RangeOfSounds.com is reader-supported. We may earn a small commission through products purchased using links on this page.
Chet Atkins was known as Mr. Guitar, so it’s not a surprise he played a wide range of instruments over the course of his career.
But what strings did Chet Atkins use?
Chet Atkins played a number of different brands and kinds of strings over his more than 50 year long recording career, but among his favorite brands of strings were Gretsch and Gibson, with both companies issuing strings bearing Atkins’ name and endorsement. He was also known to play D’Addario and LaBella strings on acoustic guitars.
Let’s take a look at some of the strings, guitars, and other gear Mr. Guitar used to get his distinctive sound.
What Kind Of Electric Guitar Strings Did Chet Atkins Use?
Atkins was a multi-instrumentalist, playing everything from mandolin to ukulele, but as the nickname Mr. Guitar implies, he was best known for his guitar work.
From the beginning of his music career in 1942 through the early 1950s, Atkins’ reputation among other musicians grew. But it wasn’t until 1954 that he had his first real hit, Mr. Sandman.
Starting that very same year, Gretsch Guitars launched the first of many Chet Atkins signature models, the 6120. Called the Hollow Body and then the Nashville, it was followed by the 6121 Chet Atkins Solid Body and the 6122 Chet Atkins Country Gentleman.
This video from 1954 shows Atkins performing Mr. Sandman on an early 6120.
The 6122 inaugurated a trend for Gretsch Chet Atkins models, simulated f-holes. The 6122, the 6120, and the lower spec 6119 Chet Atkins Tennesean were all hollow body guitars, they all had painted f-holes after 1961, the same year Gretsch switched all of those models, and the solid body 6121, from single to double cutaway body styles.
At the same time Gretsch was producing Chet Atkins guitars, it was also producing Chet Atkins signature strings. It seems, both from interviews with Atkins and with those who played with him later in life, that he regularly played Gretsch strings up through the 1980s.
In a 1979 interview, he said he was using Gretsch Chet Atkins Country Style Strings in a relatively light gauge. He listed his string gauges as .010”, .012”, .020” wound, .028”, .038”, and .048” from high E to low E, but also said his low E string was sometimes a bit thicker at .050”.
It wasn’t very long after that interview that Atkins made a big switch after decades of being primarily associated with Gretsch guitars. After the death of the company’s president, Atkins became dissatisfied with the direction Gretsch was heading and switched brands to Gibson.
In the early 1980s, Gibson launched the Chet Atkins Country Gentleman, which has a body shape similar to early Gretsch signature models, and even shares Gretsch’s 25.5 inch scale length, as opposed to the normal Gibson scale length of 24.75 inches.
The big difference came down to pickups. While Atkins had a hand in designing the iconic Filter’Tron pickups that would eventually grace all of his signature guitars with Gretsch, his Gibson model used standard Gibson 490 humbuckers.
According to Paul Yandell, who played with Atkins in the 1980s and later, Atkins moved to Gibson brand strings, using a set that ran .010”, .012”, .016” plain, .028”, .038”, and .048”.
Did Chet Atkins Use Flatwound Guitar Strings?
Atkins was perhaps most famous for his work shaping the “Nashville Sound” that came to dominate much of country music in the 1950s and beyond. Where most country music until then relied heavily on instruments like fiddle, banjo, and steel guitar, Atkins worked to create a sound more in tune with the pop music of the time, as well as with the emerging sounds of rock ‘n roll.
He focused on guitar and his recordings in particular, while always pitched as country music and clearly belonging to that musical genre, were heavily influenced by jazz. As most jazz guitarists then, like many now, used flatwound strings, it’s logical to ask whether Atkins did.
According to those who knew him, though, he almost exclusively played roundwound strings. He thought that flatwound strings, which are usually darker and warmer than roundwound strings, often sounded lifeless and offered less sustain than he wanted.
Despite being very influenced by jazz and other jazz musicians, he didn’t care for the tone they got, and put much of that down to the flatwound strings.
What Kind Of Acoustic Guitar Strings Did Chet Atkins Use?
While Atkins is best known as an electric guitar player, he played acoustic guitars throughout his career.
This video of him from “The Tonight Show” shows him performing an arrangement of Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now” on a classical guitar, for example.
Atkins’ collaboration with Gibson expanded beyond just a high-end electric guitar, and included a few oddball acoustic models. The Chet Atkins CE/CEC — for Classical Electric and Cutaway Classical Electric — were solid body guitars with an acoustic pickup and preamp and used nylon strings, as the classical part of the name implies.
The later Chet Atkins SST was a steel string version of the same concept. It used a solid spruce or solid cedar top and a mahogany body, along with an active pickup.
It became very popular with touring musicians who wanted an acoustic guitar for the sound it produced, but had issues with the feedback that a hollow body guitar can be subject to at high volumes.
Epiphone also produced budget versions of the SST that used nylon strings.
When it came to nylon strings, Atkins used D’Addario Pro-Arte strings, but he had previously played LaBella 500p Professional strings.
What Guitar Amp Did Chet Atkins Use?
With any primarily electric player, the amplifier is a huge part of the sound. While Atkins played contemporary with many early rock ‘n rollers, his sound was always far, far cleaner.
Part of that is likely due to his amp choice, especially early in his career. Atkins traded another player to get a 1953 Standel 25L15, originally pitched as an amp for steel guitar players.
With a big 15 inch speaker, the 25 watt amp was always said to sound far louder than its rating. The maker of an amp based on the same schematic claims the design has enough clean headroom to fill a medium size room.
That clean sound, along with relatively light, roundwound strings contributed to the fresh sound Atkins brought, especially in his early recordings.
Atkins died more than 20 years ago, but his musical career, which spanned half a century, left an indelible imprint on not just country music, but American music as a whole.
His playing style, which he honed listening to Merle Travis, used his thumb and sometimes two or three other fingers, allowing him speed, reach, and the ability to play complex arpeggios.
His production style, now known as “The Nashville Sound,” is sometimes credited with keeping country music in the popular imagination at a time it was in danger of fading away.
His guitar playing, his overall musical talent, and his impeccable taste all worked together to make him the icon he remains today.
I’ve been a musician, particularly a guitarist, for more than 25 years. I love writing about guitars, gear, recording, music in general and more.