His picking style, inspired by Merle Travis, Django Reinhardt, George Barnes and Les Paul, brought him admirers both within and outside the country scene, both in the U.S.A. and internationally. Atkins produced records for Perry Como, Elvis Presley, Eddy Arnold, Don Gibson, Jim Reeves, Jerry Reed, Skeeter Davis, Connie Smith, Waylon Jennings, and others.
Stories have been told about the very young Chet who, when a friend or relative would come to visit, and if that person played a guitar, would crowd in and put his ear so very close to the instrument that it became difficult for that person to play. This was an early demonstration of his affinity for the instrument that would later become his life, and that he would take around the world, playing packed concert halls from Nashville to the Boston Pops.
Atkins became an accomplished guitarist while he was in high school. He would use the restroom in the school to practice, because it gave better acoustics. His first guitar had a nail for a nut and was so bowed that only the first few frets could be used. He later purchased a semi-acoustic electric guitar and amp, but he had to travel many miles to find an electrical outlet since his home had no electricity.
Atkins did not have a strong style of his own until 1939 when (while still living in Georgia) he heard Merle Travis picking over WLW radio. This early influence dramatically shaped his unique playing style. Whereas Travis's right hand utilized his index finger for the melody and thumb for bass notes, Atkins expanded his right hand style to include picking with his first three fingers, with the thumb on bass. The result was a clarity and complexity that became his unmistakable sound.
Later in life he lightheartedly gave himself (along with John Knowles, Tommy Emmanuel, Steve Wariner and Jerry Reed) the honorary degree CGP, standing for "Certified Guitar Player". His half-brother Jim was a successful guitarist who worked with the Les Paul Trio in New York.
Traveling to Chicago, he auditioned for Red Foley, who was leaving his star position at the WLS National Barn Dance to join the Grand Ole Opry. Atkins made his first appearance at the Grand Ole Opry in 1946 as a member of Foley's band. He also recorded a single for Nashville-based Bullet Records that year. That single, "Guitar Blues," was fairly progressive, including as it did, a clarinet solo by Nashville dance band musician Dutch McMillan with Owen Bradley on piano. He had a solo spot on the Opry for a while but when that was cut Atkins moved on to KWTO in Springfield, Missouri, and despite the support of executive Si Siman, soon was fired for not sounding country enough.
While he hadn't yet had a hit record on RCA his stature was growing. He began assisting Sholes as a Session Leader when the New York-based producer needed help organizing Nashville sessions for RCA artists. Atkins's first hit single was "Mr. Sandman," followed by "Silver Bell," which he did as a duet with Hank Snow. His albums also became more popular. In addition to recording, Atkins became a design consultant for Gretsch, who manufactured a popular Chet Atkins line of electric guitars from 1955-1980. Atkins also became manager of RCA's Nashville studio eventually inspiring and seeing the completion of the legendary Studio 'B'. This studio was the first studio built specifically for the purpose of recording on the now famous 'Music Row'.
Atkins made his own records, which usually visited pop standards and jazz, in a sophisticated home studio, often recording the rhythm tracks at RCA but adding his solo parts at home, refining it all until the result satisfied him. Guitarists of all styles came to admire various Atkins albums for their unique musical ideas and in some cases experimental electronic ideas. In this period he became known internationally as Mister Guitar (also the name of one of Atkins's albums). His trademark "Atkins Style" of playing, which was and is very difficult for a guitarist to master, uses the thumb and first two — sometimes three — fingers of the right hand. He developed this style from listening to Merle Travis occasionally on a primitive radio. He was sure no one could play that articulately with just the thumb and index finger (which actually was exactly how Travis played) and he assumed it required the thumb and two fingers — and that was the style he pioneered and mastered. He enjoyed jamming with fellow studio musicians which led to them being asked to perform at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1960. Although that performance was canceled due to rioting, a live recording of the group (After the Riot at Newport) was released. Atkins performed by invitation at the White House for presidents Kennedy through George H. W. Bush. Atkins was a member of the Million Dollar Band
Before his mentor Sholes died in 1968, Atkins had become vice president of RCA's country division. He had brought Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Connie Smith, Bobby Bare, Dolly Parton, Jerry Reed and John Hartford to the label in the 1960s and inspired and helped countless others. He took a considerable risk during the mid-1960s, when the Civil Rights Movement sparked violence throughout the South by signing country music's first African-American singer Charley Pride, who sang rawer country than the smoother music Atkins had pioneered. But Atkins's hunch paid off. Ironically, some of Pride's biggest fans were from the most conservative country fans, many of whom didn't care for the pop stylings Atkins had added.
Atkins's own biggest hit single came in 1965, with "Yakety Axe," an adaptation of his friend saxophonist Boots Randolph's "Yakety Sax". He rarely performed in those days, and eventually had to hire other RCA producers like Bob Ferguson and Felton Jarvis to alleviate his workload.
By the end of the '70s, Atkins's time had passed as a producer. New executives at RCA had different ideas. He first retired from his position in the company, and then began to feel stifled as an artist because RCA would not let him branch out into jazz. At the same time he grew dissatisfied with the direction Gretsch (no longer family-owned) was going and withdrew his authorization for them to use his name and began designing guitars with Gibson. He left RCA in 1982 and signed with Columbia Records, for whom he produced a debut album in 1983. While he was with Columbia, he showed his creativity and taste in jazz guitar, and in various other contexts. Jazz had always been a strong love of his, and often in his career he was criticized by "pure" country musicians for his jazz influences. He also said on many occasions that he did not like being called a "country guitarist", insisting that he was a guitarist, period. Although he played 'by ear' and was a masterful improviser he was able to read music and even performed some classical guitar pieces. When Roger C. Field, a friend (in Atkins' book "Me and My Guitars"), suggested to him in 1991 that he record and perform with a female singer he did so with Suzy Bogguss. He did return to his country roots for albums he recorded with Mark Knopfler and Jerry Reed. He also collaborated with Australian guitar legend Tommy Emmanuel. On being asked to name the ten most influential guitarists of the 20th century, he named Django Reinhardt to the first position on the list, and placed himself at fifth position.
In later years he even went back to radio, appearing on Garrison Keillor's Prairie Home Companion, and even picking up a fiddle from time to time.
Atkins expanded the universe for guitarists — and lovers of guitar music — in a way no one did before. His love for numerous styles of music can be traced from his early recording of stride-pianist James P. Johnson's "Johnson Rag," all the way to the rock stylings of Eric Johnson, an invited guest on Atkins's recording sessions who, when Chet attempted to copy his influential rocker "Cliffs of Dover," led to Atkins's creation of a unique arrangement of "Londonderry Air (Danny Boy)."
Chet's recordings of "Malaguena" inspired a new generation of Flamenco guitarists; the countless classical guitar selections peppering almost all his albums were, for many American artists working in the field today, the first classical guitar they ever heard. He could certainly play as jazzy or bluesy as he wanted, even recording smooth jazz guitar still played on American airwaves today.
While he did more performing in the 1990s his health grew frail as the cancer returned and worsened. He died on June 30, 2001 at his home in Nashville.
Atkins was quoted many times throughout his career, and of his own legacy he once said:
Years from now, after I'm gone, someone will listen to what I've done and know I was here. They may not know or care who I was, but they'll hear my guitars speaking for me.
In 2002, Atkins was posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. His award was presented by Marty Stuart and Brian Setzer and accepted by Atkins' grandson, Jonathan Russell. The following year, Atkins ranked #28 in CMT's 40 Greatest Men of Country Music.