Chet Atkins has a deserved reputation as a great guitar player and all-around nice guy. So it’s a pleasure to see a book that is part biography and part history of his personal guitars. Atkins is no guitar collector. He owns, and has owned, a number of nice instruments over the years, but they are his tools of the trade. They haven’t been babied, but rather used (some for decades) and their scars come not from abuse but rather from the touring trail and the studio log. So his D’Angelico Excel was modified over the years with pickups, switches, even a Vibrola tailpiece!
There are an assortment of archtops featured, many of them Gibsons, and a variety of flat-tops, from the ornate to the sublime. Many were used for album covers, and these are included where appropriate. One would guess, after reading the book, that Atkins has about 50 guitars. And the point isn’t how many, because the book isn’t about just guitars, but about Chet and his guitars.
The narrative is told by Atkins in first-person style. He recalls how he came to own the guitars, and where they were used. He reminisces about other players and cohorts; his many stories come alive in this book. The reader learns about Atkins’ involvement with Gretsch in the ’50s, which resulted in a line of guitars bearing his name, and again in the ’80s with Gibson to produce an electric archtop. Turns out that Chet prefers to set up his own guitars and likes to tinker with them and customize them to his taste.
This edition of the book is limited to 1,200 numbered copies hardbound in a custom slipcase. They were originally to have been signed, but it does not appear, based on information at press time, that they will be. Certainly, it is a sumptuous product, with beautiful photography, binding, and paper quality. But many may find the a bit on the high side. Note, however, that the book was meant for fans as a sort of retirement “thank you” and is being distributed through Atkins’ fan club, which is quite large and easily capable of snapping up all available copies. It wouldn’t be a big surprise to see a softbound edition made available.
One of the most telling photos in the book is one of Chet’s workbench in his home studio. Here one finds the true tools of the master: strobe tuner, files, saws, sanders, boxes of amp tubes, soldering iron, drill bits, screws, and hardware… and a quart of Quaker State motor oil (?). At last, the secret to that smooth Atkins picking style is revealed! No wonder there are never any squeaks on his fretboard…
Russ Cochran Books, West Plains, MO, Russ Cochran 2001, Hardbound in slipcase, 183 pages, No ISBN, $150.00
This article originally appeared in VG‘s Aug. ’01 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.