When the late Chet Atkins started learning guitar back in the 1930s, the vast majority of players used a plectrum. Indeed, Atkins was influenced by pick-users Les Paul, Django Reinhardt and George Barnes, but he fell in love with the style of Merle Travis. In those days before guitar tab, let alone videos or YouTube, Atkins used his ear to come up with his own version.
Merle Travis used his thumb for the bass part and index finger to pluck the melody on the treble strings while anchoring the middle, ring and pinky on the top of the guitar. Atkins' version of this 'clawhammer' technique used the thumb and three fingers – a change influenced by his basic classical guitar training. As it happened, these changes lifted 'Travis picking' to a whole new level.
'The basis of clawhammer picking is that you have the thumb for the bottom three strings and the three fingers for the top three, and play a straight, quarter or eighth-note rhythm on the bass strings,' explained Mark Knopfler, who collaborated with Atkins on Neck And Neck in 1990. 'Like Chet I tried to make the thumb sound like a pianist's left hand and be more creative with the rhythm, and also play all six strings with my fingers and thumb.'
Atkins also acknowledged differences in the two players' harmonic technique. 'While I play alternate bass strings, which sounds more like a stride piano style, Merle played two bass strings simultaneously on the one and three beats, producing a more exciting solo rhythm, in my opinion. It was reminiscent of the great old black players.
'I like playing the melody,' he added. 'It was very important to me when I learned to play the guitar. I learned to play it in 10 or 15 different ways. I tried to make it sound like there were two or three guitars, playing in octaves or with thirds and sixths. I like to improvise, but somehow I always stay around the melody more than other people.'
In his early radio career, Atkins' ability to sound like two guitarists occasionally backfired when listeners refused to believe it was just one person. Legend has it that he was once sacked from a radio station gig for not drawing enough listeners' letters; they believed they were listening to two competent guitarists rather than one supremely talented one.
The following exercises are based on the techniques and harmony of Atkins' Maybelle.