Monday July 2nd, 2001
Chet Atkins c.g.p.: Gibson loses 'a dear friend'
by Walter Carter
The entire staff at Gibson was deeply saddened by the passing of Chet Atkins on June 30.
Chet had been a part of the Gibson family for almost 20 years, since the introduction of the innovative Gibson Chet Atkins CE solidbody classical model in 1982.
“We lost more than a great guitarist,” said Henry Juszkiewicz, chairman and CEO of Gibson Guitar Corp. “We lost a dear friend.
“He had an elegant, tasteful style - as a guitarist and, more importantly, as a person. The Chet Atkins name brought a great deal of honor and prestige to the Gibson line, because Chet was such a gentleman in addition to all his other accomplishments.”
Juszkiewicz singled out the Gibson “solidbody acoustic” guitars as Chet’s most important achievement in guitar design.
“The acoustic solidbody model is probably the most underrated innovation in recent guitar history,” Juszkiewicz said. “When you see a Dave Matthews or a Mark Knopfler onstage, getting an acoustic guitar sound at full volume with no feedback, you’re seeing a part of Chet’s legacy.
“We were also very proud to revive two of the most popular of Chet’s endorsement models from the fifties and sixties that are still in great demand among his followers.
“Although he was associated for many years with another company, he started and ended his professional career with Gibson.”
Born in 1924 in the tiny Appalachian town of Luttrell, TN, Chester Burton Atkins was introduced to the guitar by his brother Jim, who was a member of the Les Paul Trio. Chet was heavily influenced by Les Paul, Chicago jazzman George Barnes and hot-picking country star Merle Travis, all of whom played Gibsons.
He landed his first job in 1942 at WNOX in Knoxville and spent the remainder of the forties traveling from radio station to radio station with a wide range of artists, among them Red Foley, Kitty Wells, Homer and Jethro, Archie Campbell, Bill Carlisle and Maybelle Carter and the Carter Sisters. Photographs from this period show him playing a Gibson L-10 archtop guitar.
In 1950 he took up permanent residence in Nashville and quickly became an in-demand session player, working in the studio with such stars of the fifties as Hank Williams, the Everly Brothers and Elvis Presley. By this time he was playing a D’Angelico to which he’d added a DeArmond pickup.
He had made his first solo recording in 1949 but didn’t make the record charts until “Mr. Sandman” went to No. 13 on the country charts in 1955, introducing to the nation his elegant, reserved guitar style. “Yackety Ax,” a guitar version of the Boots Randolph hit “Yackety Sax,” was his biggest chart success, reaching No. 4 on the country charts and also appearing on the pop charts in 1965.
Chet’s influence on guitar players around the world was rivaled only by his influence within the Nashville music business community. He helped design RCA’s legendary Studio B in 1957 and went on to become vice president of the RCA’s Nashville operation. Under his leadership, RCA was Nashville’s most successful label, boasting at one time a roster of 50 artists, half of whom Chet produced. He was one of the leading forces in creating the Nashville Sound, with heavy echo effects, string sections and vocal choruses that made country music more palatable to mainstream audiences.
Chet broke his ties with Gretsch Guitars who had produced Chet Atkins signature models since 1954. In 1978 he began working on a new idea for an electric guitar. He had always had trouble with broken nails and had been playing more and more on nylon-stringed classicals in order to save his nails. Recent developments in the field of piezo guitar pickups for acoustic guitars inspired him to put a piezo pickup on a solidbody guitar. He had Kentucky luthier Hascal Haile build a prototype with nylon strings and he brought it to Gibson.
Gibson introduced the Chet Atkins CE (for Classical Electric) model in 1982. It offered players all the advantages of a solidbody - sustain, reduced feedback and high volume - with the sound of an acoustic classical guitar. Country star Willie Nelson and jazzman Earl Klugh were among the first to embrace the new model.
Chet Atkins Super 4000
Chet had envisioned the solidbody acoustic only as a classical model, but in 1986, shortly after Gibson was acquired by Henry Juszkiewicz and his partners, a new steel-string version, the Chet Atkins SST, was introduced. Now rock and rollers could plug in an acoustic guitar and crank up the volume, and the SST played a prime role in the infusion of acoustic guitar sounds back into rock music.
Chet took an active role in the design of all his Gibson endorsement models, according to Mike Voltz, former head of the development and production team for the Chet line. “Every model we came out with, he had final approval over,” Voltz said, “and many times he instigated changes. The pickup windings on the Tennessean and Country Gentleman were exactly to his specifications.”
“Chet was the most active artist involved with any guitar line.”
With the Gibson CE came the introduction of a new Chet Atkins. He left RCA in 1982, put c.g.p. (for certified guitar player) after his name and embarked on a new performing career, working with a wide array of musical friends such as Mark Knopfler, George Benson, Suzy Bogguss, David Hungate, Mark O'Connor, Larry Carlton and Earl Klugh.
With renewed interest in his recording career, Gibson introduced new versions of two of his old Gretsch models, the Chet Atkins Country Gentleman in 1986 and the Chet Atkins Tennessean in 1990.
Chet served as an active guest curator for 100 Years of Gibson, an exhibit of historic Gibson instruments that ran for six years at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Nashville. At the opening of the exhibit in 1994 he was presented with the prototype of a new, limited-edition model, the Chet Atkins Super 4000, a large, thin-bodied electric-acoustic archtop made by the Gibson's Custom, Art & Historic division.
Gibson currently offers four Chet Atkins models: The Country Gentleman and the Tennessean (both hollowbody electrics), the SST steel-string “solidbody acoustic” and the CE/CEC (standard neck on the CE, wider classical-style neck on the CEC) nylon-string “solidbody acoustic.”
Mr. Carter has been a music business professional
as an author, songwriter and musician for more than twenty years. He
is widely recognized as a leading authority on American fretted instruments
and is the author of a number of guitar books including Gibson Guitars:
100 Years of an American Icon and co-author of the authoritative
Gruhn's Guide to Vintage Guitars.