In 1967, Chet Atkins, the 43-year-old guitar virtuoso, could already look back on a life filled with accomplishments. He had gone from his “starving days” as a struggling musician making $3 a night, to fame and fortune, earning $22,000 for a concert. He was known internationally as “Mr. Guitar,” as well as vice-president of RCA in Nashville. When asked in an interview that year about his future, Atkins replied: “I want to enjoy life and learn to play the guitar better. I want to play the classical guitar.” He loved the classical guitar, and it is to his credit that this high school drop-out with no formal musical training had the talent, drive, and discipline to explore the demanding art of that instrument. In his early days, Chet Atkins (1924-2001) was hired as a “country guitarist” for radio shows in various cities, but he was often fired because he “was not commercial enough.” Still, during these difficult times, he began to evolve as a guitarist, influenced not only by guitar greats Les Paul and Django Reinhardt, but also by other musicians and styles that caught his ear. He was searching and discovering new possibilities for his playing.
Atkins’ interest in the classical guitar and classical music can be traced through his extensive discography, which includes over 100 albums. Atkins recorded his first album for RCA Victor in 1952. Although he had some success with singles during his early recording days, his albums sold more than the singles. None of his early recordings included any classical music. A turning point was the 1956 album Chet Atkins in Three Dimensions, which included light classics along with his regular popular fare. Noel Digby’s liner notes state that Atkins was “searching for perfection, broader vision, greater dimension” in his playing. For the first time, Atkins demonstrated his ability on the classical guitar, playing a Minuet and Prelude by J.S. Bach. On these and other classical selections, including some played on the electric guitar, Atkins displayed, as Digby wrote,“a unique mastery of and a great sensitivity for the delicate and the intricate.”
The Other Chet Atkins, recorded in 1960, was the first time Atkins used a classical guitar for all of the selections on an album. Although none of the selections were “classical” per se, he ably demonstrated that he was comfortable with classical guitar techniques, which he used in his arrangements of Latin American favorites such as“Maria Elena,” “Delicado,” and “Quiereme Mucho.”
Christmas with Chet Atkins (1961) is still considered one of the best Christmas instrumental albums, and commercially it was one of Atkins’ top-selling records. The whole second half of this album features Atkins on the classical guitar playing such favorites as “Silent Night,” “The First Noel,” and “The Little Drummer Boy”; each carol performed in a style that combined both craftsmanship and emotion.
Two years later, Atkins recorded the Caribbean Guitar album, which featured Antonio Lauro’s famous Venezuelan Dance No. 3under the guise of “Mayan Dance.” Atkins, who played his electric guitar for this piece, displayed a very clean technique, adding orchestral accompaniment and his own improvisation of the melody.
The 1967 Class Guitar album allowed Atkins to fully display his ability on the classical guitar with several classical guitar standards, including Miguel Llobet’s Testament of Amelia, Manuel M. Ponce’s Scherzino Mexicano, a transcription of Schubert’s Ave Maria, and a pair of selections by Francisco Tárrega (La Alborada and Lagrima). In preparation for this recording, Atkins had been studying with classical guitarist Bunyon Webb, one of the first classical teachers to work in the southern United States, primarily in North Carolina.
Frank Koonce, a well-known classical guitarist, teacher, and writer, was a student of Webb in the 1960s. Koonce, who grew up in Kinston, North Carolina, writes: “My memories of Bunyan Webb are that he liked to teach in the master class format. Instead of giving individual lessons, he would hold a weekly class on weekends in which a group of five or six students would take turns playing and being critiqued. Bunyan would also talk about general subjects, technique, and musicianship, which would benefit everyone.
“I can verify that he did teach Chet some lessons on the classical guitar. I remember him saying that he respected Chet Atkins and said he was a very versatile guitarist. I know that he was honored to have worked with him.”
On the Class Guitar album liner notes, Atkins credits Webb with renewing his interest in the classical guitar. According to Atkins, “He was a great help in securing music and correcting my mistakes.” On the album, Webb and Atkins perform a duet titled Morenita do Brazil; this piece has become very popular with budding classical guitar duos.
The album also featured several arrangements by the Argentine guitarist Jorge Morel. Atkins had taken Morel under his wing in 1970, helping him secure a recording contract with RCA and a touring contract with Columbia Artist Management. A particular favorite on the album was Morel’s arrangement of “Yellow Bird,” which is still popular today. Atkins’ performance of this very familiar melody is both mesmerizing and relaxing; in the background you can hear Atkins’ foot tapping, intentionally creating a very personal and delicate percussive effect to the arrangement.
Morel was always very appreciative of Atkins’ generosity. The following story by Morel, who was on tour in 1974 and staying at Atkins’ home while in Nashville, was taken from the book Chet Atkins in Three Dimensions: “In 1974, I was there with a brand new Manuel Veláquez guitar. . . . When Chet heard the guitar he said, ‘Jorge, I know Velázquez. Oh, my God, what a great guitar!’ He started to play it and could not put it down. Chet kept saying, ‘I love it! I love it!’
“I played the guitar for the remaining two or three concerts on the tour. I then returned to Nashville, but before I left, [Atkins’] wife, Leona, said, ‘Jorge, his birthday is next week. I would like to give Chet a guitar just like yours.’ I said, ‘I’ll talk to Velázquez, but I’m afraid he won’t be able to build a guitar in one week for Chet.’ So I said, ‘I have a Fleta, a Ramirez, and four or five other guitars; I love this guitar, but the builder is my friend. I can get another one. I want Chet to have this guitar for his birthday, Leona. You give it to him; it is yours.’ She said, ‘Jorge, you’re crazy! He is not going to take it; he’s going to pay you.’ I replied, ‘I don’t want any money.’
“[Chet] wanted to give me something. I said, ‘You’re not going to pay for that guitar; I won’t take your money. You have already given me so much. I am touring with Columbia Artists Management because of you. This is more meaningful to me than a guitar.’”
It is interesting to note that Atkins’ attraction to the classical guitar and classical music also influenced his role in the evolution of country music in general. As vice-president of RCA in Nashville, he helped pioneer a more sophisticated style of country music in the 1960s called the Nashville Sound. This smooth style often incorporated conservatory-trained string players and sophisticated background vocals, replacing the rougher honky-tonk sound with music that was more mainstream and commercially more successful. According to one writer, the Nashville Sound “opened up new markets and helped Music City thrive in the 1960s.”
Boundaries were also crossed when country music visited classical venues, primarily in symphony “pops” concerts. During the 1960s and ’70s, Atkins became a favorite soloist with several symphony orchestras, including those in Nashville, Atlanta, and New Orleans. He had a particularly good relationship with the Boston Pops, which had the venerable Arthur Fiedler as its conductor. Atkins and the Boston Pops collaborated on an album, The Pops Goes Country (1966), which was followed by Chet Atkins Picks on the Pops (1969).
In 1970, PBS launched its very successful television series, Evening at Pops. According to its executive producer, William Cosel, “The heat was on to include a broad entertainment show, kind of a public television version of a variety show, hosted by a world-class orchestra instead of a pit band.” The programs were taped before a live audience in Boston Symphony Hall. During that first season, Chet Atkins was one of the guest artists. Two years later, he again was a featured artist. During this second appearance, Atkins played his classical guitar on several selections, including a beautiful performance of Tárrega’s Recuerdos de la Alhambra.
Atkins stated in an interview, “I’m always uptight when I do shows with Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops. These are some of the best musicians around, so I practice and practice and practice. A concert is not like a recording—you have only one shot at it; you can’t go back and fix it.”
Atkins often performed Recuerdos de la Alhambra in his concerts, and he related the following story about another well-known Tárrega work. “Once, when I did the difficult Estudio brillante, I explained to the audience that I might make a mistake. ‘Some of them are on purpose,’ I said. ‘Because I know some people come here to hear a mistake by Chet Atkins.’ Just making that statement relaxed me.”
Just as Chet Atkins was always looking to expand the possibilities of country music, he was also constantly striving to improve his guitar technique. His style developed greatly over the years and his interest in more complex aspects of the guitar, especially the classical guitar, helped shape his virtuosic playing, so he could no longer be called just a “country guitarist”—he was well beyond that. In a way, Atkins also helped to “educate” his country audiences with his inclusion of light classics and classical-guitar selections in his recordings and concerts. Indeed, for many, this was probably their first exposure to classical music.
For several years, too, Atkins helped promote new talent with the Chet Atkins Guitar Festival, which included a competition for amateur guitarists in the electric and classical categories. Guitarists between the age of 14 and 23 competed for a first prize of $1,500 and a new guitar—and gained exposure by playing to a live audience that usually included talent scouts.
In 1996, Atkins was the recipient of the prestigious Artistic Achievement Award by the Guitar Foundation of America. This award “is reserved for performers, composers, pedagogues, and scholars who have made monumental contributions to the development of the art and life of the classical guitar.”
Chet Atkins died of cancer in 2001. Rick Foster, a long-time friend and nationally recognized guitarist and arranger, offered this fitting tribute to Atkins and his love of the classical guitar:
“When Chet died, his wife gave me his 1969 Ramirez, which Chet told me was the greatest guitar he’d ever played. He kept the Ramirez in his living room and played it often. I consider Segovia and Chet to be by far the two greatest fingerstyle players who ever lived.”
And in a 2015 correspondence with the author, Jorge Morel offered this:
“I’d like to say a few words about Chet Atkins and his love for the guitar, classical or his own style, that was so great. He loved the traditional classic pieces but I think he had a profound admiration for the Latin American rhythms that he played with very good feeling. I was very lucky to have met him and played for him everything I knew, and then [to] listen to his unique arrangements and compositions that I enjoyed so much. God bless him.”
John Patykula is Assistant Chair and Coordinator of the Guitar Program for the Virginia Commonwealth University Department of Music. In 1971, he was a semi-finalist in the Chet Atkins Guitar Competition (classical guitar category) He’d like to acknowledge the assistance of Bridget P. Carr, Director of Archives and Digital Collections, Boston Symphony Orchestra; and Shaun McCracken, for her help in editing this article.