This is an extract from an interview I did with Chet Atkins during my research for the original The Gretsch Book. I hooked up with Chet in Nashville on the day I was due to fly back to England after my research and photography trip. I’d worked hard to make the connection, and it was a joy to meet one of my heroes.
TB: What was the Gretsch factory like the first time you went to visit?
CA: It was about a 14 or 15-storey building and they were on, like, one of the upper floors, I don’t remember which. It had Gretsch on the building, and I suppose Fred Gretsch owned that building and leased it out to a lot of people: there were a lot of tenants in that building, and I think Gretsch was probably on one or two floors. There were workers everywhere, and most of them were Puerto Ricans, I suppose, they didn’t speak English very well. I mean, I heard a lot of Latin sounds.
TB: When you got the deal with Gretsch, did you use the 6120 exclusively?
CA: Yeah, I was very honest about it. I sent my D’Angelico that I had been playing back to John [D’Angelico] and put – the neck had been broken on it – and I had him put a regular top on it and just made it an acoustic guitar … which was a stupid move, now that I think about it, a Gibson and a Bigsby pickup in it. I wish I had kept the guitar the way it was, because the neck … now it’s different, it’s a little larger and not as much fun to play. Anyway, I was honest about it, I played the Gretsch guitar, the orange one … which I didn’t like, I hated the sound of the pickups at first, because they were … the magnets were so strong on the string, you pluck a string, there was no sustain there, specially on bass strings. And I was tortured pretty good until Ray Butts built that Filter’Tron pickup. And then they was much more fun.
TB: Did you get the idea that you were pioneering the electric guitar in the 50s?
CA: No, I was just experimenting around trying to get a sound I like. I ordered pickups from Bigsby, pickups from Gibson, installed them in my guitars, but I didn’t know what in the hell I was doing. On the D’Angelico I had the pickups out of phase for quite a while, and I didn’t know about phasing until Ray Butts told me. And so you know I learned here and there, but I didn’t feel like an electric pioneer or anything. I was a pioneer guitar player in style, stuff like that. I was just trying to get a better sound out of that Gretsch guitar, that’s the reason for the zero nut and the metal bridge and those things that we did.
TB: Who were the people that you would say were the electric pioneers in the 50s?
CA: Merle Travis, through Bigsby, had a solid guitar built and he played it professionally for a while. Fender, of course, was pioneering. I never … the sound was so thin, to me, that I didn’t see the potential in that. But somebody did.
TB: You didn’t have any hesitation in going to electric guitar?
CA: Oh no. I played electric guitar, I built my first electric guitar about 1939 when I ordered an Amperite pickup from … I worked on and built a gymnasium in Hamilton, Georgia, and I took the money and I ordered an amplifier from Allied Radio in Chicago, which is now Radio Shack, very big company. I ordered an Amperite pickup, it had a clamp and you could attach it to the bridge of a flattop guitar. So I was electrified back in those days, and I would take it down to the church where my dad directed the choir in Columbus, Georgia, on a Saturday – we didn’t have electricity, so I had to take it down there, play all day, and then I’d bring it back home. So I was pioneering, but I didn’t feel like it … just trying to sound like George Barnes and Les Paul, you know? Playing electric once in a while, perhaps trying to get that sound. I’m not a great electronics person really, and stuff like that.
From Tony Bacon’s interview with Chet Atkins, May 30 1995