Inventor and pioneering guitar hero Les Paul has gone to the great gig in the sky. In this issue of guitar & bass we pay tribute to a great player and a sonic dreamer whose technical wizardry made the whole of modern rock and pop possible.
Every time you use a looper pedal or a home recording device, overdub some tracks on your computer or even listen to a modern studio recording, you are following in the footsteps of Les Paul, the musician/inventor who has died aged 94.
Of course, the name ‘Les Paul‘ will always be associated with Gibson and their classy arched-top solidbody electric, and this link has led to Les being called ‘the inventor of the electric guitar’ and other such questionable titles. In truth, any number of others were working on similar experiments around the same time and any such award has to be spread amongst names such as AudioVox, National, Vivi-Tone, Epiphone, OW Appleton, Slingerland and Bigsby. What can’t be denied, however, is that Les Paul was in the right place at the right time to have his name applied to an early solidbody electric by not just a major manufacturer but by the major manufacturer, Gibson – and that he made an incalculable contribution to the popularity of the electric guitar.
Long after Les Paul’s clever, tuneful, wholesome brand of music had grown unfashionable, the Gibson Les Paul would remain his calling card, a commercial tie-in that ensured his name would remain as famous as other synonymous inventors such as Hoover or Bic. But Les Paul was far more than a TV and radio star with a signature guitar. He was a prolific tinkerer whose lesser-known inventions, including multi-track recording and overdubbing, changed music forever.
Born in 1915, Lester Polfuss grew into a gifted youngster who picked up harmonica, banjo and guitar to a sufficient degree to be earning good money at it by the time he was 14. He was lucky enough to be born into a family well-off enough to own such items as a radio, a phonograph, a player piano and a telephone, and the teenager soon disassembled them and adapted their components to his own purposes. By 1929, he discovered that by jamming a phonograph needle into a guitar’s top he could amplify the signal through the radio. By the mid-’30s, Les – now living in Chicago – was emulating the most advanced players of the day like Eddie Lang, Karl Kress and Django Reinhardt and spreading the thrilling new sound of the Gibson ES-150 archtop electric with the Fred Waring orchestra. Charlie Christian was doing much the same in Oklahoma; the two would meet and play together in 1939.
Around 1940, Les began modifying his guitars to improve their amplified performance. He reinforced his Epiphone archtop with a heavy steel plate, and added a second pickup (twin-pickup guitars were not yet on the market). He also built the infamous Log, a chunk of 4″x4″ attached to a neck that received a much better audience response, Les noticed, when he made it more guitar-like by adding the wings of a regular archtop body. He also built one of the first electric basses and a metal-bodied headless guitar.
After the war Les moved to Hollywood, where Bing Crosby encouraged him to invest in his own studio. After building his own record-cutting lathe, Les realised he could record one part and then simultaneously record the acetate’s playback and his live playing onto a second acetate, thus creating overdubbing. Acting as sole engineer, player and producer, he laid down eight of his own guitars including bass parts and percussive clicks to create remarkable 78’s such as Lover and Brazil. Adding a tape machine to his arsenal and a low-noise mixer built by his friend Wally Jones, he found he could also speed parts up and pioneer slap-back echo, delay and even flanging effects.
Les Paul’s records were dazzling – a blend of high-speed guitars played in perfect close harmony with jazzy runs and bluesy bends. Before long, the newspapers called it ‘The New Sound’. They weren’t wrong. With his new wife Iris Somerset, stage name Mary Ford, by his side, Les added multi-tracked vocals to his records and embarked upon a period of success with 1951’s How High The Moon, a No 1 which sold 1.5 million copies.
Gibson’s canny CEO Ted McCarty chose this moment to approach him about endorsing a solidbody electric that his company had been working on for a year or more. Les Paul’s real input, we now know, was pretty much limited to suggesting a gold finish and insisting that Gibson use a tailpiece he had designed. Les and Mary immediately incorporated the flashy new models on their stage and TV appearances. Mary was a hot guitar player herself, and the two developed a hugely entertaining stage act with Les creating sound-on-sound for both vocals and guitars on two Ampex tape machines, all apparently controlled in real time by the infamous ‘Les Paulverizer’ unit mounted on his guitar.
Ironically, the Gibson Les Paul really only became an icon a decade later, when blues players started to misdirect this supposed high-class jazz guitar through cranked amplifiers. Les himself was a proponent of low-impedance pickups, and though Gibson made Personal, Professional and Recording models with low-Z pickups in the ’70s, they are probably the least sought-after Les Pauls of them all. While Les Paul played with a swinging, clean sound, he was too wise and good-hearted an old pro to look down on the stream of distortion-happy rock players who came to his Monday night gigs in New York, even though some may not have known that he wasn’t just a name on a famous guitar – he was the first guitarist to blend music and technology into a seamless whole.
With 2005’s Les Paul & Friends, recorded with Beck, Clapton and Frampton, Les Paul’s final great accomplishment was reminding us that you can play the guitar into your nineties. All Les Paul’s efforts went into making life better and more fun for musicians and listeners alike, and he showed that music can be made and enjoyed right up until the end. Now that’s a real inspiration.