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.
A musician, songwriter, producer, record-company executive and highly sought-after sideman, Atkins was a key architect of 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 amassed numerous honors and accolades over his career. In 1973 Atkins became, at 49, the youngest inductee into the Country Music Hall of Fame. In 1991, South Street, in the heart of Nashville's Music Row, was renamed Chet Atkins Place. And in 1997, he received the Century Award, Billboard's highest honor. He won 14 Grammys, including the Lifetime Achievement Award, and was inducted posthumously into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a sideman in 2002.
Few guitarists have had more influence on the instrument than the inventive and versatile Atkins, who ranked No. 21 on Rolling Stone’s 2001 “100 Greatest Guitars of All Time” list.
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 also had strong ideas about guitar design and jumped at the chance presented by Gretsch sales rep Jimmie Webster in 1954 to have his own model.
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 Atkins 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.
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.
Did You Know?
In the 1960s, Atkins played at the White House for presidents Kennedy and Johnson (a tradition that continued through the George H.W. Bush administration).
In 1968, Atkins was promoted to 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.