least amount of effort and moving around. And he always came up with it. If you look at some of his fingering, it’s like, “How the hell did he come up with that?”
Wariner: He was searching. He looked all over the place until he found the easiest way.
Emmanuel: If it wasn’t natural, he wouldn’t do it. If he saw someone play and the music wasn’t just flowing out of him, he knew that was someone who didn’t yet know what they were doing. The first I saw Chet on TV, my mother turned to me and said, “He doesn’t look like he’s doing very much.” [laughter]
Wariner: And Roy Clark’s doing this [slides his left hand rapidly up and down an imaginary guitar neck]. [laughter]
Emmanuel: Well, Roy Clark was an entertainer, too.
Knowles: I didn’t see Chet for a long time on TV or anything, so I was trying to learn to play that stuff until one day, when I was listening to the record, I thought, “Oh, no. I’m so not doing this right.” It just felt like alligator wrestling to me. It couldn’t be this hard for it to sound like that. So I started listening to the sounds he was making [while moving along the strings]. If he saw me play something and I was doing it the hard way, he’d say, “That’s too much work. Look at this.” And he’d show me a better fingering.
Wariner: He said to me once, “Son, you’re killing yourself! You’re working yourself to death!” [laughter]
Emmanuel: One thing I learned from Chet about playing melody was to play the harmony first. [He illustrates, with soft grace notes preceding each note of the melody.] If you go [plays the same harmonized melody straight, without grace notes], you’re now playing mariachi guitar. But if you play it like Chet, you sound like the Everly Brothers.
Knowles: He did another one like that. He would play a three-note chord with the thumb, index, and middle on his right hand. But he’d play the index finger early so it was kind of like a singer with two harmony parts, one above and one below. Most people would play the thumb early.
Knowles: I’d worked out how to play “Send in the Clowns” like on the Judy Collins record Judith. I showed him and he said, “Well, that’s coming along. Do you know the words?” I said, “Not all of them.” And he said, “I didn’t think so.” That was his way of saying that the words are where the melody and the phrasing and the breathing come together.
Wariner: He knew every lyric to every song!
Knowles: He said, “You’ve got to remember: The audience knows the words. They’re singing along with you inside. If you do the words wrong, it throws them.”
Wariner: John, I came into Chet’s office one day. The blue box [recorder] was sitting and he was like this [bent to one side, guitar in hand], making a tape for Garrison Keillor. He goes, “Garrison, Steve Wariner just walked in. Steve, grab that bass. Let’s play something for Garrison.” He named a song that I had no idea what it was. And when we got finished, he jumped my ass! He goes, “I can’t believe you screwed up that chorus!” I said, “Chet, I’m sorry I don’t know a song that was written in 1929!” He just thought that you should know every song that he knew.
Knowles: That’s how he auditioned people. He just jumped in and said, “Come on, let’s go.”
Wariner: The first thing I ever did with Chet was right before he signed me to a recording contract. He said, “I want to give you a reel-to-reel tape of some songs. Learn about three of them.” They were outtakes that he produced for Nat Stuckey and some other RCA artists. After I learned these songs, he brought me into Studio B. Looking back now, I realize that he was testing my voice on tape. So I sang these songs. Then he said, “Paul Yandell told me that you play guitar.” I said, “Yes, sir.” Then he said, “I hear you play a lot of my stuff. Play me one of my songs.” And I was like, oh, my God! I came here to be a singer. [laughter] To your point, John, that was my acid test.
Knowles: I was recording some solo stuff in his basement. I went for the center fret and got the eighth one. I just stopped. He came back on the talkback and he was just laughing. I said, “What?” He said, “Somebody else’s mistakes are always funny.” [laughter]
There is one absent colleague in the CGP community—Jerry Reed.
Wariner: And Paul Yandell.
Emmanuel: He was the last one.
Wariner: He did kind of recuse himself.
Emmanuel: It was Paul who told Chet he should give the CGP to me.
Wariner: Probably in my case, too. Paul deserves a lot of credit.
What do you hear in Jerry’s music that shows both those Chet Atkins roots and his journey beyond them toward his own unique style?
Emmanuel: I definitely hear early Chet in his playing. He could actually emulate Chet better than any of us. He could emulate Travis really well, too. But Jerry Reed was trying to be like Ray Charles. That’s what set him apart in his playing. He came from a whole different perspective. He eventually evolved into his own unique style, which was based on piano licks.
Wariner: And you’ve got to remember that Jerry was a session guy. Then Chet started telling him, “You need to make your own records.” Many times I’d brag on Jerry’s guitar playing and he’d say, “Hey, I’m a songwriter, man.” Or I’d brag on his writing and he’d say, “Man, I’m a guitar player.” [laughter]
Emmanuel: I did something to Jerry that I did to Chet as well, which was to get them to play. The first thing they’d say was, “I’ve stopped playing.” So you’d play something of theirs in front of them… and you’d do it wrong. [laughter] And Jerry would be like, “OK, let me show you how to do it.” And once he’d play, I saw the experience in his hands. I saw a lifetime of work in two bars.
Wariner: I didn’t know Jerry that well, but after Chet passed away, the night before his service, Jerry called me out of the blue. And we talked… Well, he talked for 45 minutes about Chet. I’d give anything if I’d been able to record it. He just poured his soul out to me about Chet. We got to be really close after that.
Like Jerry, each of you built an original approach to guitar on a foundation laid for you by Chet and his work.
Emmanuel: Well, when I was young I was totally into singers and songwriters—Stevie Wonder, James Taylor, Neil Diamond. It turned out they influenced a lot of my songs. But I could also work with this technique I had on guitar. For instance, I wrote a tune called “Son of a Gun” with a bridge that Travis or Chet would never have written—and yet it’s based on their style [plays “Son of a Gun”].
Knowles: One more thing about learning from Chet but not sounding just like him. For me, there are two things. The first is, when I studied classical guitar for about four years, I had that same technique but I wasn’t playing with a thumb pick and I was changing the way my left hand worked. I met Chet right after I’d learned that. So I had Chet history, but nylon strings and more of a classical touch, which meant that we could work together without me feeling like I was a clone of his. The other thing is, when I would analyze his songs, it wasn’t just chord names. When a new idea or a new key came in [to one of Atkins’ songs], I would use them to compose things. You stole Chet’s ideas without stealing the licks.
Wariner: Early on, when I was making singing records, Chet would say to me, “You need to find your own path. Don’t copy anybody.” A couple of my earlier records, even when Chet was producing me, sounded kind of Glen Campbell-ish, which was awesome. But Chet would say, “Be Steve Wariner. Don’t copy me or Glen or anybody.” That was huge because I was trying to be somebody else. I mean, there’s already one Chet Atkins! Why do a half-assed version of him?
Emmanuel: Particularly to young people, I always say that I believe it’s nature’s way that we all start out emulating somebody. That’s true in any profession. Someone lights a fire in you. As an actor, Elvis Presley wanted to be like James Dean. Everybody wanted to be like Marlon Brando. So they learned. We didn’t want to be Chet Atkins but we couldn’t help but try to play what we were hearing because we loved it so much.
Sleight of Hands
In their time with Chet Atkins, Tommy Emmanuel, John Knowles, and Steve Wariner learned volumes from the master guitarist, much having to do with subtleties of fretting and picking technique. As Knowles demonstrates in Example 1, borrowed from Atkins’ tune “Happy Again,” fretting-finger economy makes for smooth, singing lines. Instead of the more conventional choice of sliding the dyads in a parallel manner along strings 1 and 3, Knowles stays in seventh position, with his first and third fingers anchored on strings 2 and 3, respectively, and his fourth finger sliding between frets 10 and 9 on string 1.
When playing phrases with dyads, guitarists tend to play all the notes with equal weight, but as Emmanuel shows in Example 2, from Atkins he learned to do a series of double-stops with downward rakes, emphasizing the notes in the lower voice, a nuanced effect that recalls the Everly Brothers’ vocal harmonies.
Knowles shows a trickier variation on this idea in Example 3. Atkins sometimes surrounded melodies with upper and lower harmonies, resulting in three-note block chords. To pull this off, Knowles picks the middle note of each chord first, with subtle emphasis, then quickly articulates the lower and higher members with his thumb and ring finger, respectively. This results in a beautiful, choir-like effect befitting of a CGP. —Adam Perlmutter
Chet Do We Appreciate
Since 1985, the Chet Atkins Appreciation Society has hosted its annual convention in Nashville. The first one drew around 70 attendees, including Atkins himself. Last year a few more than 1,000 checked in at the Music City Sheraton Hotel for the four-day festivities. They came from around the world and just down the road, guitar cases in hand. They roamed from workshop to workshop, took seats in the main auditorium to enjoy the world’s top fingerpickers in concert, or sprawled on floors or in the main lobby, playing together and trading technical tips.
In the lobby, Mark Pritcher stood next to the registration table, surrounded as usual by well-wishers. Most of the year he works as a family practice physician in Knoxville. But at the convention, he’s a hero of sorts, the one person other than Atkins who made all of this happen. He and Jim Ferron founded the Society in 1983; since Ferron’s retirement in the early 1990s, Pritcher has piloted this ship as its president.
“Chet was of course a guitar genius,” he says during a break in the action. “But his legacy is about so many things, not just music. He knew how to interact with everyone he met. He saw no distinction between the president of RCA or some guy who would shine his shoes. If he taught me anything, he taught me to be that way, too.”
Fingerstyle virtuoso Pat Kirtley concurs. “I remember a few years ago walking down this hallway late at night,” he says. “I turned to my right and there were 15 teenagers, not causing trouble but playing guitar for each other. I don’t know who they were or where they came from. All I knew is that they had found a place where they felt completely accepted. That night I learned that this convention had accomplished something.”
Forrest Smith, 34, a self-described amateur guitarist attending his second convention, can tell you more about that. “I played a little bit for 20 years but I wasn’t serious about it. Coming here has inspired me to pick it up again. A lot of that is due to the community here, which is everyone from Tommy Emmanuel down to me. It’s inspiring to learn a song in this style and have other people say, ‘That’s great! Try this.’ I’ve made some great friends by being here—and it’s given the guitar back to me.”
This article originally appeared in the March 2018 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.