Les Paul is credited with the creation of the most iconic solid body guitar ever – the Gibson Les Paul. Even while the magnificence of the music he created has passed into history, the splendor of the electric guitar sound he gifted to guitarists, old and new, has endured through the years and kept his musical legacy alive. Every time a band performs on stage, whether it is Led Zeppelin , Sex Pistols or Green Day, Les Paul comes alive in the sound of their music.
Les Paul Changed The Sound Of Music
Les Paul’s innovations with the techniques of sound recording are no less revolutionary. His groundbreaking inventions in the sphere of recording have changed the way we perceive music today. Some of the techniques he’s pioneered are close miking, overdubbing, multi-tracking and echo delay. These techniques forever changed the way music was recorded and allowed musicians to play around with a variety of sound-effects while making music. His avant-garde inventions have earned him a place in the Inventors’ Hall Of Fame, bringing him on par with inventors of the caliber of Alexander Graham Bell, Thomas Edison and the Wright Brothers.
There is hardly a musical soul in the world today whose life has not been touched by Les Paul’s contributions to modern music, whether they are a guitar player or just a listener. Guitar greats such as Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, Keith Richards, Eddie Van Halen, Jeff Beck and Slash are just some of the musical luminaries that venerate Les Paul’s immense genius as the driving force behind their success.
Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page once wrote of Paul, “He’s the man who started everything. He’s just a genius.” While sharing a stage with Paul, Eddie Van Halen once told him,“Without the things you’ve done, I wouldn’t be able to do half the things I do.” Les Paul is not considered rock royalty for nothing, so complete is his synonymy with the electric guitar, that people sometimes credit him to be its inventor.
Les Paul, the legendary guitar virtuoso and unparalleled musical visionary, passed away on the night of August 12, 2009 in a New York hospital, plunging the world of music into mourning. He was 94 years of age.
Les Paul, who was affectionately called Wizard of Waukesha, is indisputably one of the world’s most accomplished, influential and revered guitarists. But the crowning glory of his glittering achievements in the musical sphere, which has taken him beyond the realm of the ordinary and into the extra-ordinary, has been his innovations in the development of the electric guitar. es Paul’s achievements as an inventor and innovator have sometimes overshadowed his indelible prowess as a mesmerizing performer. But the fact remains that his melodious jazz and pop-flavored compositions and his skill as a guitarist are vital elements of his musical genius. He achieved phenomenal success as a solo performer as well as a duo with his wife, singer Mary Ford. His effervescent and energetic musical masterpieces are also noteworthy because of his use of the radical techniques of multi-tracking and overdubbing.
Born as Lester William Polfus on June 9, 1915 in Waukesha, Wisconsin, Les Paul showed an early interest in music as well as technology. He had built his first crystal radio by the tender age of nine. Around the same time, after learning to play the harmonica and the banjo, Les Paul turned his attention to mastering the art of playing guitar. By the time he was thirteen years old, Paul was already a semi-professional honky-tonk guitarist.
At age 17, he dropped out of high school to play in Sunny Joe Wolverton’s Radio Band in St. Louis under the moniker ‘Rhubarb Red’. By 1934, he was in Chicago where he became popular in a dual radio persona, doing a hillbilly act as Rhubarb Red and playing jazz as Les Paul. In 1936, he formed the Les Paul Trio with Jimmy Atkins on vocals and Ernie Newton on bass. The group moved to New York in 1937, where they joined Fred Waring’s NBC radio show as regulars in his Pennsylvanians band.
Around this time in the mid-thirties, even as his musical career was finding its feet, Paul was becoming increasingly dissatisfied with the sound of the first generation of commercially available hollow-body electric guitars. The thin tone, lack of sustaining power and feedback problems of the guitars spurred him on to develop his own prototype of the electric guitar – one which would have a better sustain, clear sound and no feedback. As he told writer Jim O’Donnell,
“What I wanted to do is not have two things vibrating. I wanted the string to vibrate and nothing else. I wanted the guitar to sustain longer than an acoustical box and have different sounds than an acoustical box.”
He figured that to eliminate the sound of the resonance of the wood in the electric guitars in use at the time, they would have to have a solid body as against the traditional hollow body. Persevering in that direction, his efforts bore fruit in 1941, when he built his famous prototype, solid body guitar out of a four foot long piece of pine with strings, an electric pickup and a plug. To make the contraption look like a guitar, he sawed an Epiphone hollow body guitar in half and fixed the two halves onto the wood piece. He nicknamed it ‘The Log’. The Gibson Guitar Company wasn’t very enamored with the model however and dismissed it saying it was nothing more than a “broomstick with pickups”.
In the meantime, Paul’s musical aspirations were moving towards jazz. He left Waring in 1941 and moved to LA where he was recruited to play in the Armed Forces Radio Service alongside such greats as Bing Crosby and the Andrew sisters. As a last minute replacement for Oscar Moore, Paul gave a dazzling performance with superstars like Nat King Cole and Illinois Jacquet in the inaugural “Jazz at the Philharmonic” concert in Los Angeles in 1944. The same year, Paul’s Trio appeared on Bing Crosby’s hit radio show. The two also recorded together several times, including the 1945 number one hit and million-seller, “It’s Been a Long, Long Time.”
It was Bing Crosby who encouraged Paul’s experiments in recording techniques and even sponsored his first recording studio built in Paul’s LA garage in 1945. It was in this studio that Paul developed his futuristic techniques – multi-tracking, echo delay and overdubbing which forever changed the way music was recorded.
In 1947, Paul showcased the magic of multi-tracking in the complex and revolutionary instrumental piece ‘Lover’. The instrumental, released by Capitol Record , featured Paul playing eight different guitar parts simultaneously and was a runaway hit. The world listened in astonishment to the spectacular effects that could be created by using the technique of multi-tracking.
The Near Loss Of A Legend
In 1948, the world nearly lost the musical magician to a devastating car accident in Oklahoma. Les Paul’s right arm and elbow were shattered in the process. Doctors told him that they wouldn’t be able to restore movement in the elbow and it would be best to amputate the arm. But Paul convinced them to permanently set the arm at such an angle as to be able to cradle and pick a guitar! He was thus able to salvage his music career from destruction. Total recovery was still a year and a half away.
Not letting the tragedy bog him down, Paul forged ahead with more innovations in the recording sphere such as sound on sound recording, echo delay and close miking. These effects were all integrated into the 1950 historic tour de force, the No.1 hit ‘How High the Moon’, a duo with wife Mary Ford whom he had met and married in 1949. The song is an aural masterpiece because of its scintillating sonic effects, a fitting culmination to Paul’s tireless efforts towards innovation. A number of hits followed such as ‘Mockin Bird Hill’, ‘The World Is Waiting for the Sunrise’ and ‘Vaya Con Dios’ and their successful collaboration continued till 1961 after which the hits surprisingly dried up. In 1964, the two divorced and went their separate ways. Paul went into semi-retirement as far as making music was concerned.
Achievements And Honors
In 1952, Les Paul introduced his musical marvel – the 8 track tape recorder , and immediately thereafter, his dream guitar in collaboration with Gibson Guitar Company – the gold top, solid body guitar christened the Gibson Les Paul Goldtop. The guitar was an instant hit among musicians of every genre. The popularity and respect it commands remain unmatched and unsurpassed to this day.
Gibson followed up the success of the model with the Les Paul Custom (1954), the Les Paul Junior (1954), the Les Paul Special (1955) and the iconic Les Paul Standard (1958). Paul also patented the floating bridge pickup and the electro-dynamic pickup. Les Paul guitars are the chosen axes of some of the greta guitaris of the modern music scene.
Les Paul resurfaced in 1977 to record a Grammy award winning compilation of instrumental duets with his long time friend Chet Atkins, dubbed ‘Chester and Lester’. In 2006, he released the double Grammy winner ‘Les Paul & Friends – American Made World Played’, an eclectic compilation featuring Paul’s illustrious disciples and devotees – a veritable who’s who of the guitar world, such as Eric Clapton, Keith Richards, Jeff Beck, Buddy Guy, Joe Perry etc, playing alongside Paul. Till his death, he continued to play a weekly gig at the Iridium Club in New York.
Les Paul remains the only individual in the history of music to share membership in the Grammy Hall of Fame (1978), Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (1988), the National Inventors Hall of Fame (2005), and the National Broadcasters Hall of Fame (2006). In addition to these honors, he has received the Grammy award for lifetime technical achievement in 2001 and was ranked #46 by Rolling Stone magazine in its list of the 100 Greatest Guitaristsof all time.
Les Paul’s chequered and multi-dimensional life is a source of constant encouragement to every individual who strives to achieve the highest pinnacles of success in his or her chosen field. His tenacity, perseverance and diligence to realise his dreams against all odds, even while beating the kind of tragedies that would destroy a lesser man, has made him the epitome of inspiration to every human being.
As U2 guitarist The Edge said…
“His legacy as a musician and inventor will live on and his influence on rock and roll will never be forgotten.”
Les Paul Biography By:
Guitarist Rock ©2008-2009