Gretsch Streamliner 6120 Prototype
A guitarist and product rep for Gretsch named Jimmie Webster sought out the fast-rising Chet Atkins in Nashville and began trying to talk him into accepting an endorsement deal. Chet wasn’t a big fan of Gretsch guitars, but over a series of conversations, Gretsch accommodated Chet’s ideas and delivered a guitar he couldn’t say no to. Chet was surprised by the over-the-top Western design touches, including cacti on the fretboard and cowboys on the tailpiece. But he was so dazzled to have an endorsement deal (like his hero Les Paul) that he kept those feelings to himself.

This prototype had a carved top and back, in the traditional style. Fred W. Gretsch, current president of the company and great grandson of its founder, says the model quickly took an interesting turn toward a more rigid top and back to offer a more stable mounting for the pickups. “Plywood tops and backs with electric guitars made a lot more sense,” Gretsch says. “And we were doing plywood drums and had been doing them since the late ’20s and we had done a lot of refinements in the early ’50s. So we tried out some plywood tops and backs with Chet and he dug the tone. So we migrated to plywood on this model.”

Introducing the model just as Chet first hit as a recording artist with “Mr. Sandman,” Gretsch couldn’t have timed it better. This guitar inaugurated a 25-year relationship between artist and company.

Gretsch 1959 Country Gentleman
All aesthetic extravagances on the 6120 were eliminated on the Country Gentleman, which came along in 1959. Chet’s personal edition is surely one of the most beautiful electric guitars ever built, even if the f-holes are decals. Fred Gretsch says the company made versions for Chet with an open body and a closed body, and he preferred the latter, continuing his longterm evolution to more solid, sealed-up instruments, as improving pickups made up for the loss of acoustic tone. Chet flooded this guitar with ideas: the much-improved Filter’Tron pickup designed by Ray Butts, the zero fret for improved intonation, and the straight bar bridge. Many feel that Chet’s solo recordings in the 1960s were the pinnacles of his artistry, and this is the guitar heard on most of those dazzling records.

Gibson Studio Classic
Chet played a classical guitar for the first time in the early 1950s, and he liked it. “It seemed a whole lot warmer and more expressive to me” than the steel-string electrics and acoustics, he wrote. In the ’60s, Chet began working nylon-stringed instruments into his recordings and shows, and he was delighted to discover they solved long-standing struggles with splitting, shredding fingernails.

In the ’70s, he would split his shows into an acoustic set and an electric set, and his historic, vibrant recordings with his good friend Jerry Reed were all played on classical-style guitars. He loved the feel, but not the loss of volume, and his efforts to solve that problem marked the end of his Gretsch years and ushered in an endorsement and working relationship with Gibson. The company developed the Chet Atkins CE (Classical Electric) in 1982 and followed with a steel-string version in 1987 that became a hit with rock ’n’ roll players looking for arena-sized sound from a classical-sounding instrument.

California luthier Kirk Sand approached Chet with further improvements in body chambers and pickup design. Chet connected him with Gibson and the result was perhaps the most elegant of the series, this Studio Classic, with a mahogany fleur-de-lis and vintage-style Gibson slotted peghead.

Chet Atkins: Certified Guitar Player is situated within the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum such that you see it before embarking on the century-plus journey through country music, from pre-electricity folk music to the modern era today. And then you’ll find that Chet’s story is emblematic of the larger story of country music. His life in music began in the hills without artifice or amplification. He found a large audience on the radio circuit and early television. He was out front on multitrack recording and progressive, hybridized country music. He helped make markets where there had been none for the music he loved. And then he became a true elder statesman, taking country to the Boston Pops on public TV and elsewhere.

If you love the guitar with even a fraction of the ardor Chet had for the instrument, this unprecedented collection will be as perfect a preface to country music’s larger narrative as you could ask. The exhibit runs until at least June 2012.