Learn To Play: Riffs In The Key Of Chet Atkins

Before EVH, before Hendrix and even before the Beatles, Chet Atkins stood as one of the world's most influential guitarists with a playing style all his own. Chet's reputation as a guitarist and record producer helped shape the sound of modern country and pop music, occupying a position as one of the central figures in Nashville's recording community in the '50s and '60s. Take a look at the video above for an intro to the highly influential Atkins approach to fingerstyle playing and some basic tricks you can use to add a little Chet-ishism to your playing.

Chet Atkins Fingerstyle Fundamentals

If you want to understand the Atkins school of fingerstyle, start with Merle Travis. It was his simultaneous alternating bass and single line melodies that caught Chet's ear as a young man. Whereas Merle mostly used his thumb and index finger, Chet used all three fingers with his thumb on his right hand to fill in often complex rhythm parts along with bass and melody. Not only were Chet's arrangements more involved, but they also strayed from the usual country and folk chord progressions, seamlessly fusing in elements of jazz, classical and Latin. It's this effortless blending of styles, authoritative sense of rhythm and whimsical yet incredibly articulated phrasing that made Chet a legend. If his music were just about picking out melodies while carrying a bass line and simple accompaniment, we'd look back on him as merely a great guitarist.

That said, we're here to try and distill his playing into a single lesson. If there is any one defining skill to practice, it would be thumb/finger independence on your picking hand. While you can play (some of) Chet's songs without a thumb pick, I highly recommend getting one. It may take some getting used to, but it will ultimately make playing in his style much easier. A great independence exercise is simply getting a slow, even alternating bass going with your thumb on the open E and open A strings, simple 4/4 quarter notes, muting them slightly with your palm. Once you've built up a bit of muscle memory doing just this, practice grabbing an A minor (in first position, just the fretted notes) with your other three fingers on the downbeat of each measure. As that becomes comfortable, practice moving your "chord grab" around rhythmically. Try it on beats 1 and 3, then 2 and 4. Get creative. But focus on seamlessly keeping the alternating bass going. It sounds simple, but once you've got this down, you're halfway to already knowing the Chet song "Jam Man."

Recommended Listening

Chet's discography is varied and deep, but here are two classic tracks that highlight his iconic bass/melody picking style and give a taste of his clean tone with a touch of reverb.

The Guitars of Chet Atkins

Chet's classic tone relied on vibrant, glassy clean sounds to enunciate the rhythmic style of his playing. This can be achieved with any number of guitar and amp combos, but for Atkins in his prime, a series of Gretsch signature models did the job in high style. Chet collaborated with the Gretsch company on a number of guitars that bore his name starting in 1954. While the 6122 Country Gentleman may be the most famous Atkins Gretsch model (thanks in no small part to George Harrison), there were actually four main Chet models made in the '50s: the 6120 Chet Atkins Hollow Body (1954), the 6121 Chet Atkins Solid Body (1955), the 6122 Chet Atkins Country Gentleman (1957) and the 6119 Chet Atkins Tennessean (1958). In the '70s, Gretsch released a series of more modern Chet designs including the Super Chet and the Atkins Super Axe.

Chet's endorsement deal with Gretsch ended in 1980, and over the next two decades, Gibson took up the mantle of Atkins collaborator starting with a series of nylon string hybrid guitars including the Gibson Atkins CE. These guitars were closely in-line with Chet's use of nylon string guitars in the later phase of his career. In addition to the CE models, Gibson produced its own take on the Chet Atkins Country Gentleman and Tennessean.

There have been dozens of classic and modern variations on these models, and this just scratches the surface. Check out the article below for a comprehensive breakdown of all the main Chet Atkins signature models.


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