How did you begin investigating Chet’s work? Knowles: I remember getting that record Finger-Style Guitar. I picked out “The Glow Worm” because it was in the key of A and it didn’t have a lot of chords. For a long time I just played the bass part. Then I was like, “The melody is up here [high on the neck], but the chords are down here [toward the bottom]. So I started having to really extend my knowledge of the fingerboard. I knew what he was doing. But I just couldn’t locate everything. Eventually I got to where I could kind of find my way around and then I’d make up the rest, which I realize now is the way to do it. Emmanuel: I wasn’t aware that Chet was playing with a thumb pick. All I knew was that he was playing everything at once. Of course I didn’t know how he was doing that, because we had no TV—not that there were any programs. So I worked out how to go like that [plays the boom-chuck groove] with this [holds up a flat pick]. Then I worked out [picks melody with two fingers over the boom-chuck]. And I’d do [plays Elizabeth Cotten’s “Freight Train”] and so forth. That’s how I started playing fingerstyle. I had the idea and I was starting to work out tunes. But then in ’64 his album The Best of Chet Atkins came out, where he’s playing the green Gretsch on the cover. And there he was, with a thumb pick on! I had one of those moments… [slaps his palm against his forehead as Knowles and Wariner laugh]. It was like I opened the gate and the horse bolted in. I’d been tethered by this thing [holds up a flat pick]. So I got a thumb pick and I was off, I’m telling you! One characteristic of Chet’s technique is that he seemed to exert no effort at all, as if he were almost playing in his sleep. Emmanuel: Chet was smart because he was always looking for the best way to play something, the way that required the least amount of effort and moving around. And he always came up with it. If you look at some of his fingering, it’s like, “How the hell did he come up with that?” Wariner: He was searching. He looked all over the place until he found the easiest way. Emmanuel: If it wasn’t natural, he wouldn’t do it. If he saw someone play and the music wasn’t just flowing out of him, he knew that was someone who didn’t yet know what they were doing. The first I saw Chet on TV, my mother turned to me and said, “He doesn’t look like he’s doing very much.” [laughter] Wariner: And Roy Clark’s doing this [slides his left hand rapidly up and down an imaginary guitar neck]. [laughter] Emmanuel: Well, Roy Clark was an entertainer, too. Wariner: Exactly. John Knowles Knowles: I didn’t see Chet for a long time on TV or anything, so I was trying to learn to play that stuff until one day, when I was listening to the record, I thought, “Oh, no. I’m so not doing this right.” It just felt like alligator wrestling to me. It couldn’t be this hard for it to sound like that. So I started listening to the sounds he was making [while moving along the strings]. If he saw me play something and I was doing it the hard way, he’d say, “That’s too much work. Look at this.” And he’d show me a better fingering. Wariner: He said to me once, “Son, you’re killing yourself! You’re working yourself to death!” [laughter] Emmanuel: One thing I learned from Chet about playing melody was to play the harmony first. [He illustrates, with soft grace notes preceding each note of the melody.] If you go [plays the same harmonized melody straight, without grace notes], you’re now playing mariachi guitar. But if you play it like Chet, you sound like the Everly Brothers. Knowles: He did another one like that. He would play a three-note chord with the thumb, index, and middle on his right hand. But he’d play the index finger early so it was kind of like a singer with two harmony parts, one above and one below. Most people would play the thumb early. I’d worked out how to play “Send in the Clowns” like on the Judy Collins record Judith. I showed him and he said, “Well, that’s coming along. Do you know the words?” I said, “Not all of them.” And he said, “I didn’t think so.” That was his way of saying that the words are where the melody and the phrasing and the breathing come together. Wariner: He knew every lyric to every song! Knowles: He said, “You’ve got to remember: The audience knows the words. They’re singing along with you inside. If you do the words wrong, it throws them.” Wariner: John, I came into Chet’s office one day. The blue box [recorder] was sitting and he was like this [bent to one side, guitar in hand], making a tape for Garrison Keillor. He goes, “Garrison, Steve Wariner just walked in. Steve, grab that bass. Let’s play something for Garrison.” He named a song that I had no idea what it was. And when we got finished, he jumped my ass! He goes, “I can’t believe you screwed up that chorus!” I said, “Chet, I’m sorry I don’t know a song that was written in 1929!” He just thought that you should know every song that he knew. Knowles: That’s how he auditioned people. He just jumped in and said, “Come on, let’s go.” Wariner: The first thing I ever did with Chet was right before he signed me to a recording contract. He said, “I want to give you a reel-to-reel tape of some songs. Learn about three of them.” They were outtakes that he produced for Nat Stuckey and some other RCA artists. After I learned these songs, he brought me into Studio B. Looking back now, I realize that he was testing my voice on tape. So I sang these songs. Then he said, “Paul Yandell told me that you play guitar.” I said, “Yes, sir.” Then he said, “I hear you play a lot of my stuff. Play me one of my songs.” And I was like, oh, my God! I came here to be a singer. [laughter] To your point, John, that was my acid test. Knowles: I was recording some solo stuff in his basement. I went for the center fret and got the eighth one. I just stopped. He came back on the talkback and he was just laughing. I said, “What?” He said, “Somebody else’s mistakes are always funny.” There is one absent colleague in the CGP community—Jerry Reed.[laughter] Go To Page Three Click Link Below
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