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when he was eleven in hopes that the change in climate would help his health. Life in Georgia was lonely for Chester, and he turned more and more to the guitar for comfort. He listened to the radio incessantly, and around 1938, picked up a radio broadcast from WLW in Cincinnati, Ohio and was knocked out by a guitar player he heard playing with the Drifting Pioneers. The guitarist was Merle Travis.

Merle Travis provided Chet Atkins with the style from which he forged his own unique way of playing (Chet honored his idol in later years by naming his daughter Merle after him.). Initially trying to copy everything Travis played, Atkins soon began incorporating other stylistic elements of his other heroes, namely George Barnes, Les Paul, and Django Reinhardt. One can hear all of these readily in one of the first selections Atkins cut for RCA Victor in 1947, an instrumental called “Bug Dance.” Atkins distinguished his own style from that of Travis as follows: both styles emphasize using the thumb (played with a pick) to provide rhythm on the bass strings, and the forefinger to play the melody on the treble strings. Atkins noted that Travis used to play more on top of the beat and rush his tempo, which made it more exciting, whereas his own style was more similar to that of a stride piano, where the offbeat is emphasized. Another difference is that although Travis occasionally played tunes using his middle and ring finger; the Travis style most often utilizes just two fingers. By incorporating more than just Travis’ style into his own, Atkins used complex fingerings and rhythms requiring all of his fingers.

When he was fifteen, Atkins got a job working for the NYA (National Youth Administration), which was the juvenile equivalent of the CCC. The NYA put teens to work building gymnasiums, baseball diamonds, and whatever was needed for school-age children. With the money he earned, Atkins bought an amplifier and pickup from Allied Radio in Chicago. He later called this a stupid idea because the house where he had lived in Georgia didn’t have any electricity. As a result, when Atkins’ father drove into Columbus to teach classical music, Chester would go along, taking his guitar with him. He’d stop at a church, plug in, and practice all day until his father was ready to take him home.


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