By Chris Gill
Although the electric guitar has existed in various forms since the Thirties, it didn’t become a truly popular, successful instrument until the mid Fifties, nearly two decades after its introduction. Leo Fender’s mass-produced, affordable solidbody electrics played an important role in this development, but the contributions of guitarists like Les Paul and Chet Atkins, who showcased the electric guitar’s creative potential in their recordings and provided manufacturers with valuable, practical feedback about instrument design from a player’s perspective, also helped the electric guitar gain momentum and acceptance.
When Chet Atkins started endorsing Gretsch guitars in 1954, he significantly boosted the company’s reputation and guitar sales. However, the first Gretsch models bearing his name—the 6120 Chet Atkins hollowbody and the 6121 Chet Atkins solidbody, which Gretsch started shipping in 1955—were designed with only minimal input from him.
“I suggested the metal nut and metal bridge because I wanted more sustain,” Atkins recalled in his book Chet Atkins—Me and My Guitars. “Jimmie Webster came up with the bright orange color. The big ‘G’ brand on the upper bout, the steer horns on the headstock, the Western-style engravings in the pearl inlays—none of that was my idea. I didn’t like it, but I was too flattered and happy about the endorsement deal to say anything negative at that point.”
Of the seven models Gretsch made bearing his name, Atkins says he was involved in the design of only the 6120, the Country Gentleman, the Super Chet, and the Super Axe. The earliest examples of Gretsch guitars featuring extensive design input from Atkins were a pair of unique 6120 guitars that differed from the production version of the 6120 in several significant ways. The first was a hollowbody with dimensions and appointments similar to a 1955 6120, including the G brand, orange finish, and cowboy decorations that Atkins loathed. It differed from the production model with its unusually thick (about half an inch) top, which had painted outlines of f-holes instead of actual sound holes and was entirely sealed to prevent feedback and enhance sustain.
While Atkins liked this guitar very much (he reportedly used it during the entire October 22, 1956, sessions for his Finger-Style Guitar album), the top made it somewhat heavy and uncomfortable to play. Atkins asked Gretsch to build him a second version, and the resulting instrument was much more consistent with his general desires and vision. Gretsch used a thinner, lighter piece of maple for the top and painted it with a much more subtle black finish. Most of the cowboy filigrees were now gone, with the exception of a simple horseshoe headstock inlay with engraved “nail holes” (typical of only the earliest 1956 6120 guitars with horseshoe inlays), and the fingerboard inlays were plain, solid blocks.
A photo taken backstage at the Grand Ole Opry shows what could be the earliest incarnation of this particular guitar. The f-holes appear to be glued-on paper templates, featuring a slimmed-down design that Atkins traced from his D’Angelico, and the back and sides are either unfinished or painted white. The guitar also has a thin, cylindrical “bent-wire” Bigsby vibrato arm of Atkins’ own design and very early prototypes of Ray Butts’ humbucking Filter’Tron pickups with white faceplates. The photo is dated September 1956, but this is likely an error, as a photo dated August 18, 1956, shows the Louvin Brothers posing with Atkins, who is holding what appears to be the same guitar but with several modifications that were performed later on the guitar, most notably its entirely black finish.
Atkins bonded immediately with the black guitar and played it in numerous television appearances from 1956 through 1957 (notably the “Alabama Jubilee” and “Dark Eyes” videos available on YouTube). He also was photographed performing with the guitar at the Grand Ole Opry on various occasions as well as during the July 1957 recording sessions for the Mr. Atkins If You Please EP and several other releases.
“It appears to be one of Chet’s favorite guitars for experimentation,” says Tom Doyle, who currently owns the guitar. “He still had it in the early Sixties. You can see it in the photo on the cover of his 1960 Chet Atkins’ Workshop album. Although only the back of the guitar is visible, you can clearly see holes drilled in the headstock that match holes that are still there.”
Along with the orange sealed-top 6120, the black 6120 is the one of the first guitars with humbucking pickups to appear before the public eye. Ray Butts and Seth Lover both developed humbucking pickup designs in 1955, but because Lover filed for a patent earlier, it is generally assumed that the Gibson humbucker came first. However, Atkins’ performances with his early white-cover Filter’Tron prototypes on his sealed-top guitars predate the first appearance of humbuckers on a Gibson production guitar by at least a year.
In Me and My Guitars, Atkins lamented how the single-coil DeArmond pickups on his Gretsch guitars were very susceptible to noise interference. “I think Ray had used an unshielded transformer in the EchoSonic,” he wrote, referring to an amp he was using at the time. “I was always complaining about that. [Ray] showed up at my house one day and announced that he had made a pickup that cancelled out 60-cycle hum. He wired it up, plugged it in, held it right next to the amp, and it didn’t hum! Ray’s pickup had two coils instead of one, which were purposely connected out of phase. Basically, Ray Butts designed the first humbucking pickup.”
Numerous changes were made to the black guitar after it was photographed backstage at the Grand Ole Opry. Atkins’ slim f-hole graphics were replaced by standard large Gretsch-style simulated f-holes, which were inlaid into the top using gold sparkle Nitron material. Photos reveal that Atkins also swapped handles for the Bigsby vibrato several times, switching between the “bent-wire” arm and a flat, stainless-steel swing-away arm. At one point Atkins replaced the master tone knob with a toggle switch, perhaps for use with a special split Filter’Tron that Butts designed, which sent individual signals from the bottom three and upper three strings to separate outputs.
In 1959, Atkins and Butts experimented even further with the split-output concept by installing 13 pole pieces into the guitar’s fingerboard beneath the low E and A strings from between the 15th and 16th frets to above the 22nd fret. “I wanted to isolate the fifth and sixth string so we could run them through an octave divider and have the notes come out an octave lower,” Atkins recalled in a 1995 interview about the guitar.
“The fingerboard pole pieces go all the way down into the neck block,” Doyle says. “That allowed Ray to place small, wound coils around them. Chet wanted to trigger separate bass parts but still have the full sound of his guitar.”
Screw holes in the top just above the bridge pickup and a notch cut out of the pickguard suggest that Atkins may have installed some sort of experimental string mute on the guitar. Other unusual features include a very early example of a solid-bar bridge, which Gretsch later used to replace the compensated Bigsby-style aluminum bridge, in 1957. Atkins placed sandpaper on the underside of the wooden bridge base to prevent it from slipping while he played.
The black, sealed-top 6120 prototype guitar helped Atkins pave the path to his 6122 Chet Atkins Country Gentleman model, which Gretsch introduced in 1957. The Country Gentleman’s humbucking Filter’Tron pickups, solid-bar bridge, dark-brown mahogany finish, and solid, sealed top with small, painted-on f-holes were all features that Atkins requested or helped develop. While Atkins still used his earlier Gretsch guitars occasionally, when he got his Country Gentleman model in his hands it became his primary instrument until well into the late Sixties.
Sometime during the early Sixties, Atkins finally gave away the black 6120 prototype to his friend, recording engineer Bill Porter. Atkins replaced the white-cover Filter’Trons with a set DeArmond single-coil pickups, with the bridge pickup featuring scratched pole pieces. In an attempt to reduce the pickup’s magnetic pull, Atkins had shortened the pole pieces by clipping them with a pair of vise grips.
“I asked Chet what brand and model I should purchase, and he volunteered to assist me by donating this guitar,” Porter recalled in a 1995 interview. Porter kept the
guitar until the early Nineties, when he sold it to Guitar Emporium in Louisville, Kentucky. Collector Scott Chinery bought the guitar and made it a focal point of his impressive collection, displaying it along with several other historically important guitars at the Smithsonian Museum of American History in 1999. Tom Doyle, who worked closely with Les Paul for 45 years and restored and repaired guitars for Chinery, acquired the Gretsch only one week before Chinery passed away on October 24, 2000, at the age of 40.
“I always told Scott that I loved that Gretsch,” Doyle says. “It is a truly unique guitar that embodies Chet Atkins’ spirit of innovation and experimentation. I knew it was a historically important guitar from the moment I first saw it. You can see that Chet used this guitar as a springboard for many of his greatest ideas.”
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Photos 5-14 ©2013 Chris Gill