Chet Atkins’ signature guitar was dubbed the Country Gentleman for good reason. The model reflected its namesake’s courtly demeanor as well as his impeccable, clear-toned technique — a style Atkins chiseled under a list of influences that includes Merle Travis, Django Reinhardt, Les Paul, Charlie Christian, and George Barnes.
“Chet truly was a gentleman in every regard,” says Steve Wariner, who was signed to his first record deal by Atkins in 1977. “He was also a very dear friend with a great sense of humor and a master at coaching artists to be their very best in the studio.”
Indeed, when Atkins died in 2001 after 59 years in the music business his legacy included not only his profoundly influential playing but production credits with Elvis Presley, Roy Orbison, Jim Reeves, and a host of country greats as well as his leadership of RCA Records Nashville division. As a record executive Atkins propelled country from its rural roots to mainstream America.
With Atkins as his mentor and inspiration, Wariner went on to have 10 number one country hits and a host of other lesser charters on 27 albums. He’s also developed a reputation as a hot picker that he’s put to the test with his new album My Tribute To Chet Atkins.
“I’ve wanted to do this album for Chet ever since he passed away,” Wariner says, “and it just felt like this was the time.”
The disc follows the chronological development of Atkins’ style, with Wariner interpreting Atkins’ forays into country, pop, jazz, and classical music and contributing original Atkins-inspired compositions like the elegant “Chet’s Guitar” and “Leona.” Wariner wrote the latter for Atkins’ wife, who still lives in the Nashville area.
“Of course, I had to use Chet’s guitar for ‘Chet’s Guitar’ and on ‘Leona,’ ” says Wariner, referring to the mid-’80s Gibson Country Gentleman Atkins gave him. “It became one of my main guitars for the album, and other than changing the strings I’ve left it the way Chet had it.
Adorned with a Bigsby whammy bar and defined by ES-like classic lines with a graceful rounded cutaway, bound pick and arm guards, and gold hardware, the Gibson Country Gentleman is as stylish as the tuxedos and tailored suits Atkins typically wore on stage — which is where Wariner first joined Atkins as a bassist in ’77.
From his unique vantage as a player and friend, Wariner offers these tips to six-stringers aiming to sound like his late guru:
Stay pure: “Chet did not use a lot of processing. When I was touring with him he used a Lexicon rack mounted delay and the only other thing between his guitar and amp was a distortion pedal, like a Tube Screamer. Earlier I guess he used an Echo-Plex type of tape delay. And he rarely used that fuzz pedal. He would use it when we’d play a funky piece and he’d play one solo with it turned on. He also used a Music Man amp on tour. In the studio he had a vintage Standel amp that was once owned by the great steel guitar player Jimmy Day. It had a plaque with Jimmy’s name on the back.”
Master vibrato: Atkins used heavy strings on the bass side of his guitar neck and light gauge strings for his top three notes. “He used those heavier strings to pick his bass lines with his thumb, so he could play bass and melody at the same time. He kept his vibrato arm set where he could lay his pinky over it, so he could dip it with his little finger. He was also a master of creating vibrato with the fingers of his left hand.”
Pick clean: “So much of what Chet did was with his hands. He had amazing articulation on the guitar. His notes were always pure and clean and gorgeous. Chet had a reach and tone that was unreal. He had enormous hands, so he could play a chord by wrapping his left hand around the back of his guitar’s neck and pinning down a note with his thumb. He did that on his intro to ‘Mr. Sandman,’ and he’d tell me ‘Steve, why don’t you try it this way?’ And I’d say, ‘With my pudgy little hands? I can’t!’ ”
Think old school: “For Chet, everything was in service of the melody. He could have played a lot of flashy licks, but he was really interested in playing music that everybody could enjoy, not just guitar players. So he would make sure the melody was always at the front of whatever he played.
“He also liked to record with super clean amplifiers and ribbon mikes. One of his favorites was the RCA-77. If you’re really looking for authentic vintage tones, you’re going to need the vintage gear.”