December 12, 2016 marked the 117th birthday of Paul Adelbert Bigsby. When it comes to guitar history, names like Leo Fender, Adolph Rickenbacker, and Les Paul may be more widely known. But their work would not have been possible without the man who designed and built the first solidbody electric guitar.
A skilled motorcycle machinist—and also a music fan—Paul Bigsby got into the world of guitars in the mid-1940s when he designed a replacement vibrato mechanism for C&W artist Merle Travis’s Gibson L-10. Paul’s device set a new standard, and it rapidly became the vibrato of choice for most guitar manufacturers the world over—a reputation it still enjoys today.
In late 1946, Travis approached Bigsby with a concept for a new guitar. Travis’s rough sketch depicted a solidbody electric with all six tuning pegs on one side of the headstock. Bigsby, whose personal philosophy was “I can build anything”, immediately went to work to make the concept a reality. When the guitar was completed, Merle Travis played it on recordings, on radio, and on public performances. The revolutionary design caught the eyes and ears of guitar players and builders alike—and it changed the sound and look of guitars forever.
Paul Bigsby continued to hand-craft custom guitars and vibrato units for the next twenty years. But by 1965 health issues prompted him to sell the Bigsby name and inventory to his friend Ted MCarty. That sale that was effective on January 1, 1966. Paul Bigsby died on June 7, 1968, leaving a legacy of innovation and craftsmanship for which every guitarist today should be grateful.
On May 10, 1999, the Gretsch Guitar Company purchased Bigsby Accessories from Ted McCarty.
To learn more about the life and story of Paul Bigsby, check out of The Story of Paul Bigsby: Father of the Modern Electric Solidbody Guitar by Andy Babiuk. A standard edition as well as a special collector’s edition are available at GretschGear.com.
Dinah and Fred Gretsch are honored during the Otis Redding 75th Birthday Celebration. Photo: Rick Diamond/Getty Images for Otis Redding 75th Birthday Celebration
Dinah and Fred Gretsch were presented the RESPECT Award from the Otis Redding Foundation in recognition of their long history of leadership in music education and outreach programs. The prestigious award, which recognizes the “tireless dedication to education through music,” was presented onstage to Dinah and Fred Gretsch by Karla Redding-Andrews, Otis Redding’s daughter and Foundation Director, at the September 11 Otis Redding “Evening of Respect” Tribute Concert at Macon’s historic City Auditorium.
The high-energy Sunday evening concert wrapped up a weekend of events that celebrated 75 years of the legendary King of Soul, Otis Redding. The star-studded show featured the Otis Redding Foundation’s DREAM Choir; The Redding’s, featuring Otis’s sons Dexter and Otis III; plus Mark Lockett; St. Paul and the Broken Bones; Grammy-nominated singer/songwriter Andra Day; Rolling Stones pianist Chuck Leavell; and Stax Records legends Steve Cropper, Eddie Floyd, and William Bell. Grammy-nominated violinist Robert McDuffie also performed and received a RESPECT Award from the Foundation. Proceeds from the event benefited the Otis Redding Foundation and DREAM Academy–Georgia’s first authentic statewide arts-integrated public charter school.
Fred and Dinah Gretsch have been president and chief financial officer, respectively, of the Savannah-based Gretsch Company for more than 30 years. The husband-and-wife team represent the fourth generation of the Gretsch family, which has been manufacturing world-famous guitars and drums since 1883. Both are actively involved in not one, but two foundations they created: The Gretsch Foundation, the charitable arm of the Gretsch family, and Mrs. G’s Music Foundation, which Dinah established in 2010 to fund music teachers and in-school music education programs. Both foundations support the Gretsch family’s mission of enriching lives through participation in music.
Dinah and Fred Gretsch. Photo: Tracy Crum/Platinum AVP.
“It is really a great honor to win a RESPECT Award, especially from the Otis Redding family,” said Dinah Gretsch. “Karla and I have worked together for many years, and we’ve always focused on enlightening children’s lives and we both think music is very important. I believe music has the power to change children’s lives for the better. I find that music makes children happy; it gives them satisfaction, and they become better overall citizens. And anything we can do to give children these opportunities is something I want to do every day.”
The Gretsch Foundation, the charitable arm of the Gretsch family, has been involved in music education for many years by providing scholarships, instruments, and financial support to various colleges and universities. The Foundation also sponsors a long list of festivals, concerts, clinics, and workshops, including the Gretsch Institute, a music, art, and dance camp for elementary and middle school children. It has donated dozens of used Gretsch guitars through the unique GuitarArt program, where guitars are painted, decorated, and auctioned off for school fundraising efforts. The Foundation has also donated professional-level Gretsch guitars that have been signed by musicians from such bands as R.E.M., Widespread Panic, Sugarland, and The B-52’s, and auctioned off to raise money for music and arts education programs.
In 2010, Dinah established Mrs. G’s Music Foundation to fund music teachers and in-school music education programs, and provide opportunities for children to participate in music. In addition to donating instruments to schools, the Foundation sponsors a visiting artist program that brings top professional musicians like drummers Mark Schulman and Steve Ferrone, and Australian guitarist Joe Robinson into schools for seminars, workshops, and concerts. Dinah’s Foundation also sponsors professional musicians to perform and conduct clinics at Little Kids Rock and School of Rock camps, and gives scholarships to children to attend guitar and drum camps across the United States.
Fred and Dinah Gretsch visiting the Otis Redding Memorial Marker in Gray, GA.
In addition, the Gretsch Company supports several music education initiatives including the “Georgia On My Mind” Benefit Concert; the annual fundraiser for the Georgia Music Foundation where Dinah currently serves as a board member. In 2015, the Company provided funding for the Dinah and Fred Gretsch Family Gallery at the Country Music Hall of Fame® and Museum in Nashville. This state-of-the-art interactive exhibit helps children learn how to write and record songs, mix a band, and more.
“Over 40% of people playing music today got started in school. That’s why music education in school is so important,” shared Fred Gretsch. “My father, Bill, was a strong believer in the value of music education and personally established a scholarship for a talented clarinet player at the University of Michigan in 1946. It was a large part of my father’s business philosophy, and a tradition that Dinah and I are proud to continue for the Gretsch family.”
Matty Amendola is one of the newest and youngest members on the roster of Gretsch drum artists. But though he’s only in his mid-20s, he comes to that roster as a veteran who’s been playing behind a kit almost since before he could walk. (Matty is the son of Billy Amendola, who drummed for the 1970’s pop/disco band Mantus, and whose studio playing on then teen-sensation Debbie Gibson’s hits “Only In My Dreams” and “Shake Your Love” earned him a triple-platinum record award.)
Today, Matty is a multi-threat artist. In addition to his drumming skills, he’s a talented guitarist and bass player, a record producer, and a skilled audio engineer. And you can add to that list the role of highly motivational educator, eager to share his knowledge and experience.
Considering that Matty is a cutting-edge artist, it’s not surprising that he’s been using cutting-edge media as his educational platform. Most recently he’s done a series of video tutorials for the audio engineering web site Sonicscoop. In that five-part series—titled “Making The Mix”—Matty details exactly how he produced and mixed the latest single (titled “Blah Blah Blah”) by 13-year-old pop phenom Juliana Wilson. (Check out Matty’s videos at Sonicscoop.com.)
The Sonicscoop video tutorials were recorded at Matty’s own 825 Records facility. Founded in 2008, it houses the 825 Records studio, a video suite, and an apartment for out-of-town artists. “It’s a company that’s based on artist development,” he says, “but the studio is an integral part of that.”
When asked what his tutorials can offer to drummers who aren’t audio engineers or producers like him, Matty replies, “There are parts of my mix series where I describe the why of certain things. Something that has always steered me away from taking formal lessons is that they often teach people how to do things, before they teach why you should do them. So I spoke a lot about why some of the drum parts were being chosen before I explained how I did them.
“For instance, when I was compiling the electronic drums, I knew that there were also going to be live drums on the track. I tried to explain how this electronic kick might seem a little weird here, and that snare drum might seem a little sporadic there, but I knew in the back of my mind that there was going to be a live groove there. Those parts have to be complementary; they can’t be fighting each other.
“One particular thing that I thought drummers were really going to dig—and they did—was that there are a lot of parts in the song where I put the drums in reverse. That’s a huge trick that I use on pop records. As a drummer myself, I’m naturally into putting live drums on as many records as I can. But that’s not really all “in style” these days. So what I do is subliminally let someone’s ear get accustomed to the sound of live drums before they kick in. I explain in the video that you can’t get behind the kit and start smashing away if you’re going to put things in reverse. You really have to start thinking, ‘Okay, did I hit this accent before? Was there a sixteenth note here?’ And then go against that, knowing that when you put it in reverse the parts are going to work together.”
That’s assuming, though, that the drummer is also going to be the audio engineer/producer. Matty usually is…but what about drummers who aren’t?
“Well,” he replies, “I actually brought up in the video that drummers shouldn’t be afraid to contribute ideas. If you’re in the studio and you think you can hit this trick, ask the producer to give you a pass—when you’re done doing what they ask you to do—and say, ‘Hey, do you mind throwing that in reverse real quick?’ Drummers shouldn’t be afraid to go for things like that. Now, obviously you have to know your place on a session. Sometimes the producer doesn’t want any creative input from the musicians. But nine times out of ten they’re hiring you because they do want a little bit of that.”
Speaking not only as an audio engineer and producer, but also as a skilled live and studio musician, Matty reflects on how things have changed in recording world since the heyday of the great studio players.
“Actually,” he begins, “it’s changed dramatically just since I started doing it. Let me back up a bit and say that I learned myself by watching, and by being lucky enough to be exposed to things at an early age—and then eventually to actually get involved in those things. With drums, it was my dad putting me in a high chair to watch him, and then behind drums to play them. In the studio it was [New York studio legend] Butch Jones bringing me into multi-million-dollar studios on sessions where I just sat back and kept my mouth shut and absorbed as much as I could.
“Unfortunately, the community thing that I benefited from isn’t as strong as it used to be. Back in the day you were able to just walk in, watch one of your favorite drummers playing on a track for two minutes, and pick up invaluable information. That can’t be done anymore.
“That’s one of the reasons I love doing these tutorial videos,” Matty continues. “Video clips can give people a glimpse into what they no longer can see on their own.
Which begs the question: Will Matty be doing more video tutorials? To which he replies, “Well, instead of doing these giant tutorial projects, I’ve recently been trying to steer people towards my Instagram page [@mattyamendola]. I’m in the studio six days a week, working with different people. This always generates really cool little nuggets of information about things we’re doing—like miking an amplifier with a telephone. As another example, a company called Big Fat Snare Drum has been making all these new audio accessories, like tambourines and stuff. I’ve been putting them all over the drums in places you wouldn’t expect. I’m happy to go on Instagram and tell people about these things, just saying ‘Check this out,’ or ‘Try it this way instead of that way.’”
Matty concludes with what he calls a “fun fact,” saying, “My first job ever was teaching drummers. It was at Street Sounds [music store] in Brooklyn, where the annual Gretsch Day has been held for the past several years. Sharing information with other drummers has always been a thing I really enjoy doing. What form that will take in the future, and via what outlet, is yet to be determined. But my educational efforts will definitely continue.”
In this video, Matty focuses on live drums and getting a huge drum sound. You’ll hear his Gretsch Brooklyn kit in action!
A record-breaking event of historic magnitude deserves nothing less than a “one night only” film screening at thousands of cinemas around the world. The film Havana Moon was shot during The Rolling Stones’ March 25, 2016 concert in Cuba—which was attended by an astonishing 1.2 million adoring fans. The highly-anticipated September 23 screening will not only allow audiences to enjoy the epic concert but will also include exclusive content only to be seen in the theatre. With this upcoming screening, we reflect on a special connection Gretsch had with the historic journey—and has with the equally historic band. (Gretsch has enjoyed a long association with legendary Stones drummer Charlie Watts.)
In early March we were contacted by a member of The Stones’ staff asking if we “would be interested in helping The Rolling Stones provide products to Cuban musicians.” He went on to say that “These incredible musicians have not had the luxury of decent gear for many years and we would love to change that with your help.” We jumped at the chance to help.
We carefully looked through our personal family drum collection for just the right instruments to donate for this great cause. We selected a Gretsch USA Custom 16″ x 18″ Satin Maple bass drum and 5″ x 14″ snare (seen in the front of the photo below, which was taken in the Gretsch studio in Pooler, Georgia shortly before shipping). We knew that these special pieces were perfect for this very special musicians-helping-musicians initiative. We got the drums packed and quickly sent down to Florida to make their own historic journey to Cuba. Along with other donations that The Stones organization had received, it was reported to be the first time a shipment of instruments of that size was being sent into Cuba since the blockade.
Fred and I are very passionate when it comes to the mission of the Gretsch family: enriching lives through participation in music. Although we focus a lot of our efforts on young musicians—from providing scholarships, donating instruments, and establishing music education programs for disadvantaged children, to sponsoring a long list of musical and educational events—we also recognize other initiatives such as this one undertaken by The Rolling Stones, where we can help to enrich the lives of others.
We hope these special, hand-picked drums are now helping to keep a uniquely Cuban beat on the stages in clubs and halls in Cuba, and that they will continue to do so for many years to come.
Enjoy The Rolling Stones – Havana Moon Cinema Trailer:
As the world focuses on the 2016 Summer Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, I’d like to share a story that took place the last time that the Summer Olympics were located in the Americas. North America, in fact, exactly twenty years ago.
It was 1996, and the games were being held in Atlanta, Georgia. As always, the athletes of the world had assembled to compete in dozens of events. Also as always, thousands of people had come to view those competitions. And in the evenings, after the competitions had concluded, those thousands of people were enjoying concerts in Centennial Olympic Park, which served as the “town square” for the Olympics.
On the evening of July 27 there was a midnight concert scheduled, featuring Jack Mack & The Heart Attack. This high-energy R&B band was anchored by long-time Gretsch drummer Alvino Bennett. Prior to coming down to Atlanta for the show, Alvino called the Gretsch office to say that the band wasn’t carrying a drumkit for their tour, and to ask if Gretsch might be able to loan him one for the Atlanta show. My wife Dinah and I had a great relationship with Alvino, and as it happened it was Dinah that he spoke with when he called.
Dinah was eager to help Alvino, and she also realized that having a Gretsch kit seen and heard at the Olympics would be a pretty historic situation. So she decided to loan Alvino an already historic set of drums: the iconic yellow kit played by drumming legend Tony Williams during the latter part of his career. When Alvino called, that kit was proudly on display in the Gretsch museum at the company’s headquarters in Pooler, Georgia.
Tony Williams' iconic yellow Gretsch drums are on display at Gretsch Company headquarters in Pooler, Georgia.
As most drummers know, Tony Williams was arguably the single most influential drummer of the 20th century. Initially identified as a “jazz” drummer—mainly because he arrived on the scene as a member of Miles Davis’s legendary 1960s quintet—Tony quickly demonstrated that he was not to be pigeonholed within any style. His playing encompassed elements of jazz, rock, R&B, and Latin music. He combined these with formidable technique and unbridled passion to create dynamic performances that electrified audiences around the world—and sent millions of drummers racing to their practice rooms. Many of today’s greatest drum figures cite Tony Williams as their most important influence.
Fred Gretsch and Alvino Bennett in 2012.
“I was so honored,” says Alvino today. “The Gretsches didn’t have to loan me that particular kit; they could have given me any drumkit. But they gave me Tony Williams’ drums—that yellow drumkit that was so identified with Tony himself.”
So there was Alvino Bennett, playing with Jack Mack & The Heart Attack at the 1996 Summer Olympics, sitting behind a historic drumkit that had been previously owned and used by an even more historic drummer. But the history doesn’t stop there.
Many people might remember the significance of the date—July 27, 1996—but for those who don’t, Alvino picks up the story, saying: “We were on stage, and I was playing Tony’s drumkit, which was a big thrill for me. We’d only played two or three songs when we realized that something had happened out in the park. I was sitting directly under the Jumbotron that showed everything that was going on. It was moving. We saw the audience running in all directions. We thought one of the big power amplifiers for the sound system had gone out. We were sitting there wondering what was happening when all these authorities came up to us yelling, ‘Get off the stage. A bomb has gone off!’”
Hearing those terrible words would likely send anyone running to seek safety. But Alvino Bennett isn’t just anyone. He’s a drummer. He continues the story, saying, “There I was, thinking, ‘This is the kit that Tony Williams played; they’re his drums. And I’m responsible for them.’ So I started trying to take the drums down and get them someplace safe. Then a security person walked up and said, ‘Get your ass off stage.’ I told him, ‘I’ve gotta get my drums off first. These are really historic drums.’ I was trying to explain the situation to him. And finally he said, ‘Listen partner . . . These drums, or your life? You think about it for a few seconds.’”
Alvino laughs, and then says, “I actually did think about it. I thought, ‘If anything happens to these drums I’m going to feel really bad. All of us in the musical world love Tony Williams, and I’ve got his drums!’ But the security guy insisted, so I had to go. In fact, we had to leave everything on stage, because the investigators had to do their sweep of the whole Centennial Park area. We went back to the hotel, and it was surrounded by TV trucks, as well as ATF, FBI, and other agencies. We gave interviews that were broadcast from the Atlanta stations all over the country. And all the time I was still thinking, ‘God I hope those drums are gonna be okay.’”
Fortunately the drums were okay, and after all the investigations were concluded they were returned to Gretsch headquarters. They’re still displayed there today, representing a combination of musical, sports, and political history unrivaled by any other drumkit ever made.
There was a noticeable and refreshing youth movement at this year’s 32nd annual CAAS (Chet Atkins Appreciation Society) Convention held July 13-16 in Nashville. According to John Knowles CGP, there was one young performer at last year’s event, but this year’s lineup expanded to more than eight young performers on stage – some not even old enough to drive.
Many of these young men and women, who came from all over the U.S. – as well as Denmark, New Zealand, and Japan – visited the Gretsch Room to plug in and play a Gretsch Chet Atkins model guitar. Not only was I impressed with their mastery of Chet’s fingerstyle playing technique, I was also impressed by their deep knowledge of Chet Atkins’ music and legacy. Many of them even include Chet quotes on their business cards and websites.
One Young Thumb who caught my eye and ear was Parker Hastings from Richmond, Kentucky. Parker, who turned 16 during the CAAS event, has won not one, but two Gretsch guitars through the International Home of the Legends Thumbpicking Competition, which is held each year in Powderly, Kentucky. In 2014, he was the youngest person to be crowned Grand Champion, winning both traditional and contemporary categories, and won a Chet Atkins 6120 electric guitar. Parker was also inducted into the National Thumbpickers Hall of Fame in 2014 by winning their “Horizon Award” and recently received their “Thumbpicker of the Year” Award in 2015. He has played at numerous Chet Atkins Tributes and recently performed a fingerstyle guitar demonstration with John Knowles at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum that explored the acoustic and electric guitar styles of Chet Atkins. (Read a special Gretsch interview conducted with Parker during the CAAS event. I know you’ll be impressed with this rising young guitar star.)
Another Young Thumb, 19-year-old Katelyn Prieboy, performed for the first time at CAAS and delivered an impressive “Chet Set” on her Gretsch 6120. The Belmont University student was inspired to play the guitar by Taylor Swift and Brad Paisley. Paisley led her to discover Garth Brooks, whose duets with Steve Wariner opened her eyes to Steve’s music and, according to Katelyn, used Google and YouTube to discover this guy named Chet that Steve Wariner was always talking about. Once Katelyn found her way to Chet Atkins, she was hooked. She got her first thumbpick and a Gretsch guitar, because she says that’s the way to get Chet’s tone, and has been working the past four to five years to learn Chet’s technique and style.
So, why the increase of young guitar players performing at CAAS this year? You can start with two of Chet’s CGP award recipients: John Knowles and Tommy Emmanuel. In an effort to fill the CAAS pipeline with young, teenage pickers and introduce them to the music of Chet Atkins, they formed the Young Thumbs group. Through a dedicated Facebook page, social media, and events like CAAS, these young musicians can meet and connect with other young guitarists. It was cool seeing these Young Thumbs socializing, jamming, and exchanging guitar licks and tips in the hotel lobby over the four-day event. Chet would’ve loved seeing that.
In addition to talented teenagers, there were plenty of young “twenty-something” performers that impressed me as well, including Kirby Easler, Brooks Robertson, Dan Bankhurst, and my and Dinah’s friend, Joe Robinson, who showed up with his Gretsch Country Gentleman and wowed the audience with a terrific 45-minute set. While in Nashville, Joe also participated in the Gretsch Sounds/Guitar Pull performance at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. Joe was onstage with Tommy Emmanuel (playing Chet’s famous “Dark Eyes” prototype Gretsch guitar), fingerstyle legend Eddie Pennington, and Striking Matches, the impressive guitar duo of Justin Davis and Sarah Zimmerman. The artists performed a superb mix of Chet songs, thumbpicking classics, and fresh, original songs. It was a classy way to bring the “American Sound and Beauty: Guitars from the Bachman-Gretsch Collection” exhibit to a close.
All told, it was a great week in Nashville for fans of Chet Atkins and Gretsch guitars. I believe Chet would be pleased that his music and fingerpicking style of guitar is being passed down to so many young, talented players today. He would also be happy that many of his friends – especially John Knowles and Tommy Emmanuel – are investing so much of their time to mentor, guide, and help these young artists succeed. After all, Chet did the same for John and Tommy years ago. They obviously learned from the best and are now “paying it forward” to the next generation of guitar players. That’s how Chet would want it.
Question:What does a nearly century-old guitar have to do with a college in the Chicago area, a country music artist from New York, and a classic building in Williamsburg?
Answer: More than you might think.
In a classic example of “six degrees of separation,” a Rex brand “parlour guitar” made in the early 1900s was recently purchased at an estate sale. Parlour guitars” were affordable models designed for personal use in the days when families played music at home for recreational purposes.
Rex Parlour Guitar
Rex Guitar Headstock
Rex guitars were originally made in the Gretsch Musical Instruments factory at 60 Broadway, in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, and distributed by the Gretsch Company from the early 1900s through the late 1930s. The Gretsch Company was a fixture in Brooklyn from 1883 until it was sold in 1967. Though the factory is no longer there, the Gretsch building still is. Currently housing some pretty upscale condos, the building is celebrating its centennial this year.
Gretsch Catalog Page From Early 1900s Catalog
Gretsch Factory Building at 60 Broadway in Brooklyn
The buyer of this Rex parlour guitar was Mark Vincent Sica, who is the lead vocalist and rhythm guitarist in the New York City-based country music band Nashville Attitude. In 2015 Nashville Attitude performed at the Street Sounds guitar store in Brooklyn, at the store’s annual Gretsch Day event. (Street Sounds, owned by Rocky Schiano, is America’s largest retailer of Gretsch guitars, and Mark Vincent Sica is a Gretsch guitar artist.) That particular year’s Gretsch Day had a special theme: celebrating Fred Gretsch’s 50th year in the musical instrument business. Fred is the fourth-generation president of the Gretsch Company, which was founded in Brooklyn in 1883.
Nashville Attitude's Mark Vincent Sica
Fred Gretsch & Rocky Schiano in 2015
Fred Gretsch is a 1971 graduate of Elmhurst College, which is located in the suburbs of Chicago. This past May he was presented with an honorary Doctor of Music degree from the college in recognition of his and his family’s long-time generous support of Elmhurst’s music and music business programs, as well as the annual high-school band competition portion of the Elmhurst Jazz Festival.
Fred Gretsch Elmhurst Commencement 2016
But Fred Gretsch isn’t the only Elmhurst alum to feature in this little story. A gentleman by the name of Edward Paetzold graduated from the college in 1918, some ninety-eight years ago. (Possibly around the same time that Mark Vincent Sica’s guitar was made in the Gretsch factory in Brooklyn.)
Edward Paetzold 1918
Elmhurst Commencement 1918
Edward Paetzold is the grandfather of a lovely lady named Lynne Riordan—who happens to be married to a New York-based vocalist and guitarist by the name of…wait for it…Mark Vincent Sica.
And this entire story came to light this past June 4, when Mark and Lynne attended the 2016 Gretsch Day at Street Sounds in Brooklyn, and related the tale to Fred Gretsch himself.
From the outside, it looks like an everyday, ordinary pocket-sized memo book. The kind you can still buy at any office supply store. Its black leather cover is worn around the edges and it’s scuffed from years of being put in coat pockets, briefcases, suitcases – and even guitar cases. Just like the man who bought it, the book’s cover is understated and unassuming. But once opened, you’re given a fascinating glimpse into the musical journey of the book’s original owner: Chet Atkins.
Chet bought this memo book in 1950 when he played with Mother Maybelle and the Carter Sisters act on KWTO, a radio station in Springfield, Missouri. You see “Chester A. Atkins, Feb. 12, 1950, Springfield” written in pencil on the first page. Chet started out using this book to select songs for the daily morning radio show, and the many public appearances Chet and the Carter family made across Missouri, Arkansas, Kansas, and Oklahoma.
When Chet first created his list, the songs were typed on loose-leaf paper and organized in alphabetical order. Many included the songwriter and if it was licensed through BMI or ASCAP. As new songs were added, Chet wrote them down by hand with whatever ink pen or pencil he had on him at the time. Some of the songs were written neatly, others hurriedly, and some included the key they were played in. It’s also heartwarming to see several scribbled pencil drawings throughout the book made by Chet’s young daughter, Merle.
“Caravan” and “Country Gentleman” were two popular songs Chet added; young daughter, Merle, made the pencil drawing. Photo by Ron Denny.
In addition to being a master guitarist, Chet was famous for the vast number of songs and song styles he could play. There are 475 songs listed in this book alone. 475! And they include a wide range of genres: classical, blues, country, ragtime, bluegrass, pop, and even Spanish-influenced. It’s mind blowing.
It’s also a treat seeing songs listed that played a part in launching the successful Gretsch – Chet Atkins guitar endorsement in the mid-1950s. “Mr. Sandman” and “Silver Bell,” two instrumental hit singles from 1955, were hand-written in the book along with “Country Gentleman,” a signature song that became both Chet’s nickname and the name of his top-of-the-line Gretsch guitar model introduced in 1958.
You also recognize dozens of songs in the book that made their way onto Chet’s RCA Victor albums of the 1950s and early 1960s. These songs would have been recorded on a variety of Gretsch Chet Atkins Model guitars built at our Brooklyn factory: 6120s, prototype 6120s custom-built for Chet, and, of course, his iconic 1959 Country Gentleman, considered the most recorded guitar in music history.
Chet liked surprising his friends with little gifts and tokens of appreciation, and no one was more surprised than his longtime bandleader and confidant, Paul Yandell, at the 1996 Chet Atkins Appreciation Society Convention. After awarding John Knowles with a CGP (Certified Guitar Player) Award, Chet pulled the black book out of a hat, which had been placed on a stool onstage, and presented it to an unsuspecting Paul.
Paul’s wife, Marie, and son, Micah, have been friends of mine for years, and shared that Paul had no knowledge of the song book until Chet gave it to him and told him the story behind it. When Paul got home that night, he sat down and looked through the book page-by-page, astonished at all the songs Chet had played through the years.
Marie also shared that the book was a sentimental treasure to Paul, and felt Chet gave it to her husband in appreciation of the deep friendship the two guitarists had formed from playing together for more than 20 years. Micah added that it represented the bond, respect, and love his father and Chet had for each other. They were as close as two brothers, and his father always looked up to Chet and considered him a father figure.
Chet Atkins and Paul Yandell performing together in 1979.
The book is an interesting diary of the most important decade in Chet Atkins’ musical career. In the summer of 1950, just a few months after creating his song book, Chet was lured to Nashville and never looked back. In the 10 years that followed, Chet established himself as a successful recording artist, producer, and record executive; created the sophisticated “Nashville Sound;” and had his name on a popular line of Gretsch guitars. He also earned the nickname of “Mr. Guitar.”
Chet influenced and inspired thousands of young guitarists. In fact one of the songs Chet typed in the book, “I’ve Been Workin’ On The Guitar,” was heard on the radio one night by a young guitarist in Kentucky. Chet’s song changed the teenager’s life, and he became obsessed with Chet’s trademark fingerpicking style and bought as many Chet Atkins records as he could afford. The name of that Kentucky teenager was Paul Yandell.
How fitting that 40 years later, Chet would entrust Paul with his old song book which included not only “I’ve Been Workin’ On The Guitar,” but dozens of other songs Chet and Paul had performed together for decades. What a gesture of friendship and love to the man Chet described as not only a great guitar player, but also someone who knew everything Chet had done and could do it better. Classic Chet.