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Chet Atkins
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THE 'GUITAR PHONICS' EPISODE 1963-1969
A factual history of the 'Play Guitar' albums By: W.M.Savidge

Chapter I - Chapter II - Chapter III - Chapter IV - Chapter V - Chapter VI - Chapter VII - Chapter VIII - Postscript
Chapter I - I ALWAYS WANTED TO PLAY GUITAR

Santa Barbara, California is where the idea sprouted, grew into a workable concept, and matured into a reality. This did not came about because of a pre-ordained grand plan, nor even wishful thinking. The seed of what was to become, within a few years, one of the recording business's little known success stories, was the result of timing, luck (bad luck, too), perseverance, and the ability to spot isolated random events, realize their value, and then possessing the personal intuitiveness to see and think in a much broader scope than those closest to the original ideas.

What was to become a series of best selling educational albums utilizing the talents of the Ventures, Jimmy Bryant, and Chet Atkins, all super stars of the 1960s, happened because I wanted to learn to play the guitar. It wasn't that I had not develop some skill with the instrument, I had at the time been plunking on one for fifteen years, and I could strum chords, but I had never learned to play lead. I could not read music, and I had absolutely no understanding of music theory.

I was seven years old when I first held a guitar on my lap. I do not know why, but from that day to this, all I have really wanted to do was play one. I was seventeen (in 1949), when I finally was able to talk my dad into buying a guitar for me, a Sears Silvertone archtop (non electric). From an ad I saw in a copy of a Popular Mechanics magazine, I convinced him to also order a home study course for the 'Spanish guitar1 from the U.S. School of Music, in New York. It was called "A Modern Course For Plectrum Guitar", written by Harry Volpe. I still have this course . all seven books, 96 lessons.

I was born in San Diego, California, July 11th, 1932, my mother's home town, and at age five, the family, I had a little brother then, packed up and moved to a farm in Illinois. This was during the latter part of the Great Depression, and the farm, originally homesteaded by my great, great grandfather, was a lonely, isolated place: Outside 'two-holer', no running water, and no electricity. It was two miles of dirt (mud when it rained or during the spring thaw) to the paved highway, and a one room, eight grade school house. By the time I was seven my grandfather, an electrical contractor, had installed a Delco battery electric system in our little four room home and we came into the possession of a light bulb in each room, and a marvelous console radio, which brought the world into our living room.

We lived on the farm some five years, leaving a few months before Pearl Harbor, when Dad joined the war effort and went to work for the government as an electrician, working on numerous defense projects during the war. During my stay on the farm, I came into contact with my first guitar, and began listening to country music on radio station WCAZ, in Carthage, Illinois. There was a daily, one hour request program, all country, and I would listen intently, ignoring the singing, and try to catch every note played on the guitars. I could not imagine how the players were creating such beautiful sounds, and I never grew tired of listening.

Music has proven to be my great passion in life, but nothing has ever came easily. I have often thought God must have been watching my berth and taped my left shoulder granting my the desire to play the guitar, but left to eat lunch before tapping my right shoulder, and giving me the required talent. I was not smart enough, when in High School, to know a music store existed in my little home town of Macomb, Illinois. I bought the required guitar strings, Black Diamond, at a local drug store, and it never struck me that I could take lessons from a teacher. I just struggled with the home study course, listened to records and the radio, and grew frustrated with my inability to learn to play the guitar.

I was pretty much a loner during my high school years. The oldest of five children, I was kept busy baby-sitting my siblings, running around with a few friends, and reading every book and magazine I could borrow or buy. We lived in a small house with two bedrooms upstairs and I had the front bedroom to my self, and I turned it into my castle. My prized possession was a small radio. This was my connection to the world, and especially to the world of music. The biggest event of my week was the Friday and Saturday night programs broadcast by WSM radio in Nashville . the 'Grand Ole Opry' live from the Ryman Auditorium, and the midnight airing of the 'Ernest Titbb Record Shop'. I would set before the radio and listen by the hour, soaking up the rich country music filled with the beautiful sounds of guitars.

I can, to this day, remember the excitement that wondrous night in 1947, when a new entertainer was announced; a young, scrawny, back woods guitar player destined to leave the brightest of marks on the music scene. Chet Atkins picked his way into my life and my heart that night. Although I could not for the life of me understand how he plucked so much music out of a guitar, I knew that I was hearing something very special, and I wanted so desperately to learn to play his music. From that night on I made learning Chefs style a personal quest. It would be many years before I realized my dream, but I always kept the dream in my heart, and listened to Chet's records.

I got married in July of 1951, and within weeks walked into a music store in Moline, Illinois, and purchased a 'real guitar', a blond 1951, L-4 Gibson archtop, equipped with a DeArmond, bridge mounted pickup. It didn't matter that Felicia and I did not have anything with which to set up house keeping, one look at that beautiful instrument hanging on the wall, and I knew I had to have it. I was then working at the Rock Island Arsenal, and had met some fellows that played, and they began showing me how to play a few songs, so I just had to have something better than the old Silvertone. A first model gold top Les Paul was hanging along side 'my guitar' and I remember how I though it was the ugliest thing man had ever created!

I also was then listening to a great country player by the name of Johnny Whilhelm. He was on the radio each morning, and played at a local club near to where I lived. His playing was the catalysts that cemented my desire to really learn the guitar. He made it look so simple. At this time I also met a man who was an orchestral musician, and he taught me how to play barr chords, and helped to explain the home study course, of which I never progressed beyond the fifteenth lesson.

Two years in the army (November 1952-54), where I had the opportunity to rub elbows with some real country players did not help my playing either, for when I was discharged, I could still only beat barr chords Those country boys were not in the least impressed with my playing, they thought I was real wired for not knowing how to play open string chords!

After my discharge from the army, and with six week old daughter Shelly, to shepherd through life, I turned to the serious business of earning a living, struggling through several thankless jobs before I latched on to a bottom rung job in an appliance store. Over the following nine years, where I advanced from making deliveries and doing service work, to becoming a store manager, and in the process, finding my real talent as a salesman, the guitar was pretty well left in the closet.

Wally Johnson, the man for whom I had worked for so many years, called me into his office one day in May of 1963, and informed me he was selling the main store, located in Galesburg, the one I managed, and asked if I would like to move back to Macomb and run the smaller store. A comfortable life style, and a job I dearly loved, evaporated that day. I felt that moving back to Macomb was a slap in the face, and a career set back. I declined the offer and when the Galesburg store was sold the following month, I packed up my family, which now encluded two children, Shelly and my first son David, and headed for California, and although I had no offer of a job, somehow a better life.

My father was living in Lompoc, California, an hours drive north of Santa Barbara, and on July 4th 1963,1 settled on his doorstep, and set out immediately looking for a job. I found one in Santa Maria, some twenty miles north, as an appliance department manager for a family owned department store; and this is were the greatest adventure of my life began.

Santa Maria was a small town at the time I was there; all the businesses were located on main street. Each fall, the town held a two day outdoor festival and merchants set up booths on the sidewalk, and the streets were filled with gala festivities. This was new to me and I look on with awe at the crowds that appeared upon the scene. On the first day of this event, I was standing in my department talking with fellow employee's when I heard what I thought was a Chet Atkins recording being played from in front of the store, and I had never heard Chefs songs played in public before, so set off to find out were the music was coming from. To my amazement, it was not a recording, but was being played by a man setting abroad a wagon filled with hay. This was the first time I had ever seen anyone play Chet's style guitar.

In all the years I had been listening to Chet's music, I owned all his records, I had never been able to envision how he played, how he got so much music out of the instrument, he was a one man band. I did not know what I had expected, but I was surely amazed to see this fellow play Chet's songs, songs I had been listening to for years with no earthly idea how anyone could accomplish the feat. His left hand hardly moved, yet he was playing two and three part music. I instantly realized the thing I had never understood about Chet's playing was occurring with the right hand. This unknown man was not playing with a pick, he was playing with his fingers....but, what was he doing?

The job came first and I had to spend much of my time while this musical event was taking place over the two day period, selling appliances and I never had the opportunity to meet this guitarist. I did not have a chance to ask questions, or to really take a hard look at what he was doing, something I deeply regretted.

In October, I took a job, one that paid more what I thought I was worth, with an appliance store in Santa Barbara. Several months later, after I had reorganized the sales department, I found I did not really like working for other people. I had become very independent working for Wally Johnson, I had ran the Galesburg store pretty much on my own. I had, without knowing it, over the years working for Wally developed the self dependence that has been a central part of my character ever since. In my new job I was working for a family, and while they treated me fairly, I had too many bosses. The work soon became boring, and I could do nothing to change the circumstances of the job. During this time I had developed the habit of taking my one hour lunch break at the beach park located at the end of Santa Barbara's main street. I enjoyed this time to my self, and was content to let things work themselves out, and puttered away my time enjoying the scenery.

I had very little to keep me busy in the evenings, and began picking away on the guitar again. And again, I was right back where I had been all my life, I just could not figure out how people played the guitar without reading music. I could, by this time, read music a little, and I could fumble through a song if I knew how it sounded, but I knew I was not really getting ahead with the instrument, and since I had more free time than I had enjoyed the past nine years, I was determined to find a way of learning that to me, made sense.

One noon in November, not long after moving to Santa Barbara, and needing a set of strings, I went to a music store, the largest in town, and located not far from where I worked. This place blew my mind, it was filled with young people, and the damnedest music I had ever heard seemed to be coming from every nook and cranny. I was fascinated with what was going on. For the first time in my life I found myself in the presence of people who really knew how to play. I was thirty-one, and most of these guys were much younger, and I realized I had let too many years go by in my quest to learn how to play the guitar. I soon found myself hanging around the store at noon every day, and made the acquaintances of several really good players.

One day while killing time during my lunch hour, I went down to the store's basement where the teaching took place. I came upon a young guy playing what I thought at first was Chefs music, however it sounded different. After a brief introduction, Russ Johnson, explained that he was playing Merle Travis style. I was familiar with Merle Travis, but I had never collected his records, and never saw anyone playing like him. This was new to me, but for some reason, I knew that while the Travis style was pretty close to what Chet was doing, it just did not sound as refined, while close, it wasn't what I had become accustomed to hearing.

It did not take long watching Russ Johnson play for me to realize what made finger style music it was the thumb. That constant thumb beat played on the base strings. Now it started making sense. Somehow, you played the melody with the fingers on the high strings while keeping the beat with the thumb on the low strings. Now I realized what you had to do, but again, how did it work?

I do not recall too much about Russ Johnson, I do remember we got along and struck up a friendship. He was willing to teach me the Travis Style, and as a friend, not as a student. I visited him at home frequently that fall and he presented me with the first piece of a puzzle that later became the method I utilized in the 'Play Guitar With Chet Atkins' album. Russ had developed a diagram in which he showed a chord diagram with the lines representing the strings extending below the chord box. Each diagram represented one or maybe two beats, or notes. He marked the note to be played on the chord diagram with a circle, and on the lower part of the diagram, the string lines, he placed a check mark indicating the proper bass string note, and a black dot on the proper string to play the melody note. He worked out several songs for me and I set about learning them, but struggled to make it work. He made it look so easy, and the music was what I had always wanted to play, but as Russ had developed the diagrams, there was no way to show time values, or exactly when each note should be played in relation to the thumb. The songs he diagrammed out were songs I did not know, and after a while I sort of gave up with the whole concept.

1963 came to a close as one of the most eventful years of my life. I had lost a job I loved, and had prospered at, moved my family to California on a shoe string, started over with a new job that did not work out, moved for the second time, and began another job. More importantly, it was the time in my life that I realized I wanted to be self-employed and above all, I wanted to make my living with the guitar. Maybe not as a musician, I realized I lacked the talent for that, but I just knew there was a way I could turn my hobby, my fascination with the guitar, into a way to earning my living. However, before that would come about, additional pieces of the puzzle had to fall in place, or to be more apt, in my lap. In looking back, I realize I had not yet paid the price that one must pay in order to get ahead. More months of struggle lay ahead, and my fortitude would be sorely tested many times over before Guitar Phonics would appear on the scene.

The 1960's were wild times in the music business. Everything was changing; events were moving faster, new people were appearing in the business; the Beetles, Elvis, and a multitude of new groups were turning the recording industry inside out. Elvis I knew about, by this time he had become a movie star, although I knew little about his music. The Beetles had arrived in California and the record companies were scrambling to find groups to fill the market they had created. In Hollywood, the Ventures had turned everything up side down at Liberty Records Their recording of Walk, Don't Rim' placed them at the forefront of the music revolution taking place at the time I was spending my lunch hours at the music store in Santa Barbara. It was during the Christmas Holidays 1963-64, that I first heard of the this phenomenal, instrumental group. A young man was setting on an amp on the sales floor of the music store playing a Venture song called 'Torquay'. His playing was perfect and the song stopped me cold. Now I thought, that song I had to learn!

As with Russ Johnson, this young man and I became friends, and he started showing me some Venture licks. I quickly saw that the Venture's style was far simpler then Chet's, so I figured I could more easily learn to play their music. I really liked what this young man was playing. His name was George Mamlakis. George would run through a song, getting me on the right track, and I would go home that evening and try to recall what he had shown me. It was at this time one of my personal limitations, a poor memory, liked to drove me crazy. I just could not remember what George had told me, and could not recall the note pattern. I would spend the entire evening stumbling through things that never came to gather as a song.

This young man had a remedy for my problem, and another piece of the puzzle dropped in to my lap. He and his fellow teachers at the music store were using a diagram system whereby numbers representing finger placement of the notes on the guitar neck were shown, and the playing sequence of the numbers were placed below each diagram. Just follow the sequence, and place your fingers on the neck as indicated by the appropriate number. This worked, if you knew the song. Again, the same recurring problem: The diagram did not, and could not show time values. You had to know the song . it was still very confusing. If you took a lesson each week, the teacher could keep you on track, but I wasn't taking lessons, so I trudged on, trying to figure it out on my own.

In the early part of 1964 I was coming to the realization that I no longer had a real interest in the appliance business, what I was doing had become just a job, and held no future. I was thinking real hard about how I could earn a living with the guitar. But how? I had a wife and two kids to support, I had to have an income. While hanging out at the music store, I became aware of the short-comings of the available method books. They all looked like the home study course I had been studying for all those years, and the people that bought them were as frustrated with written music as I was. Not everyone had the time, or could afford to take lessons. I also realized how many people wanted to play Rock guitar, but at the time very few books on the subject existed. Every teacher it seemed, to some degree, used a different method. Then a seed of an idea begin to germinate in by brain. If I could figure out a way to learn Rock songs, a method of some kind, surely I could interest someone in publishing it, and I could make money on the idea. Sounded great, but I had a problem: I had no earthly idea how to create such a method.

One day while visiting with George at the music store, he played 'Raunchy', a Venture song, for one of his students that happened to be present. George had a tape recorder on hand, and after writing out the song in the diagrams he used, he recorded the lead part. Eureka! Another part of the puzzle hit me in the face. Instantly I saw how to create a method so I could learn' songs, and get them right musically. Recording the lead part on tape solved the timing problem presented by the diagrams. Put the two together, and I had a method from which I could learn to play lead guitar. And now the fun began!

[ Read On ]

Random selection of albums
Chet Atkins Chet Atkins - Pickin` My Way
Pickin' My Way
1971
Chet Atkins Chet Atkins - Superpickers
Superpickers
1974
Chet Atkins Chet Atkins - American Salute
American Salute
1972
Chet Atkins With... Chet Atkins With The Carter Sisters - Early Chet Atkins With The Carter Sisters
Early Chet Atkins...
Chet Atkins Chet Atkins - Read My Licks
Read My Licks
1994
Chet Atkins Chet Atkins - Gallopin` Guitar
Gallopin' Guitar
1952




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