by Lenny O'Reilly
In my opinion Chet Atkins was the best guitarist to ever pick up the instrument. There are hundreds of guitarists out there that certainly deserve to be on the list of all time greatest guitarists. Chet's career spanned more then five decades, over eighty albums, thirteen Grammys and other awards, and numerous collaborations. He was an executive at RCA records whose vision helped to shape what became known as "the Nashville sound". But his talent was not limited to country, country western, or western swing. He could play it all, flawlessly. Classical, jazz, rock,flamenco, reggae.
Chet was not a flashy performer with big stage productions, he just came out and did his thing. He developed his own style of three finger picking which has been often imitated. When he performed with others he did not hog the stage or steal the limelight. He didn't do a lot of vocals but he could sing.
It seems to me that to be considered the greatest, you should be able to do it all. Chet could and he did. Just about everybody that you will find on lists such as the "Rolling Stone" list and similar lists contain the names of great pickers but the majority of them stay comfortably in their chose genre, be it blues, rock, jazz and so on. Yes,they are very talented artists but they rarely if ever step outside of their "box" which is fine but it is for this reason that I don't think that they should be considered the greatest guitar players. I do not doubt that they aren't capable of playing other styles or genres of music but they rarely if ever do. I understand that they have commitments to fulfill with the labels that they are under contract with but that didn't stop "the country gentleman". After years with RCA, he left after a disagreement about the direction that he thought they should be heading in. He went on to pursue other opportunities and further develop an already well established talent. He never stopped learning how to play the guitar. He could play the same tune dozens of times and it was always a little different. He was always tweaking his craft. His practice sessions are legendary, there was never an attitude of "good enough". He was a true professional. He played with many of the best in the business and helped many get their breaks in the business, many who went on to have their own successful music careers.
These are some of the reasons that I believe that Chet Atkins was the greatest guitar player ever. If you disagree, I challenge you to listen for yourself. Listen to his work across the many styles that he played. I am willing to bet that you will come to appreciate his talent and quite possibly, Carlos Santana, Eddie Van Halen, Eric Clapton and the like might not sound quite the same.