Chet Atkins Guitar Style - Chet Atkins Guitar Technique

How Studying The Style And Techniques Of Chet Atkins Will Make You A Better Guitar Player

by Simon Candy 


Chet Atkins Fingerpicking Article PicIn this article, we break down some of the key aspects of the guitar playing style of Chet Atkins. Studying the styles and techniques of other guitar players is a fantastic way to improve your own playing skills as well as your overall understanding of the instrument.

Chet’s underlying style was country, however, he was fluent in many other styles of guitar playing too including jazz, classical and flamenco.

In this article, we will look at a few key elements and techniques that are the cornerstone of his overall guitar playing.

Studying the style of other players not only improves your technique and skills on the guitar but also can reignite your motivation and inspiration if you are in a bit of a flat spot.

There is nothing like getting into the style of your favourite players and learning how they approached the instrument, and what made them tick.

So without further delay, let’s get into some of the key elements of Chet Atkins' guitar playing style and technique.

Chet Atkins Guitar Technique 1: Travis Picking

One of the main features of the guitar style of Chet Atkins is what’s known as travis picking. Travis picking is named after the guitarist Merle Travis who was a massive influence on Chet’s own guitar playing. 

This technique is all about using the thumb of your picking hand to play a steady bass note pattern on the lower 3 strings of your guitar. Your index (i), middle (m), and ring (a) fingers are then left to play syncopated rhythms and melodies on the higher strings. The result is an amazing combination of bass, harmony, and melody that will have people think they are hearing multiple guitar players playing when it is in fact just you!

Here is a picking pattern that was very common to the Chet Atkins guitar style: 





The above is commonly referred to as a 6, 4, 5, 4 bass picking pattern in reference to which strings the notes fall on and in which order.

It’s the pattern of choice for chords with root notes that fall on the 6th string of the guitar. Another common variation Chet would use for these types of chords was a 6, 4, 6, 4 picking pattern where the bass notes fall on the 6th and 4th strings.

A key element to this aspect of Chet’s guitar style is to palm mute the bass notes. This is so that the melody and harmony parts, when added, will stand out more.

Ok, now that you have your steady bass note pattern it’s time to add some melody to go with it. Here is an example of what Chet Atkins would typically do with this particular technique:




There is a bit going on here so take it slowly, and never lose sight of the bass note pattern, as it falls on the beat and is the driving force behind what is going on here.

A few things to note here:

• Mute the bass notes so that the melody stands out in contrast, to the higher strings

• Note how some of the melody notes fall on the beat while others fall off the beat (ie. in between the bass notes)

• Use the bass notes falling on the beat as a reference for how the melody fits in

For chords whose root notes fall on the 5th string, Chet used this variation of the bass note picking pattern:





Notice that the bass note pattern has changed to a 5, 4, 6, 4 pattern in reference to which strings the notes fall on and in which order.

This is the pattern of choice for chords with root notes that fall on the 5th string of the guitar. Another common, but less used variation Chet had for these types of chords was a 5, 4, 5, 4 picking pattern.

Finally, here is a 12 bar blues using the travis picking technique that was so central to the guitar style of Chet Atkins. The patterns used come from the examples above:





* When playing the B7 chord in the example above, use the second finger of your fretting hand to play the 2nd fretted note on the 6th string. Keep the rest of the chord formed when you do this


Watch the video below for a more detailed breakdown of the travis picking technique.

In this lesson, I break the style down into 3 parts:

• Bass

• Harmony

• Melody

Each part is covered extensively followed by a breakdown of arguably the most famous travis picking tune of all time:



Chet Atkins Guitar Technique 2: Double Stops (3rd’s and 6th’s)

Another fantastic element of the guitar style of Chet Atkins was his extensive use of double stops. Put simply, a double stop is a guitar term used for playing two notes at the same time. These notes can be on adjacent strings and non adjacent strings.

Chet mainly used 3rd’s and 6th’s when it came to double stops and would often use these to harmonise melodies. He would also use them to create fills that provided a really nice counterpoint to the vocal melody of a song.

The following are fretboard diagrams showing how the harmonies of a third and a sixth look on the guitar. Learning to visualise these patterns will help in understanding many of the riffs Chet Atkins would play:


• Thirds:










 • Sixths:










  * The numbers indicate the fingers to use for each double stop. There are several ways you can go about it, depending on the context. Keeping your second finger on the third string as a constant is one such way.


And here are some double stop licks to get you started using 3rd’s and 6th’s in the style of Chet Atkins:


Chet Atkins Double Stop Lick 1




This first lick connects a D7 chord to a G chord using a combination of 3rd’s and 6th’s. Chet would often slide in from a fret below for a cool sound.


Chet Atkins Double Stop Lick 2




This lick falls on a static chord, G7, and has some single notes mixed in with the 3rd’s. Adding embellishments to your double stops, like the pull off in the last bar of this example, sounds very cool.


Chet Atkins Double Stop Lick 3



The final lick connects a C7 chord to an F chord, much like the first example, only you are exclusively using 6th’s in this one.

For more riffs in the style of Chet Atkins, as well as other famous players such as Tommy Emmanuel and Jerry Reed, check out the video below.

In this lesson, I take you through several riffs, breaking each down in great detail so you can both understand them as well as use them in your own guitar playing:



Discover 10 melodic fingerpicking patterns you can learn in 10 minutes or less