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 was no guitar collector. He owned a number of nice instruments over the years, but they were his tools of the trade. They weren’t babied, but rather used – some for decades – and their scars come not from abuse but 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’s an assortment of archtops featured, many of them Gibsons, and a variety of flat-tops from the ornate to the sublime. Many of the guitars were used for album covers and these are included where appropriate. One would guess after reading the book that Atkins had 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, recorded before his death, is told by Atkins in the first person. He recalls how he came to own the guitars, where they were used on recordings and at live shows, and he reminisces about other players and cohorts. Atkins has many stories, and they 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. It turns out that Chet prefers to set up his own guitars and likes to tinker with them and customize them to his taste.
One of the most telling photos in the book is one of Chet’s workbench. 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 finally revealed! No wonder there are never any squeaks on his fretboard!
This book was previously available only as a limited (and expensive) edition. Here’s a version that everyone can afford.
Hal Leonard 2003, Softbound 183 pages, ISBN 0-634-05565-8, $29.95
This article originally appeared in VG‘s dec. ’03 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.