Thursday, October 21, 2010

Guitar Workshop: Meeting Mister Guitar

Y'all remember last week's lesson with the song "Freight Train," right? Hold that thought.

When I was a sophomore in high school (1970-71), I took intermediate guitar lessons for a time, at what was then the "Milford Music Shop" or something like that. The owner was a man named Gordon Larkin, a man who, in his younger days, listened to every Chet Atkins record he could find, and learned every move he made. Unfortunately, he claimed not to have the patience for beginners. Fortunately, his wife laid claim to a bit more patience, and it was from her that I learned not only the rudiments of playing up the neck, but the style of guitar-playing that has typified most of my repertoire to this day.

Our first video clip is from an episode of The Johnny Cash Show that originally aired on April 29, 1970. In this classic performance, Chet plays a medley of signature tunes: Back Home in Indiana, Country Gentleman, Mister Sandman, Wildwood Flower, and, of course, Freight Train. You'll notice how the alternating-thumb style is employed throughout, with a few fancy breaks interspersed. Atkins was not only a guitarist, but a music producer, and a savvy businessman. His roots in the mountains of Tennessee were humble enough: “We were so poor and everybody around us was so poor that it was the forties before anyone even knew there had been a depression.” Yet he went on, with partner Owen Bradley, to transform the country music industry, from purveyors of an exclusively "cowboy" or "hillbilly" style, to that of the smoother "Nashville sound" that appealed to adult pop audiences as well. While this process opened an exclusively American sound to the world, it remains an issue that divides country music historians up to the present day.

Our second clip is a lesson for intermediate players. It comes with tablature and shows you how to play a simple fingerstyle and walking bass line rhythm made famous by guys like Atkins, as well as Merle Travis. (More on Mr Travis later.) You can see how the instructor uses a C7 chord to play D7. This is a great beginning for learning to play up the neck. Notice also how the player builds his progressions on the way up. There is a relationship between the chord in place, and the melody notes associated with that chord, wherever it is positioned. To download the tablature for this lesson, go to

Our final clip is a 1996 appearance by Chet Atkins on Late Night with Conan O'Brien. Being an extremely shy sort of man, which was often mistaken for aloofness, Atkins nonetheless had a great sense of humor, as he shows with song "I Still Write Your Name In The Snow." It did require him to sing, which was palatable enough on his recordings, if in small doses.

More about the life and times of the man known as "Mister Guitar" and/or "The Country Gentleman" can be found at As for you, dear Mrs Gordon Larkin, wherever you are, thank you for the memories.

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