Chet Atkins’ prolific career as a Nashville session guitarist and solo act was as varied as his virtuosic guitar style. Experimental record label Modern Harmonic, a subsidiary of Sundazed, have reissued two of Atkins’ iconic albums from what many consider his strongest period: 1955-1960.
Hi-Fi In Focus (1957)
If you’re looking for one album that showcases Atkins’ ability to play virtually anything on guitar, this is it. It opens at a frenetic pace, with the Latin tinged “El Cumbanchero.” Not content to only showcase his lightning fast arpeggio playing, Atkins also sneaks in some nifty high pitched tones around the bridge pickup of his signature Gretsch hollow body guitar.
Atkins likes to put his own twangy inflection to jazz standards, as evident by his covers of “Aint Misbehavin’” and “Lullaby of the Leaves.” He uses his thumb to drive the bass notes, while gently guiding the melody with his fingers, creating his own hybrid style of playing that mixes the sensibilities of Merle Travis with the finesse of Django Reinhardt.
Not content to showcase only his jazz and country proficiency, Atkins closes the album with two classical pieces: Bach’s “Bouree” and the traditional arrangement “Avorada.” While “Bouree” is a well-performed piece, “Avorado” is a whirlwind of control and precision. Mimicking the sound of a child’s music box, Atkins’ combination of descending trills and harmonics creates a truly magical piece, providing further proof the guitar can match the sonic sophistication of any chamber instrument.
Chet Atkins’ Workshop (1961)
A marked departure from Hi-Fi In Focus, Workshop is Atkins finding his way around the home studio. In what could easily qualify as a space-age record, he toys with effects like reverb, echo and vibrato to create soundscapes in full stereo, bouncing from ear to ear with ease.
There’s plenty of pop standards here for the dinner party crowd (“Theme from a Summer Place,” “Que Sera Sera”), but it’s the tracks where he stretches out that are a real treat. “Whispering” begins innocently enough with some light fingerpicking before going into an echo-driven second verse, while “Marie” showcases the bouncing reverb and echo over some swampy country guitar riffs.
Workshop combines Atkins’ intricate playing style with the blossoming studio technology of the ‘60s, making it an important historical document and a pleasure to spin.
Modern Harmonic has done a fantastic job on these reissues, taking great care to keep everything as close to original as possible, down to sourcing everything from the original analog masters. Hi-Fi In Focus is a mono recording, so you can expect the guitar to be up front in the mix with the other instrumentation fading in and out when needed. Workshop, on the other hand, has a rich stereo soundscape due to advances in technology at the time. Atkins’ use of delay gives the guitar plenty of room in the mix, bouncing between speakers and giving the instrument more sonic space to work with. Both records are free of any surface noise and sound fantastic compared to the original pressings (when listening as an A/B test).
Once again, Modern Harmonic has chosen to stay true to the original art and labels with a couple notable additions. First, the vinyl itself is a heavy 180-gram as opposed to the original and flimsier 140-gram. Second, the vinyl is housed in an audiophile grade plastic sleeve. Both are welcomed upgrades to the original pressings.