There are so many guitarists in the world with their own unique style or take on the instrument, you would think we have pulled everything there is to be played from the guitar by now. And those unique styles are what separate us as players. What give us are own stamp. That is why, hardly any of us could ever answer the question, "Who is the best guitar player, ever?". So many different styles. So many individual takes on the instrument. How could anyone ever pick a best? But, there are a few guitarists that fall in a category above everyone else, an elite breed of player. Guitarists that are world recognized names that everyone, players and non players alike recognize. Players like Eddie Van Halen, Jimi Hendrix, Django Reinhardt, and of course, Chet Atkins.
I'm not going to go into a long biography of Chet Atkins, but I will give you some tips on how to get started playing his style, and how I approach it. Chet was the master at drop thumb, finger style guitar, or the ability to play a bass line with your thumb, while playing chord melodies and lines with your index and middle fingers. If you haven't really listened to Chet, then you should stop right here and search for some of his stuff. There are tons of great videos on youtube that showcase Chet and his mastery of the guitar, but don't get intimidated! You can easily start on the road to playing bass and melody on your instrument without mastering Chet's arrangements.
When I was living in Springfield, Mo and learning to build guitars, I crossed paths with a Chet player and amateur guitar builder by the name of Dr. Michael Bell. Dr. Bell was a retired statistics professor from the local university, and a genuinely kind man. He talked with a slow, southern drawl and was a captivating story teller. He is the guy that taught me the basics of how to play like Chet Atkins in one simple lesson. His lesson was, "Take your guitar and make a G chord and with your thumb, play 6th string, 4th string, 5th string, 4th string, and keep repeating it. Do it until you are sick of it, then do it some more. Do it for at least a month! Just keep doing it until the cows come home." Naturally, I thought, "You have got to be kidding? That's it? I can do that in my sleep!". I quickly realized that while I could do it relatively easily, I couldn't do squat with my other fingers at the same time. But after a few week of continually taking chords and playing the bass notes with my thumb, it finally became second nature. He then gave me the tip of keeping my palm on the bass strings at the bridge to mute the strings just enough to still hear the note, but not let them sustain. Then he taught me his version of Freight Train, by Elizabeth Cotten. The following video is a quick lesson on getting started and developing the style to play Freight Train.
Once you feel comfortable with Freight Train, you can start applying the style to other songs. Beatles songs are great to work on because they have such strong melodies and interesting chord changes. Just learn the chord changes, then learn the melody with in the chord shapes, and apply the bass line with your thumb. You will also be able work on other player's styles with ease. Check out Mississippi John Hurt and Merle Travis, for instance. Travis was a major influence on Chet and his style, as you will see.
Chet Atkins is a true legend of the modern guitar and his music is timeless. His style is such a simple concept, but very difficult to execute with ease. He truly is one of my favorite guitarists of all time, and I am so thankful that the late Dr. Bell got me started down the road of his playing style. If you haven't seen it yet, this is a very cool, short documentary by Gretsch Guitars on Chet's life and has some great players paying respect to a true master of guitar, Chet Atkins, Mister Guitar!