You can’t learn what Chet Atkins knows about playing the guitar from a book or from his records. Any guitarist who has lifted one of Atkins’ solos or some of his knuckle-busting moves from a tape and tab knows that while it’s possible to play the notes correctly, getting them to sound like what Atkins plays is a different and more difficult challenge.
A self-taught virtuoso who learned his first licks on an old ukulele strung with wire pulled from a screen door, Atkins wanted nothing more from life—and settled for nothing less—than to be a world-famous instrumentalist. Now nearing 70, he looks back on a musical career that spans a half century and a discography as thick as a phone book. He’s internationally known as one of America’s greatest pop guitar stylists, as well as one of country music’s most distinguished record producers, a remarkable combination that won him a Lifetime Achievement Award at this year’s Grammys. But perhaps the biggest dividend of Atkins’ lifelong investment in the guitar is that sound, the signature style embodying ideals of precision, invention, and expression that will continue to captivate listeners and challenge guitarists for years to come.
In many cases, Atkins’ work on the acoustic guitar represents that sound at its best, although the acoustic side of his playing is often overshadowed by his association with Gretsch guitars in the 1950s and ’60s, which brought him great renown as an electric guitar innovator. But listen to the pristine quality of his acoustic renderings of Don McLean’s “Vincent” and Paul McCartney’s “Junk,” which are included on his most recent release, The RCA Years (1947–1981), a compilation of highlights from his lengthy tenure with that company. Better still, listen to any of the acoustic tracks from Atkins’ quintessential Alone album: The smooth, melodic agility of “Hawaiian Slack Key” and the placid simplicity of “Just as I Am” reveal the essence of Atkins’ musical brilliance in a clear and unquestionable way.
Atkins graciously agreed to share his thoughts and recollections on his involvement with the acoustic guitar since he began his career in the late 1930s and early ’40s. The following interview took place at his office on 17th Avenue in Nashville, where he remains a powerful, though quietly inconspicuous, mover and shaker in the business of country music. With an acoustic guitar propped against a nearby wall, Atkins sat at the table in his kitchenette and cradled a cup of hot decaf in his hands as he talked, reaching at intervals for his guitar to offer examples of his technique.
What, in your opinion, are the most desirable qualities of an acoustic guitar, and why?
The first thing I think of is that it’s much less troublesome—you don’t have to have an amp, you don’t have to have a wire plugged in it and all that. I like to take an acoustic guitar and get in some room, like my kitchen or my back porch here at the office, and just play. It sounds so good.
I try to get in a room that reverberates a little bit. I’ve been doin’ that since I was a kid. I used to take an acoustic guitar to school, and during recess I’d go to the boys’ room. It was all tile, and the echo was great in there. In those days, people would record in churches to get echo—that’s before they started adding echo electronically by putting a speaker in a live room and using a microphone to pick up the reverberation. But I’m gettin’ off the track here.
My first meeting with the acoustic guitar was when I was real small, and I would plunk on it and hold my ear against the side and listen to it. It sounded so beautiful.
Are there special qualities you look for in a steel-string guitar versus a nylon-string?
I love both guitars, but I tend to play nylon most of the time because nylon is so much easier on my nails. When I play acoustic steel-string guitar, I don’t play with just my nails like some people, because my nails aren’t that strong. I play with the flesh on my fingers assisted by the nail. I get calluses on my fingers, but my nails are still long enough to scar on the side on steel strings, so I have to carry an emery board all the time to keep them smoothed out.
But nylon doesn’t do that, especially the trebles, so that’s the reason why I prefer to play nylon. That’s also the reason why we developed the nylon electric, you know. I wanted something I could play onstage that didn’t eat up my fingernails. It was kind of an accident, that guitar, but it solved that problem.
When did you begin using a classical guitar on your own records?
The first classic I played, I’m sure, was when I got that Estruch. That was on The Other Chet Atkins . That’s the first one I remember.
Do you think the commercial success of your records had something to do with increased interest in and demand for classical guitars?
Probably not. There was Laurindo Almeida, who was recording earlier. He was in the jazz and pop field. I’m sure he had a bigger influence. I know he influenced me because I heard his records and just had to have a good classic guitar. And he told me he’d get me one once, but the price was so high that I didn’t order it. I couldn’t afford it at that time.
My very first records were done with an acoustic guitar—an L–10 Gibson that my brother had gotten from Les Paul and gave to me.
In concert, you often switch from your electric guitar to the CE [Classical Electric] within your set. Many guitarists don’t feel comfortable switching from steel strings to nylon strings, yet you seem to do it effortlessly.
I have a [Gibson] Country Gentleman with a wide neck. It’s almost as wide as a classical fingerboard. So when I change from the nylon-string guitar to the steel-string, it’s not such a drastic change in fingerboard width. If it were a very narrow neck on the electric, like I used to play, I would have problems.
I remember when I thought a neck should be very, very narrow and small, so I could use my thumb and make all those chords. Then I finally realized that I was getting an awful lot of buzzes and mistakes because the strings were too close together. They’d vibrate and hit my nails. So now I like a wide neck, even on a steel-string guitar. Not too wide, ’cause I still use my thumb to make some chords, especially when I’m playing rhythm.
I’ve never seen a great rhythm guitar player who didn’t use his thumb to make chords. There’s just so much more strength there, and it gives you one-fifth more of an advantage. But that’s just an opinion. Henry “Homer” Hanes was the greatest rhythm guitarist I’ve known. Boy, he could lay it down. He used his thumb. He had such a beat and he was really a swinger, like a metronome with feeling.
Let’s talk about some of your all-acoustic guitar records, as opposed to the records where you played both acoustic and electric guitar, or electric guitar only. One that immediately comes to mind is Standard Brands with Lenny Breau [I98I].
That record was done on the fly, and my part isn’t very good because I was trying to keep Lenny out of the pills and out of the booze and everything, and I was engineering on most of it. [But] he did some of his greatest playing on that album. On “Polka Dots and Moonbeams” and “Sweet Georgia Brown” I just slapped my leg and let him play.
He played with all five fingers on his right hand, and some of those arpeggios and rolls he did I could never do because I’ve never learned to use my pinky finger on my right hand.
Did Breau teach you the cascading harmonic arpeggio technique that you play on your arrangement of “When You Wish upon a Star” and other tunes, or did he learn it from you?
I first played the arpeggiated harmonics on an arrangement of “White Christmas” and another tune I recorded on a Christmas album in 1961 [Christmas with Chet Atkins]. I’m sure that’s where Lenny got and developed the idea, because I didn’t meet him until 1967. He said he started getting into harmonics from hearing me play “Chinatown, My Chinatown.”
The first harmonics I heard were on a Django Reinhardt record in about 1949 or 1950, and I learned to do that—just play single-string harmonics. But then I got to thinking about the steel players I had worked with who would pluck one harmonic and pluck the next string with their thumbpick, and it would invert the usual harmony that you would get if you plucked two strings.
I did that for quite a while, and then I got so I thought I could play a harmonic on the third string and then pluck the first string with my third finger, and I could play harmony. I did that a lot in the early ‘60s, and the arpeggios came soon afterward.
Another standout acoustic guitar album in your discography is Reflections with Doc Watson . While there is a vast difference between your fingerpicking style and Doc’s flatpicking style, you and Doc are closely linked by a common love of old-time musical repertoire.
I had heard Doc’s playing for several years, and I had met him a couple of times—I actually met him back when I played Kingsport [Tennessee] about 25, 30 years ago. Somebody brought him to the show and introduced him to me. At the time he wasn’t famous. Later on, of course, we’d do some work together here and there.
It was real easy to work with Doc on that album because I knew all the tunes that he knew. We’re from about the same area of the country. He plays a lot of the old fiddle tunes that I heard from the cradle.
What about that other great acoustic album, The Atkins-Travis Traveling Show, which earned you and Merle Travis a Grammy in 1974? It’s interesting that although you and Merle both came to stardom as innovators on the electric guitar, you chose to make this record with acoustic guitars exclusively.
Merle did play acoustic guitar a lot when he first started. His greatest album, and the one that brought him so much attention, was that great folk album [Folk Songs of the Hills, Capitol] from 1947 where he did “Sixteen Tons,” “John Henry,” and others. I think he was playing that Martin with the Bigsby neck. We were trying to duplicate that record, I guess. I don’t know what I played on that album. I never listen to it. It may have been one of Mr. [Hascall] Haile’s guitars.
One of the striking things about that record is that while it clearly shows the deep-rooted similarities in your respective playing styles, it also illuminates the vast differences in your approaches to soloing.
I never tried to play like Merle. Somebody not too long ago sent me some stuff by Merle recorded off the air in California in 1946 and ’47; along in there. And do you know what he did? He didn’t play alternate basses like I play. He played two bass strings at once. Like, if he was in E, he’d play the E and the B note on the 1 and 3 beat, and he’d play the fourth and third string on the 2 and 4. And that’s the reason that his playing sounds almost like he’s playing a four-beat, rather than a 2/4. When you listen to me, you hear 2/4, because I’m playing alternate basses all the time.
You know, back then when I was learning to play, my influences were George Barnes and Les Paul and Merle Travis, and I’d play something and one of the other musicians [at a radio station or in a show] would say, “Yeah, Merle Travis,” or “Les Paul,” and it would make me just furious. I was determined to play my own way. I never listened to Merle after I was about 18 or 19 years old. I heard him when I was about 15 or 16. I never knew what he was doing and, fortunately, I never saw him play. I always tried to get my own thing going.
[Sometimes] I think, “Why have I been so successful?” and I can’t figure it out. But then I might listen to one of my old performances and I think, “Maybe I did have something. Maybe no one else was doing it at that time. I was in the forefront, and maybe that’s why I’ve done so well.” But at the time it meant nothing. I thought it all stunk. I didn’t like to hear myself play, and I still don’t.
I’ve never been real famous—probably never will be. But I didn’t follow the trends. I wanted to be known and respected as a musician, not just as a country musician. I’ve always valued compliments from my peers very highly, and it always means so much for somebody who’s a good musician to tell you, “Boy, that’s nice, what you did.” That means more to me than 10,000 compliments from the public, because a good musician knows.
I remember I went up to Knoxville to one of [classical guitar great] Christopher Parkening’s concerts—this was 15 or 20 years ago—and he said, “I was nervous out there.” I said, “Why?” and he said, “Because you were out there.” I said that it shouldn’t make any difference, and he said, “It does, because you know.” And that was quite a compliment to me. I consider him to be one of the best in the world.
Chet Atkins died on June 30, 2001, at 77.
This article originally appeared in the May/June 1993 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine and was reprinted in the September/October 2020 issue.