Dressing Up Melodies The Chet Atkins Way

After listening to the great Chet Atkins, it’s easy to feel frustrated and inspired at the same time. With a little patience and a lot of practice, however, we can all grab a piece of Atkins’ magic. One way is by looking at how he would treat melodies.

Atkins—and his disciple Jerry Reed—would frequently add descending bass lines to ascending melodies (or vice versa) in order to spice up simple scalar lines. The sound this creates is referred to as contrary motion. Let’s take a look at a few examples of this cool concept.

In Ex. 1, the C Dorian mode is given a IIm-V-I sound that works great over lots of tunes containing this progression. Use your pinky to begin at the 10th fret on the D string.

For Ex. 2, the directions of the melody and bass have been inverted from that of Ex. 1. The IIm-V-I progression and approach are very similar, but this time the stretches are wider, so be sure to keep your fretting-hand thumb in the middle of the neck.

The bluesy lick in Ex. 3 sounds right at home in any number of Atkins and Reed tunes. Play it at the beginning or end of a 12-bar blues progression and you’ll sound like a master. Beginning on the 9 of F#7, notice how much the bass line adds to an otherwise simple descending E blues line. The E7 pull-off lick gives it a final touch of Reed, recalling his great guitar instrumentals such as “Funky Junk.” Once again inspired by Reed, Ex. 4 uses an ascending E blues melody with a descending bass line. Try incorporating this lick at the end of a 12-bar blues as a turnaround back to the I chord, and swing the eighth-notes this time.

In addition to the use of contrary motion, Atkins would color his playing with harmonized lines in which the harmony notes were played slightly behind the melody, but no more than a fraction of a second. This gives the illusion of two guitarists playing together when done correctly. Take a look at Ex. 5. Grip your thumbpick like a flatpick (or brush the double-stops with your thumb) for the first six beats and finish off with your hand back in fingerstyle position. Aim for creating a sense of delay—a flam—between the harmony and melody with each double-stop. Notice the contrary motion in the final four beats.

As guitarists, it’s very common for us to put the melody in the top voice, but it doesn’t have to be that way. Placing the melody in the middle or lower voice of a triad is a hip alternative. For Ex. 6, delay the harmony as before, but really pay attention to the placement of the melody in the middle voice. It may be helpful to play the melody once by itself to get its sound in your ear before you practice adding in the harmony. When you’re ready, play the melody with your right hand index finger and follow it up with the bottom and upper voice harmony notes.

So next time you’re faced with the task of dressing up a melody, try incorporating a few of these ideas drawn from the genius of Mr. Chet Atkins. You can’t go wrong when you borrow from the best.