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The Chet Chronicles

Hello Troubadourians! I’ve been listening to Chet Atkins a lot lately. Chet was an early influence and an ongoing one as well. In fact, Chet was my first influence. When I was first learning to play, everything I did was with a thumb pick and with the “boom-chick”-muted bass note style that Chet used. Not that I was even close to playing or sounding like him, but that was my intent. I would endlessly listen to every Chet record I had, trying to absorb every lick, every nuance of that seamless style. Chet was a self-contained orchestra but was often accompanied by an actual orchestra on many of his recordings. As an aside, that was what was then known as the Nashville Sound, which Chet himself invented during his long tenure as a vice president at RCA records. That “half-acre of fiddles” backing track was the signature of most pop-country hits of the ’70s—a sound that Chet would later profusely apologize for. But back to the guitar influence: the effort I put in to learn the thumb-and-finger style paid dividends in many ways for the style that I would eventually call mine but not in the way I’d hoped when I was trying to play everything just like Chet. What I wanted was to be Chet II, but I was discouraged from completing the transformation by several people I respected. The strongest person to discourage me from devoting the effort to mastering the Chet style was my guitar teacher, Marty Stuart. Other than Chet, I thought Marty was the best guitar player I’d ever heard. He could play in a chord melody style was even more beyond me than Chet. Marty said that while he couldn’t teach me Chet’s style, he could recommend a teacher that could… if that was my choice, but he could teach me to play like myself. Feeling guilty, and intrigued about sounding like “me” I stayed on with Marty for six years (until he told me that I’d learned all that he could teach me—or all that I was willing to learn…) and then set out on my own.

The dividends from my study of Chet’s style weren’t apparent at first. You see, after I made my choice to hang with Marty, I nearly quit playing the Chet style altogether. I put the majority of my right-hand technique study into playing with a flatpick but I didn’t stop playing play fingerstyle. I continued to steal right-hand styles from such players as Jimmy Messina and John Denver, all the while getting really good at hybrid-picking (a playing style that combines a flatpick and fingers), which I’ve found to be the most versatile right-hand style and which facilitated my style the best of all right-hand techniques I’ve learned. It was, in fact, my left hand that benefitted most from my study of Chet. I’ve used his chord voicings, phrasing, note choice, and melodic sense in most everything I’ve done in my own music. I also learned Chet’s smoothness and feel for the pocket that I think lends an elegance to whatever music I’m playing. There is some right-hand magic that I learned from Chet, though. From Chet I learned how to play—and use—natural and false harmonics. Most players know about the natural harmonics that can be played at the fifth, seventh, and twelfth frets, but Chet pioneered a style, using the right-hand index finger and thumb to play harmonics with fretted notes as well as open strings and incorporate them into the melody and chords of a song. I’ve applied this technique using my index finger and a flat pick. This trick has added an unexpected texture in the context of a rock song and a little extra chime to Americana songs.

One new thing I’ve learned about Chet from my most recent study is that he was most definitely a product of his times in terms on the songs he favored. While most people think of Chet as a country player, he was hardly limited to country music in the songs he chose to play and record. In the ’50s and ’60s, Chet was heavily into the jazz and pop music of the day. The compositional structures of that music dictated much of his repertoire during that time. As the ’70s and ’80s music changed the form of composition, Chet’s playing moved more toward the normal way of playing and less of the orchestral self-contained style he was known for. He also spent many years mastering the nylon string guitar, adapting it to his use of the thumb pick, and from his collaboration with and influence by Los Indios Tabajaras, Chet recorded many songs using a resonator guitar. In some ways, this shift in his playing made it more accessible to me as it was somewhat less Chet-like, but I always preferred the classic style he created. As the ’90s changed music yet again, Chet’s recorded output of new music reduced considerably even as he toured more than ever. By the mid-’90s Chet’s health had declined significantly as did his performing and recording.

Always curious and a follower of an obsessive practice regimen, Chet was an inspiration to my own practice regimen—even when I couldn’t follow it as much as I wanted to. My own study of jazz from the ’40s and ’50s—the jazz that my father listened to—I began to see the similarities between what I’d known as Chet songs and the jazz of musicians like Lionel Hampton and Jack Teagarden, which my dad was into. Chet favored songs with similar chord progressions that often started on the IV chord. A blues song like “Deed I Do,” a pop song like “I’ll See You in My Dreams,” and a jazz-pop song like “Stardust” all share that similar chord progression and all were definitely in Chet’s wheelhouse. All of these songs sound superb when played in the classic Chet style. These three songs have been the focus of my attention recently—as well as for most of the time I’ve been playing the guitar. I expect they will continue to be for as long as I play, as they are now ingrained into my DNA. While players from other genres, like Doc Watson, Joe Walsh, Don Felder, Jim Messina, Joe Perry, Clarence White, Hank Snow, Les Paul, and T-Bone Walker, have influenced my playing in many ways, and perhaps more obviously, it is Chet that was my first and likely deepest influence. Thanks Chet, you’re the man.

Need to know? Just ask… Charlie (ask.charlie@hotmail.com)

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