Chester Burton Atkins was born on June 20, 1924, in Luttrell, Tenn. The youngest of four children in a musical family, he became enthralled by guitar at age six, and had become a talented and accomplished self-taught guitarist by the time he left high school in 1942. At age 15, while living in Georgia, he had heard the great Merle Travis on Cincinnati’s WLW radio, but couldn’t figure out how to play like him; he consequently invented and mastered his own intricate and complex playing style, using the thumb and three fingers of his picking hand (unbeknownst to Atkins, Travis used only his thumb and index finger).
Atkins moved from radio station gig to gig in the mid-1940s; the shy guitarist was actually fired often because his sophisticated playing style was frequently deemed “not country enough.” Nonetheless, he always found work—Atkins became adept at pop and swing styles during this period, and he absorbed the playing of Django Reinhardt and Andres Segovia. Atkins didn’t consider himself solely a country/hillbilly guitarist; he considered himself a guitarist, period.
After stints with WNOX in Knoxville, Tenn., WLW (where he replaced Travis) and WPTF in Raleigh, N.C., Atkins went to Chicago and joined Red Foley’s band, with which he went to Nashville and made his debut at the Grand Ole Opry on April 13, 1946. The Foley/Opry gig lasted six months, after which Atkins made his first record, “Guitar Blues,” an instrumental he wrote with his brother, Jim, who had played in the Les Paul Trio in New York, backed with “Brown Eyes Cryin’ In the Rain.”
After stints in Denver; Richmond, Va.; and Chicago (again), Atkins and his wife, Leona, moved to Springfield, Mo., where he took a job at KWTO and where their daughter, Merle, was born in 1947. Atkins was playing an electrified guitar by this time, and a young friend named Si Siman had taken to calling him “Chet” instead of “Chester.” It was Siman who first tried to attract major label interest in Atkins, and when the “too progressive” guitarist was fired yet again, it was Siman who landed interest from Steve Sholes, director of country music operations for RCA Records.
Sholes and RCA kept Atkins busy in Chicago, New York and Atlanta through the end of 1947 not only as a guitarist, but also as an increasingly able producer, until a musicians union ban on recording at the end of 1947 stopped Atkins’ session work. Dispirited, he returned to WNOX in Knoxville in early 1948. It was a rough year, and Atkins was considering a new career as a piano tuner until, in early 1949, he met the Carter family.
As guitarist with “Mother” Maybelle Carter and the Carter sisters—Helen, Anita and June—Atkins found increasing work, money and success, and he also resumed recording and producing for Sholes and RCA that year. Nashville soon beckoned to the Carters, and Atkins and his family left for their new home—permanently, this time—in July 1950. Through the mid-1950s, regular Grand Ole Opry appearances gave Atkins national exposure. He also had a heavy session workload in Nashville, and Sholes relied on him more and more as a producer. As his own records were beginning to sell, Atkins soon parted company with the Carters, whom he counted as dear friends for the rest of his life.
Gretsch sales rep Jimmie Webster met Atkins in Nashville in 1954 and tried to persuade the guitarist to try a Gretsch instrument. Atkins initially resisted, insisting that he was happy with what he’d been using, but relented when Webster suggested an Atkins-designed Gretsch guitar. Atkins had strong ideas about guitar design and jumped at the chance, being eager to have his own model (his idol, Les Paul, had just made a similar deal with Gibson). He quickly inked a deal with Gretsch.
The guitar would be a single-cutaway hollow-body instrument with two DeArmond® pickups, a signed pickguard, a metal nut and bridge to improve sustain suggested by Chet and a striking orange finished suggested by Webster. Interestingly, Gretsch evidently perceived Atkins as mainly a country and western artist, and so the finished guitar—dubbed the “Streamliner Special”—bore a big “G” brand on the upper bout, “belt buckle” tailpiece, steer horns on the headstock and western-style engravings in the pearl block fingerboard inlays, none of which appealed to Atkins.
Technically, this guitar was the first of what, for Gretsch, would become a highly successful model: the 6120. The second of these guitars made for Atkins was actually the first one officially designated as the 6120; Atkins almost immediately added a swivel-arm Bigsby® tailpiece.
Significantly, the Gretsch model bearing Atkins’ name was present at the birth of rock ‘n’ roll, and popular and influential players such as Eddie Cochran and Duane Eddy used the model extensively. The Chet Atkins Hollow Body model quickly found itself at the very forefront of rock ‘n’ roll and rockabilly—a potent look, sound and tradition that continues today.
The Atkins-Gretsch partnership went into higher gear in 1958 with the introduction of the economy-model 6119 Tennessean and the high-end 6122 Country Gentleman.
Atkins and Gretsch stuck together through the 1960s, when rock ‘n’ roll and the British Invasion sent Gretsch sales soaring (Beatles guitarist George Harrison often favored Country Gentleman and Tennessean models). Atkins remained incredibly busy, and his status as an innovative artist and producer soared. He played at the White House for presidents Kennedy and Johnson (a tradition continued through the George H.W. Bush administration), and he became vice-president of RCA’s country division, signing artists such as Waylon Jennings, Dolly Parton, Willie Nelson, Connie Smith, Bobby Bare, Jerry Reed and Charlie Pride to the label. As a producer, he pioneered the “Nashville Sound,” which eschewed fiddle and steel guitars in favor of more pop-oriented stylings that could compete in the rock/pop-dominated ’60s marketplace. Atkins’ own biggest hit, “Yakety Axe” came in 1965.
Atkins remained both busy and popular through the 1980s and ’90s, having long since played his way into the American conscience and into the hearts of music lovers worldwide on countless recordings; a beloved artist so respected and revered that his name became synonymous with the instrument itself—the world was full of great guitar players, but only Chet Atkins became known as “Mr. Guitar.” His appeal transcended ages and genres—everyone from bluegrass pickers to British rock royalty acknowledged him as a master and a pioneer—and he recorded popular duet albums with artists including Les Paul (Chester & Lester, 1976; Guitar Monsters, 1978), Mark Knopfler (Neck and Neck, 1990), Jerry Reed (Sneakin’ Around, 1992) and others. He even returned to his roots on radio in 1986, with ten fondly remembered appearances on Garrison Keillor’s A Prairie Home Companion. In 2000, a life-size bronze sculpture of Atkins was unveiled in downtown Nashville.
Although the great Chet Atkins passed on in June 2001 after a lifetime of incredible musical achievement and innovation, his musical legacy will live forever.