Chet Atkins Discusses His Relationship with Gretsch in Previously Unpublished Interview | Bacon's Archive

Editor's note: This post is part of a series of unpublished interviews from the personal research archive of noted guitar writer, Tony Bacon, that will be appearing on Reverb in the coming months. This interview with guitar icon Chet Atkins was meant to be the first installment, however, we elected to publish an interview with Tom Petty following the tragic news of his death earlier this month.

Below you'll find the original transcript of Tony's conversation with Chet, along with some supplementary commentary in italics. We hope you enjoy Mr. Atkin's recollections of different guitars he played and his relationship with Gretsch. Stay tuned for more interviews from Bacon's Archive coming soon.

I met Chet Atkins for this interview at his CGP office in Nashville’s Music Row in 1995. I was writing my first book about Gretsch, and I’d spent some time in Nashville interviewing Duane Eddy, who’d explored the twang of his 6120 from the start of his career, and Ray Butts, who designed Gretsch’s great Filter’Tron humbuckers in the ‘50s.

I wanted to interview Chet, too, of course. I’d been a fan as long as I could remember, and he was to my mind the most important Gretsch player, period. Trouble was, while I was in Nashville, he was off somewhere either playing or watching golf, and most probably both.

After my interview with Ray Butts, Ray promised to contact Chet and see when he would be back in town. Ray was as good as his word, and so it was that on the Tuesday I was due to fly back home, I squeezed in a couple of wonderful hours with Chet. I barely had time to catch my breath before I was winging my way back to England. Did it really happen? Ah, yes it did… and here’s a transcript of the tapes to prove it.

It seems to me that you were a pioneer of the electric guitar in the ‘40s and into the early ‘50s. Does it seem that way to you, looking back?

No, I was just experimenting around trying to get a sound I liked. I ordered pickups from Bigsby, pickups from Gibson, installed them in my guitars, but I didn’t know what in the hell I was doing. I had a D’Angelico where I had the pickups out of phase for quite a while – I didn’t know about phasing until later. But I didn’t feel like an electric pioneer or anything. I was a pioneer guitar player, in style, stuff like that.

Chet Atkins

Who would you say were the electric pioneers?

Merle Travis, through Bigsby, had a solid guitar built, and he played it professionally for a while. Fender, of course, was pioneering. The sound was so thin, to me, that I didn’t see the potential in that. But somebody did.

Which other players in the ‘50s did you like?

There was George Barnes, who was a single-string player, he was just magnificent. He was like a damn machine. There was Django Reinhardt, who I idolized so very much. Then there was Merle Travis, and I idolized him so much. He got such a beautiful sound, he had a terrific beat, and he was so clever at writing songs. He turned me on. I thought I would never surpass that when I was a kid and first heard him.

How did you hear people like George Barnes when you were growing up in rural Georgia?

There was a radio show out of Chicago in the late-‘30s called Plantation Party, and it was kind of an uptown music show. It wasn’t country, it was to appeal to urban audiences and to pop audiences. They had a comedian, and they had a quartet, and they had this young guitarist. I didn’t know it at the time, but he was 17 years old, and I would have been about 14 or 15. If I’d known how old he was I would have quit!

George Branes played country tunes, he’d play fiddle tunes like “Turkey In The Straw,” and he’d jazz them up and just play wonderful arrangements. He was an amazing guy. He died when he was 56. You should hear him sometime. He was an outstanding stylist, sounded like nobody in the world. I never copied him or anything, I just idolized him, and tried to get my own thing going.

George was on records?

No, he was on radio. He never made any successful records. Les Paul, now, I copied. Les Paul and Django Reinhardt, they’re the two I copied. And, of course, Les copied Django, so I got some of it second-hand. Third-hand.

Did you have any hesitation going to electric guitar from acoustic?

Oh, no. I built my first electric guitar about 1939 when I ordered an Amperite pickup. I worked on and built a gymnasium in Hamilton, Georgia, and I took the money and I ordered an amplifier from Allied Radio in Chicago, which is now RadioShack. This Amperite pickup had a clamp, and you could attach it to the bridge of a flattop guitar, and I put it on my Silvertone flattop, which my stepdad had brought home one time.

So I was electrified back in those days, and I would take it down to the church where my dad directed the choir in Columbus, Georgia, on a Saturday. We didn’t have electricity at home, so I had to take it down there, play all day, and then I’d bring it back home. So I was pioneering, but I didn’t feel like it — just trying to sound like George Barnes and Les Paul, you know? Playing electric once in awhile, perhaps trying to get that sound. I’m not a great electronics person, really.

Was your D’Angelico the first regular guitar you bought?

No, the first guitar I bought was a little Gibson J-25 or something — a real small flattop guitar. I bought it and played it acoustically on a radio show I worked on, at WNOX in Knoxville. The next guitar I got was in about ’42 or ’43 when my brother gave me an acoustic L-10 that had been built for Les Paul.

Your brother, Jim Atkins, played bass with Les, didn’t he?

Yes, and that L-10 was a beautiful guitar. I played it a lot acoustically, and I put a DeArmond pickup on it that would slide up and under the strings. I fell on it at [Cincinnati radio station] WLW in 1945, and I sent it to Gibson for them to repair — and they went on strike for a year, and I didn’t get it back forever. They had left it set close to a radiator or water or something, and the neck had swollen up. They repaired it pretty good, but it never was as beautiful a guitar.

Next came a Gibson L-7, I believe, to which you added a couple of P-90s.

That was next guitar I bought, yes. I put one one pickup in it, and a little later I installed another one right next to the bridge. That guitar’s over here in the museum [the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Nashville], they just put it in there the other day. It was a pretty nice guitar, but it was built right at the end of the war, I guess, and workmanship was pretty bad on the neck.

I remember I couldn’t pull a string off, on the first string, it would slide off the fret: the nut was not cut properly, it was too wide for the neck. So I played Gibson until I came here to Nashville in 1950, with The Carter Sisters, and just a month or so after I got here I received the D’Angelico that I had ordered.

1951 D'Angelico Excel Cutaway

I understand that was a D’Angelico Excel Cutaway, and the D’Angelico records show it as sold to “Jimmie Atkins”.

That’s right, because John D’Angelico didn’t remember my name. My brother was famous! It was an archtop f-hole guitar, an Excel, yes, with a cutaway. No pickup, so I took it out the backyard and sawed a hole in it and put a Bigsby pickup, I think, in it, and later maybe a Gibson pickup as well. I told him all along that I wanted it to be an electric guitar and that he didn’t have to go to a lot of trouble to make it a good acoustic guitar.

How did John react to that?

He didn’t understand that much. He was used to guys that just put a pickup under the strings, you know? Not attached to the wood.

A floating pickup?

Yeah. I played that D’Angelico for a few years. I got a real good sound out of it on personal appearances and on records. It had a great sound. I never got that sound again until Ray Butts invented the Filter’Tron pickup for Gretsch and it got the sound I wanted.

We take a breather here to consider Chet’s place in the history of Gretsch, the main subject I’ve come to talk about. The first Gretsch Chet Atkins models were the orange-finish hollowbody 6120 and the semi-solidbody 6121, launched by the New York City firm in 1955. Two further Chet Gretsches appeared three years later, the high-end Country Gentleman and the cheaper Tennessean. At first the Chet models were single-cutaway guitars, but in the early 60s – along with other Gretsch models such as the luscious White Falcon – the 6120 and the Gent moved to a new double-cut shape.

The pickups changed, too, and by 1958 Gretsch was offering almost all its models with the new humbucking Filter’Tron pickups, devised for the company by Ray Butts and replacing the original single-coil DynaSonics. The main ideas man at Gretsch was Jimmie Webster, who was responsible for much of Gretsch’s sometimes unusual and often stylish approach to the design of electric guitars.

Chet Atkins - "Mr. Sandman" (TV, 1954)

Chet, what did you know about Gretsch before your involvement with them?

I had seen people play Gretsch guitars – a couple of my friends played their archtop acoustics. One of those was Louis Innis, he played a Gretsch. But back then I wasn’t interested in Gretsch so much because their guitars didn’t have a rod in the neck. [Gretsch electrics didn’t get truss rods until 1953/54.] Gibson had a patent on the rod, to straighten the neck. Then Jimmie Webster would come to town, and he wanted me to play the Gretsch guitars, they had some design. I didn’t like the design, but he kept after me, he wanted me to play one of their guitars, and finally he said why don’t you design one that you would like?

Next thing I knew I flew up to New York, went over to Brooklyn to the factory over there, and visited with Mr Gretsch and Mr Strong, Jimmie Webster, and Phil Grant, who was in charge of drums – he was a nice fella, last I heard of him he was running a store out in the sticks. Anyway, they were very nice and we came up with that design for the orange Gretsch 6120. Fred Gretsch chose that color, because we wanted something different.

1956 Gretsch Model 6120

How about the G-brand and all that “country” decoration on the 6120?

I didn’t know they were going to put all that junk on there, the cattle and the cactus, which didn’t appeal to me at all. It’s European, specially in Switzerland: if they want something to be country, they put cows on it, cactus, belts, and so on. But also, I wanted more of a sturdy guitar, that was more sustained, and Mr Gretsch was not into that at that time. He thought plank guitars were a joke, and he was into strictly acoustic guitars.

They had made the semi-solid Jet models, though, and alongside the 6120 they did come out with the Chet Atkins Solid Body 6121.

That wasn’t solid either … now what did they call it? It was hollow inside, too, but it looked like solid.

It had kind of pockets inside it.

Yeah, that’s right. They never could get it through their head that it had to be solid from the tailpiece all the way through the head. They could never understand that, the people in the factory, they never … well, finally they did it, but it was too late then.

What was the Gretsch factory like in Brooklyn that first time you went to visit?

It was about a ten-story building and they were on one of the upper floors, I don’t remember which. It had “Gretsch” on the building, and I suppose Fred Gretsch owned that building and leased it out to a lot of people. There were a lot of tenants in that building, and I think Gretsch was probably on one or two floors. There were workers everywhere, and most of them were Puerto Ricans, I suppose, they didn’t speak English very well, I mean I heard a lot of Latin sounds. A friend of mine here tried to get me to take an attorney to negotiate the deal, but I was so anxious to get it I didn’t take him. I called Les Paul and he finally told me what sort of royalty I should get.

What role do you think Jimmie Webster played with Gretsch?

Oh, he was very important. He was always coming up with ideas, like the Gretsch “tuning fork” and the pad on the back, the mute and all that bullshit. I never liked it! He said, “You got to give them something different all the time. It’s like a car, you’ve got to come up with something new: they want new features.” And I guess he was right. He was a hell of a salesman. He went around promoting Gretsch to Boston, Dallas, San Francisco, LA, and around.

And I think if he were alive he would tell you the most important thing he ever did was to sign me, because they started selling the hell out of guitars. I went with them because I was getting very popular in the style that I was playing, my records were selling very well all around the world, and I don’t think they were doing much. No one here in Nashville played their guitars until I went with them. That makes me sound like a braggadocio, I guess, but it’s true.

Did you play the Chet Atkins 6120 exclusively at first?

1955 Gretsch 6121 Chet Atkins

Yeah, I was very honest about it. I sent the D’Angelico that I had been playing back to John. The neck had been broken on it, and I had him put a regular top on it and make an acoustic guitar out of it … which was a stupid move, now that I think about it, a Gibson and a Bigsby pickup in it. I had him put this new top and new neck on it, but that was not a smart move. I wish I had kept the guitar the way it was, because the neck is different now, it’s a little larger and not as much fun to play.

Anyway, with Gretsch, I was honest: I played the Gretsch guitar, the orange one, which I didn’t like. I hated the sound of the pickups, at first, because the magnets were so strong on the string, you pluck a string and there was no sustain there, specially on bass strings. I was tortured pretty good until Ray Butts built that Filter’Tron pickup. And then they were much more fun.

You got on with Ray Butts?

Oh yeah, we were very close. I would drive out to Cairo, Illinois, and visit with him. He had a music store up there. I first met him when he brought his EchoSonic amp down here, about 1952. That had a tape loop which got tape reverb, tape echo. I’d go up and see him, and he’d come down and visit me. He sold me my first recording equipment when I put a little studio in my garage, some Magnavox recorders, they were pretty popular at that time, mono machines.

I had a terrible problem with hum with his amplifier, the pickups picking up hum, and I would have to sit in terribly awkward positions to cancel out the hum. And I know now what it as, it was the pickups picking up hum from the power transformer. He probably used a transformer in that amp that wasn’t shielded as well as it might have been, and so when he brought those Filter’Tron pickups on the scene that was great for me, because I no longer had to worry about 120-cycle hum.

Did you introduce Ray Butts to Gretsch? Did you get the idea going of the Gretsch Filter’Tron humbucking pickup?

Yeah. I don’t remember the details, of course, it’s been too long. But after he showed me that pickup, I got in touch with Gretsch and told them this guy has pickups that I like and it would improve things, it would get the sound I wanted, and so on. I imagine Ray went up to New York and talked to them and made a deal with them – and I guess he told you he never made any money on them. So anyway, the guitars started selling right off, they were just selling like nothing I’d ever seen. At that time, Les Paul guitars were not selling that well because, I suppose, up there in the 50s Les and Mary had cooled off a little, and his guitars didn’t really go again until Eric Clapton or some of those guys started playing it. You know all that.

Was the next Chet Atkins model, the Country Gentleman, more your idea of what a Gretsch should be?

Gretsch G6122-12 Chet Atkins Country Gentleman 12 String

I guess it was their idea to put out another model, because they were selling so many of the orange Gretsch that they wanted to put out a little more expensive guitar. So they did: the tuning pegs were a little more expensive, and it was a little larger guitar and thinner. It was the natural thing to call it, because I had had a record called ‘Country Gentleman’. Also, there was a magazine for farmers at that time called The Country Gentleman, and it faded away about the time I wrote that tune.

Is that where you got the title?

No, no, I co-wrote the song with Boudleaux Bryant, and I think he came up with that title. We called the guitar the Country Gentleman, and we brought another cheaper guitar out, cheaper than the orange 6120, called it the Tennessean. Later on, they started calling the orange one the Nashville.

Did you start to use the Country Gent in preference to the 6120?

Yes, I used the Country Gentleman on my records continually. I used the 6120 once in a while, I know I’ve seen pictures of me with it in the studio, but I didn’t use it as much as I used the Country Gentleman.

Did Gretsch ask your opinion about other models they were bringing out?

No. They would just steal the ideas from the 6120, use my ideas on other guitars, and just change the name, call it a Country Club or something, sell the hell out of them … but I didn’t get a royalty, you know?

Did you make much money from the Gretsch deal?

Yeah, I got pretty good royalties. I don’t remember getting a lot of money, not like my records. I would get about $100,000 a year off my records, because I was selling all over the world, even though my royalty rate was really low. I don’t know what I would have gotten if I’d have had a good contract where I got a lot of royalty, but back in those days probably the maximum I made was about five per cent, and I was probably getting three or four per cent.

What period was that?

We’re talking about from the 50s up through the 60s.

Can you remember how much you were making from the Gretsch deal?

No, you know I don’t. I think I got five per cent. And I don’t know if they paid me all that was due me, either. Those accountants are clever that way. I don’t know of anyone that’s ever checked a record company that didn’t make money, because they have all kinds of ways of charging things against you. I never did that, never pestered them. I’m kind of naive about things like that. I don’t remember receiving a lot of money, no. Of course, after The Beatles it went crazy. They couldn’t make them fast enough.

Chet Atkins plays The Beatles

George Harrison was a big fan of yours and, consequently, of Gretsch. Did you ever meet?

No, I didn’t. I met Paul years later, and he’s a good friend: we correspond. And I met Ringo once, and George did a liner note for me on my Picks On The Beatles album. But I never met him. I admire him a lot, but I never got to meet him.

There didn’t seem to be much contact between you and Gretsch in the 60s, no new Chet Atkins models.

The Beatles came along in ’63, and I didn’t have to say anything, Gretsch were selling so many. And I got very busy in the late 50s and the 60s recording so many artists. I didn’t have time to get in touch with anybody. I was recording everybody in Nashville, and killing myself with stress and everything, and my guitar playing suffered. But I managed to still sell an awful lot of records. I’d just hear tunes I could play, and once in awhile I’d write some, and I’d record an album in about three or four days. Now, if you listen, you can hear that I’m out of tune, you can hear mistakes and everything … but at the time there were mistakes on everybody’s records.

1960's Del Vecchio Dinamico

You were still playing Gretsch?

Oh yeah. I never played anything else. Once in awhile in the 70s I’d play a Del Vecchio, a resonator guitar from Brazil. Around that time I got one of those from Natalicio [Natalicio Lima of the Brazilian duo Los Indios Tabajaras].

We take another break here and chat about the changes that were happening in the guitar industry in the mid 60s, not least the shock that many felt when the CBS corporation bought Fender in 1965 for a cool $13 million, by far the highest value ever put on an instrument company. Meanwhile, D.H. Baldwin was an Ohio-based firm that specialized in making pianos and organs, and it wanted to join the fun and buy its own guitar-making operation. It had bid unsuccessfully for Fender, but it managed to snap up Burns of England.

But still Baldwin wanted a guitar brand with an existing high profile in the USA, and in July 1967 it secured a deal to buy Gretsch. In 1970, Baldwin moved the Gretsch factory from New York to Booneville, Arkansas, and then a couple of years later to Cincinnati. The two final Gretsch Atkins models were the Super Chet (introduced in 1972) and the Super Axe (1977). Around 1980, Gretsch guitars ceased production, until the name was revived nine years later to create the modern Gretsch company we know today, which in turn began a successful alliance with Fender in 2002. After all that detail, Chet and I decide we need some strong coffee to aid our revival, and then we continue.

Did you know about Baldwin buying Gretsch in 1967?

Yes I did, and I was important to that sale, because Mr Gretsch came to me and asked me if I would sign a contract for so many years because he was gonna sell to Baldwin. I said, “Why don’t I get some stock?” And he wouldn’t do it. I was real busy at the time, and I didn’t have an attorney or anything, so I went ahead and signed.

After they took over, they moved the factory to Arkansas, and they just couldn’t build Gretsch guitars over there. There were a few people went to Arkansas, a very few, but not enough to make playable guitars. I went down there to see Mr Gretsch and I told him about it, so they hired Dean Porter. He moved to Arkansas and he got the guitars so they would play. He helped them a lot and he stayed in there for years, until they closed. But the quality never was like it was in Brooklyn.

I should add that they’re making good guitars now, in Japan or somewhere, and they’re very good, they’re probably better than the old Gretsch. Once in awhile they’d build a pretty good guitar up in Cincinnati, they had a guy called Clyde Edwards up there who’d custom build guitars, and he was good. He custom built the first Super Chet.

1978 Gretsch Super Chet

How did that guitar come about?

I had a little guitar that a lady had been given from the 1800s. It had a lot of inlay on it and inlay in the centre of the sides, so I had them do that. Clyde just tried to build the prettiest guitar ever, but it was a little too late, it was after the solidbody craze. I don’t suppose they sold a lot. They sold a few, because I see them around, but it was nothing like the Country Gentleman or the 6120.

And the Super Axe?

That had effects built in, and it was more of a solid guitar. They put a phaser in it and a compressor. It was a good idea, other people did that too. It was good on stage: just throw a switch and the phase for sound. That was a little late, too.

I think you’ve always been interested in effects.

A little bit. I use some effects now and then, but nothing like the rock’n’rollers. I used the Cry Baby, and I had a tone-control-circuit footpedal that I used, and things like that. But I’m getting more and more now just back to the pure sound, and I use hardly any effects. I use a digital delay and some reverb, and that’s about it.

You moved from Gretsch to Gibson around 1980. Why was that?

Because Gretsch went out of business. Gibson had been trying to get me to go with them for years. My contract ran out, and I just called Bruce Bolen at Gibson and told him I’d like to go with them. I’ll digress here. I did have the idea for the nylon-string solidbody, which I pitched to Gretsch, and they weren’t interested. That was probably right before I went with Gibson. I pitched the idea with Gibson and they jumped right into it. [Gibson introduced its Chet Atkins CE and CEC electric solidbody classicals in 1982.]

1982 Gibson Chet Atkins CE

Gretsch really weren’t interested?

No, they didn’t see the potential. They never saw the potential of solid guitars. They finally did at the very end, but it was too late. Baldwin did; Gretsch didn’t.

Do you look back on your involvement with Gretsch fondly?

Yeah, it was a good time, and it spread my name all over the world. I was so thrilled to have my name on a guitar, like Les Paul had his name on the Gibson. I was so thrilled by that … and I don’t know why. Now it wouldn’t mean that much to me. At the time I was fired up with ambition and I was so anxious to be known all over the world and be known as a great guitarist, and that was one brick in that edifice that would help that happen.

Ever since I was a kid I was just driven with ambition to be somebody, amount to something, because I came from so far back in the sticks. But I had the desire to learn and educate myself and be somebody, to be a famous guitarist. That’s the only goals I ever had. And I always tell young people, “Be careful where you aim, because you might get that.”

What were the other bricks? One was getting a guitar with your name on.

To get on a recording label – and I thought that would never happen. I did that when I was 22, I recorded for a small label here in Nashville, and then in 1947 I was signed by a major label, RCA. So I learned to play on records [laughs]. Hell, I was an amateur. And I’m still an amateur when I go out there sometimes. It was hard playing in those days. We didn’t have videos, we didn’t have record players that would slow down to half speed. We had 78s.

Once in awhile you’d see someone in a movie do something, but usually it was some actor that was not really playing guitar. It was so difficult to learn in those days. I did learn and I did create new things: I started playing melody in several different ways, I developed harmonics, I played in octaves, and octave and thirds, all kinds of harmonies – so that made me what I am today, because nobody was doing that.

That’s what people notice.

Yeah, it is, they notice and that’s what people will remember. And when I’m gone it will be forgotten. Nobody will know what the hell I did.

Oh, I don’t think so. I don’t agree.

But that’s all right, that’s the way it works. You’ve got to move over and make room for those young people. That’s what Merle Travis told me, and it’s true.

Tony Bacon writes about musical instruments, musicians, and music. He is a co-founder of Backbeat UK and Jawbone Press. His books include The Ultimate Guitar Book, The Gretsch Electric Guitar Book, and Sunburst. His latest book is Electric Guitars: Design And Invention (Backbeat). Tony lives in Bristol, England.

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