A great way to fuel your inspiration, motivation, and creativity on the guitar is to learn some of the key aspects of other guitar players styles. Preferably those that really appeal to you of course. There is a fair degree of truth to the statement that you are who you listen to, and today we are going to highlight some of the core elements that made up the guitar playing style of Chet Atkins. You will see how in doing so you will expand and improve your own guitar playing.
Chet Atkins was like the equivalent of a multi linguist in that he was fluent in several styles of guitar playing including, jazz, classical, and flamenco. Country however was like the glue that held all this together for Chet, as country was the centre piece to his guitar playing style. We are going to narrow our focus and zoom in on some of the core elements that made up the guitar style of Chet Atkins. This will be far better than trying to cover everything, which is not even close to being possible in a single article.
Before we get into that however, it's worth mentioning that there is more to be gained when studying other guitar players and their style than amassing a large number of riffs and licks. It's also an opportunity to get into their head and get an insight into their attitude towards playing guitar and music in general. This in turn will influence your own attitude and beliefs about playing guitar, and will have more to do with your successes in music than simply copying a bunch of riffs and licks. There is nothing wrong doing that of course, and that is what we will do today with Chet Atkins, however I highly recommend you go deeper and study the attitudes of the many great guitar players out there.
Travis picking is a technique named after the guitarist Merle Travis. Merle was such a huge influence that his picking technique became the cornerstone of Chet's own playing style.
The thumb of your picking hand is the most important component to travis picking. It keeps a steady bass line going on the lower 3 strings of your guitar while your index (i), middle (m), and ring (a) fingers play syncopated melodies and rhythms on the top 3 strings. It's a very impressive technique as you are playing the bass, harmony, and melody parts to a song all at the same time. It's easy to have people think there is more than one guitar playing when it is in fact just you!
While this part of Chet's style was influenced by Merle Travis, Merle would strike 2 strings simultaneously with his thumb (on beats 1 and 3) while Chet would hit single strings with his thumb in the bass lines he played.
Here is a bass line Chet would often use with travis picking:
This bass picking pattern is for chords whose root note is on the 6th string. It's known as a 6, 4, 5, 4 bass pattern in reference to the order of the strings you are picking with your thumb. A common variation to this is the 6, 4, 6, 4 pattern where you omit the 5th string and simple pick the 6th and 4th strings with your thumb.
It's important to palm mute the bass notes when travis picking so that the harmony and melody parts on the higher strings stand out. Also, to get the correct sound with travis picking, I highly recommend you use a thumb pick. It can take a little getting use to if you have not used one before, but is well worth the effort.
Here is an example of travis picking complete with melody, typical of Chet Atkins' guitar playing style:
While there is a bit going on in this example, don't lose sight of the bass pattern. It will always fall on the beat (1, 2, 3, 4) and will act as a great reference point for the harmony and melody parts.
Once you have the bass note pattern sorted, you can then see how the melody notes in the example above relate. Some fall on the beat with the bass note (ie. bass note and melody note are played at the same time), while others fall on the off beats in-between.
Separating the bass notes from the melody notes and seeing the relationship between
the two helps greatly with the timing of everything.
The following example shows how Chet would approach chords whose root notes are
on the 5th string:
The bass note pattern in the example above is what's known as a 5, 4, 6, 4 pattern. This is simply because these are the order of the strings on which the bass notes fall, and is the pattern of choice for chords whose root notes are on the 5th string.
You will also find that Chet sometimes applied a 5, 4, 5, 4 pattern as a variation to the more common bass note pattern above. To be clear, this is where your bass notes fall on the 5th and 4th strings only.
Your first priority after learning something on your guitar in isolation, is to apply it to your own playing, otherwise whatever you learn will be of very little use to you. Let's get the ball rolling and take the travis picking approaches from above, and apply them to a 12 bar blues progression:
* The second finger of your fretting hand will need to play the lower bass note of the B7 chord (2nd fret 6th string). Keep the rest of the chord formed when doing this. Only move your second finger.
A double stop is when you play two notes together at the same time on the guitar. These notes can be on adjacent and non adjacent strings. Chet used double stops extensively throughout his playing. Most times the two notes he played created either a 3rd or 6th harmony.
Chet would often use these double stops to harmonise the melodies of the tunes he played as well as filling the pockets between a vocal line if he was playing with a singer. The result would be beautiful and rich sounding melodic lines that would feature heavily throughout Chet's playing.
To easily use the harmonies of 3rd's and 6th's in your own guitar playing, you need to be able to visualise them on the fretboard. Below are two diagrams that will get you started doing exactly that on the top 3 strings of your guitar.
There are several ways you can fret the harmonies above. I have gone with that I believe to be the most logical and efficient way by maintaining the second finger on the 3rd string throughout, and having the first and third fingers fret the higher note in each harmony.
The next step is to get these harmonies into some actual riffs. Here are some in the style of Chet Atkins beginning with a combination of 3rd's and 6th's connecting a D7 to G chord:
Sliding into these harmonies, as is the case at the beginning of the 2nd and 3rd bars above, was something Chet would often do.
The next lick outlines a C7 to F chord change and exclusively uses 6th's:
This last lick combines the harmony of a 3rd along with some single notes across a G7 chord:
Chet would often add embellishments to these harmonies such as the pull off in the last bar of the example above. Things like slides, hammer ons, and pull offs will add some really cool sounds to your harmonised lines.
Aside from them featuring heavily throughout Chet Atkins' playing, 3rd's and 6th's should be a part of any guitar players arsenal. They have a unique sound and provide a great contrasting texture to your single note lines. I highly recommend you start getting these into your guitar playing today!
Think of this article as a starting point, and not an end point, when it comes to the guitar playing of Chet Atkins. We have barley skimmed the surface of what this great guitar player provided throughout his career, however if you implement what you have learned here into your own playing, you will be off to a great start.
Banjo rolls also featured heavily in Chet Atkins' style. Learn what these are, how to play them, and most importantly how to apply them to your own playing with this ebook/audio on banjo roll patterns for acoustic guitar.
Specializing in online acoustic guitar lessons, Simon Candy is based in Melbourne, Australia where he runs his own guitar school.
He has taught guitar for over 20 years to people of all ages and levels covering a variety of styles including blues, rock, jazz, and fingerpicking.
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