As a boy, Chet Atkins was fueled by a relentless drive to become a famous guitarist. Chet devoted himself to mastering the instrument and, while still in his teens, began to develop his own technique. Using the thumb to create a rhythmic foundation by alternating strings, while using three fingers to articulate chords and melodies, he could sound like two or more guitarists playing simultaneously.
By the mid-1950s, Atkins’s varied musical influences, technical skill, and innovative use of harmonics, vibrato, and echo had jelled into his unmistakable style. His RCA releases, including his first hit, “Mr. Sandman” (1955) contributed to his reputation as a top guitar player. During the 1960s, Chet Atkins continued to enlarge his influence and audience through his recordings and performances. He displayed virtuosity, perfectionism, and unerring taste on more than two dozen albums of country material, pop standards, rock & roll, Christmas tunes, collaborations with Arthur Fiedler’s Boston Pops Orchestra, and experiments with world music. “Yakety Axe,” his adaptation of saxophonist Boots Randolph’s “Yakety Sax,” earned Atkins the biggest hit of his career, in 1965.
Other musicians were paying close attention to Atkins. His dazzling fingerstyle technique and experiments with new sounds inspired a younger generation of guitarists, including rockers Eddie Cochran, Duane Eddy, and the Beatles’ George Harrison.
Atkins continued to challenge himself as an artist for the rest of his career. In the 1970s, he began collaborating with other guitar virtuosos on a variety of projects. His recordings with jazz, country, rock, and classical guitarists—including George Benson, Lenny Breau, Tommy Emmanuel, the First Nashville Guitar Quartet, Earl Klugh, Mark Knopfler, Les Paul, Jerry Reed, and Doc Watson—expanded Atkins’s musical horizons and his audience.