SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. (January 18, 2007) — It is with great pleasure that Gretsch® Guitars announces the return of the legendary Chet Atkins name to the iconic guitars he created and popularized throughout his storied multi-decade musical career. Beginning in January, 2007, Chet’s signature will once again grace the pickguards and headstocks of the newly renamed Gretsch 6120 Chet Atkins Hollow Body, the 6122 Chet Atkins Country Gentleman™, and the 6119 Chet Atkins Tennessee Rose™ guitar lines. It’s a long-overdue homecoming for one of the most celebrated and revered partnerships in guitar history.
6119 Chet Atkins Tennessee Rose™
“Some of the most powerful and popular music of the last 50 years has been played and recorded on these guitars,” commented Mike Lewis, Gretsch Brand Manager. “From Eddie Cochran and the birth of rock n” roll, to the Beatles, the Who, and Neil Young, the body of work that exists on these instruments is just undeniable.”
For those who don’t know Chet’s story, it’s well worth learning. The youngest of four children in a very musical family, Chester Burton Atkins became enthralled by guitar at age six. At age 15, while living in Georgia, he heard the great Merle Travis on the radio, but couldn’t figure out how to play like that; he consequently invented his own way of playing using the thumb and three fingers of his picking hand. It was an intricate and complex playing style, but Atkins mastered it.
Gretsch 6120 Chet Atkins Hollow Body
Atkins earned his living throughout the mid-1940s playing various radio gigs; the shy guitarist was actually fired often because his sophisticated playing style was frequently deemed “not country enough.” Nonetheless, he always managed to find work, and Atkins became adept at pop and swing styles during this period, gradually absorbing the playing styles of Django Reinhardt and Andres Segovia.
Playing for Red Foley’s band, Atkins made his debut at the Grand Ole Opry on April 13, 1946. Soon after, he made his first record, “Guitar Blues,” an instrumental he wrote with his brother. Atkins was playing an electrified guitar through a Fender® amp by this time, and a young friend named Si Siman had taken to calling him “Chet” instead of “Chester.” It was Siman who landed interest from Steve Sholes, director of country music operations for RCA Records.
6122 Chet Atkins Country Gentleman™
Sholes and RCA kept Atkins busy in Chicago, New York and Atlanta through the end of 1947 not only as a guitarist, but also as an increasingly able producer. Later, as guitarist with “Mother” Maybelle Carter and the Carter sisters—Helen, Anita and June—Atkins found increasing work, money and success. Nashville soon beckoned to the Carters, and Atkins and his family left for their new home—permanently, this time—in July 1950.
Through the mid-1950s, regular Grand Ole Opry appearances gave Atkins national exposure, he had more Nashville session work than he knew what to do with, and Sholes relied on him more and more as a producer. Atkins soon parted with the Carters—whom he counted as dear friends for the rest of his life—as his own records were beginning to sell.
The Gretsch Partnership
Jimmie Webster, a Gretsch sales rep and guitar designer, had been criss-crossing the United States for years when he came through Nashville in 1954. Webster met Atkins there that year and tried to persuade him to play a Gretsch guitar. Atkins resisted, insisting that he was already happy with his current guitar. Why would he change?
Finally, one day that year at the Grand Ole Opry, Webster made Atkins an offer he couldn’t refuse: a Chet Atkins-designed Gretsch guitar. Atkins had some strong ideas about guitar design, and, eager to have his own model, jumped at the chance. He quickly inked a deal with Gretsch in Brooklyn, where he met Fred Gretsch Jr. and the company’s designers.
The guitar would be a single-cutaway hollow-body instrument with two DeArmond® pickups, a signed pickguard, a metal nut and bridge to improve sustain, and a striking orange finish. Interestingly, Gretsch evidently perceived Atkins as mainly a country and western artist, and so the finished guitar—dubbed the “Streamliner Special”—bore a big “G” brand on the upper bout, “belt buckle” tailpiece, steer horns on the headstock and western-style engravings in the pearl block fingerboard inlays… none of which appealed to Atkins.
Technically, this guitar was the first of what, for Gretsch, would become a most successful and strikingly iconic model: the 6120. The second of these guitars made for Atkins was actually the first one officially designated as the 6120; he almost immediately added a swivel-arm Bigsby® tailpiece.
Within weeks, Gretsch 6120 Chet Atkins Hollow Body guitars went on sale, and met with enthusiastic response. The guitar soon lost its cowboy trappings, and a Bigsby tailpiece was added (fixed at first; then swivel-arm). Significantly, this guitar was present at the birth of rock “n” roll, and popular and influential players such as Eddie Cochran, Duane Eddy rocked their 6120s onto the charts and into the hearts of 1950s America. The guitar quickly found itself at the very forefront of rock “n” roll and rockabilly—thanks to a potent look, sound and tradition. Later, in the “60s, the 6120 was used by the Who’s Pete Townshend and Buffalo Springfield’s Neil Young. Today, the 6120 is put to great use by rockers including Brian Setzer, the Reverend Horton Heat and Legendary Shack Shakers guitarist David Lee.
The Atkins-Gretsch partnership went into higher gear in 1958 with the introduction of the economy-model 6119 Tennessean and the high-end 6122 Country Gentleman, which featured a larger and more solid body, better bridge bracing, enclosed f-holes and Filter’Tron pickups. Both models, the Country Gentleman in particular, were very successful. Pickup designer Ray Butts soon modified his original pickup design to produce a fuller tone; this design became the Gretsch Super’Tron™ pickup, which Atkins favored for recording.
Atkins and Gretsch stuck together through the 1960s, when the British Invasion sent Gretsch sales soaring (Beatles guitarist George Harrison often favored Country Gentleman and Tennessean models). Atkins remained incredibly busy, and his status as an innovative artist and producer soared. He played at the White House for presidents Kennedy and Johnson (a tradition continued through the George H.W. Bush administration), and he became vice-president of RCA’s country division, signing artists such as Waylon Jennings, Dolly Parton, Willie Nelson, Connie Smith, Bobby Bare, Jerry Reed and Charlie Pride. As a producer, he pioneered the “Nashville Sound,” which eschewed fiddle and steel guitars in favor of more pop-oriented stylings that could compete in the rock/pop-dominated “60s marketplace.
Gretsch was sold to Baldwin Manufacturing in 1967. Atkins, always loyal to Fred Gretsch Jr., stayed as long as he could, through the introduction of the Super Chet guitar in 1971 and the Super Axe solid-body model in 1976. Finally, in 1979, shortly after the passing of Fred Gretsch Jr., Atkins and Gretsch parted ways after 25 years together. As he modestly put in his 2001 biography, Chet Atkins: Me and My Guitars:
“Getting the endorsement deal with Gretsch back in the “50s was a major step in my career … and I felt a strong loyalty to Mr. Gretsch and the company because of that.”
Although the great Chet Atkins passed on in June 2001 after a lifetime of incredible musical achievement and innovation, his musical legacy will live forever. A life-size bronze sculpture of Atkins graces downtown Nashville. And it’s fitting that in a world filled with guitar players, only Chet Atkins has become universally known as “Mr. Guitar.”
Welcome Home, Chet
Today, a new chapter opens in the history of one of the guitar world’s most celebrated partnerships: Gretsch and the Chet Atkins Trust are very proud to announce the return of Chet Atkins’ name to Gretsch guitars.
Beginning in January, 2007, Chet’s signature will return to the legendary Gretsch models with which he is so indelibly connected. Gretsch’s famous 6120 Nashville® guitars will once again become known as what they truly are—Gretsch 6120 Chet Atkins Hollow Body guitars. Gretsch 6122 Country Classic™ guitars will bear the name that made them famous in the beginning, Country Gentleman. Finally, the elegant 6119 Tennessee Rose™ guitars will become the Gretsch Chet Atkins Tennessee Rose guitars.
“Everyone has known all along that these instruments were really “Chet’s guitars,” but without his name on them, something just wasn’t right,” added Gretsch Brand Manager Lewis. “Now that Chet’s name has returned to the guitars, it’s like the circle is complete, and all is right with the world.”
In total, there will be 28 different models of Gretsch guitars bearing the Chet Atkins name, which will become available on January 2, 2007.
Along with countless fans and guitar aficionados around the world, Gretsch extends Chet Atkins a heartfelt “Welcome Home.”