GUITARISTS WHO BECOME SUCCESSFUL IN
country music often do so because they write
great songs or can sing, or both. Either way,
playing guitar often becomes secondary to their
careers—at least in the eyes of their record
company. Even a mega artist such as Steve
Wariner, who has scores of number-one singles,
tells of being flatly turned down by MCA when
he wanted to make a purely guitar album.
“They said I could put one instrumental
song on an album,” says Wariner. “I finally got
Arista to let me make my first instrumental
album, No More Mr. Nice Guy, but I had to beg
and plead with them to let me do it. It’s important
for me to be able to do instrumental music,
though, because I look at myself as a guitarist
first. I was a player before I was anything.”
Wariner eventually cut his ties with the big
record companies and started his own Selec-
Tone label. Now, Wariner was free to make the
instrumental album he’d always wanted—a tour
de force tribute to the man he calls his boss,
producer, musical mentor, and friend—Steve
Wariner C.G.P: My Tribute to Chet Atkins. This fabulous
collection of mostly original songs spotlights
the amazing fingerstyle talent that Wariner possesses,
as well as his deep knowledge of Atkins’
signature guitar style. On this latter point it’s
worth noting that of the other guitarists to which
Atkins bestowed his “Certified Guitar Player”
award (the list also includes Tommy Emmanuel,
John Knowles, and Jerry Reed), Wariner is
the only one to have been an official member
of Atkins road band—a job he would keep
until Atkins “fired” him after Wariner scored
his first Top 10 hit.
How did you fall in with Chet Atkins?
I was working with Bob Luman, who had
been a huge rockabilly star. We were in the
studio doing on a comeback album for Bob,
which his neighbor Johnny Cash was producing.
I was playing bass then, and the
guitarist on the session was Paul Yandell,
who had been Chet’s right-hand guy for
many years. He heard some of my songs, and
he also heard me playing guitar, so he told
me he wanted to take a tape of my songs to
Chet. That’s how it started.
What happened after Atkins signed you to
We cut a few things together, but I wasn’t
making any money. I was struggling pretty
hard when Paul Yandell called me one day,
and said, “Chet wants you to come on the
road with us and play bass.” I think Chet
knew it was hard times for me, and he needed
a bass player. But it was wonderful, because
in the middle of his show, Chet would take
his Gretsch off and go, “Here Steve, come on
over here and do a few songs for everybody.”
Then, Chet would sit on a stool beside me
with his hands folded watching me play.
Were you already pretty well schooled in his
I’d learned a lot of thumb style through
my father. He still plays, and he’s 81 now.
He had all of Chet’s albums. As a little kid
I learned “Cannonball Rag,” and I started
doing those finger rolls and open-string
things. I was also watching James Burton
with Ricky Nelson on the Ozzie and Harriet
Show, and I wanted to do some string bending.
I loved the thumb style, but I also liked
rock and roll. I was kind of in the middle of
both worlds, but when Jerry Reed came
along, that was it for me.
How did Jerry Reed fit into the picture for you
at that time?
I was trying to talk Chet into signing me,
and he asked me to come down to RCA’s Studio
B. When I got there, Jerry Reed was out
in the studio. So Chet introduced me to Jerry,
and then he asked me to play a song I’d written
called “I’m Already Taken.” So I picked
up Jerry’s gut-string Baldwin and played it
for him. Man, I was a nervous wreck! I think
Jerry must have known I was trying to get
Chet to sign me, though, because when I finished
he goes, “Damn, Chester, sign this boy.
What do you want, blood?”
What were some of the signature elements of
Atkins’ style that you wanted to incorporate into
the songs you wrote for this album?
Chet had a way of structuring songs
where he would start out playing straight
thumb style, just doing the melody and playing
the bass along with it. And he wouldn’t
stray too far from the melody. Then, on the
second or third go-around, he would start
playing little chords underneath the
melody—which I’ve always thought was kind
of an Appalachian thing. So that’s the structure
I used, for example, on “Leaving
Luttrel.” At some point, Chet would put the
pedal down, and play those fast arpeggios
and stuff, and when your jaw had sufficiently
dropped, he would go back to playing the
thumb style again. Chet could play like he
was getting paid by the note, but he had the
restraint to not play real flashy just because
he could. Another Chet-ism are the little
harmonic things in “Leaving Luttrell.” Chet
would play a real note, and then he would
play a harmonic accompaniment with his
pinky I think Chet liked that I had picked up
on some of the signature licks—such as the
backwards arpeggios and descending pulloffs
he did back in his Galloping Guitar days.
How did you choose the musicians to record
Everyone had to have either produced
Chet, or played on a bunch of his records.
Did you record in a similar way to how Atkins
worked in the studio?
Chet liked getting players in there and
just letting them play, so we tried to cut
things right on the fly. A whole lot of this
album was recorded just as it went down.
There are a few things that could have been
fixed, but I didn’t want to stir the batter so
much that the biscuits didn’t rise.
Did you use vintage recording gear for the
We recorded digitally, but we used vintage
mics—I’ve got a beautiful old RCA 77
ribbon mic that I used a lot—and preamps
and mixed to 1/2" analog tape. I tried to be
true to how Chet would have recorded.
What guitars did you use?
On the first part of the record, I wanted
to capture Chet’s early days—like his D’Angelico
era when he recorded in Chicago, and
his early days in Nashville in the ’50s. I
didn’t have the luxury of using his guitar,
but Paul Yandell let me borrow an Epiphone
archtop that was tweaked and modified to
be like a D’Angelico. One of the pickups on
it was actually Chet’s. He had traded it to
Paul many years ago, because his liked the
pickup on Paul’s guitar better. So this guitar
was tailor made for that era of Chet’s
playing. I also used a Gibson Country Gentleman
that Chet gave me—right from when
he left Gretsch and went to Gibson. I used
a Del Vecchio on “Silent Strings,” which is
a Brazilian-made resonator guitar that’s synonymous
with Chet’s sound. I originally cut
“Blue Angel” with a Hascal Haile guitar that
this old furniture maker in Kentucky made
for me. But I did the song again on a
Takamine classical guitar. My amp was a ’65
Fender Princeton that I’ve had for 30 years.
Since Atkins had owned your Country Gentleman,
was there anything about its hardware or
setup that was different than what you’re used to?
The Bigsby arm is locked so that you can’t
swing it out of the way, because Chet liked
to have the arm positioned so that his pinky
lay right over the top of it. Chet’s hands were
really large, so it’s not as easy for me to use
the vibrato on the Country Gentleman. Still,
that’s the guitar I played for the Brad Paisley
project that we just won a Grammy on.
What’s the most unexpected thing you encountered
when working with Chet Atkins?
Chet played on two songs on my first
instrumental album, No More Mr. Nice Guy,
and when we cut his tracks, he came out
carrying a Stratocaster. I’m kind of faking a
smile, thinking, “If I’m going to get Chet to
play on my record, I want him play one of
his guitars.” So I’m wondering how in the
heck I’m going to tell Chet Atkins to put that
Strat down and use his Gretsch or something.
I didn’t have the nerve, but after he
put down a couple of passes with the Strat,
I finally asked him if he could try it on a different
guitar—just for contrast. And he said,
“Well, how about this Del Vecchio?” So it
turned out fine, but I was getting schooled
on producing that day.