Les Paul: 1915 - 2009 - Guitar World

Les Paul: 1915 - 2009

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He pioneered recording technology, effects and the solidbody electric guitar. In the process, he paved the way for rock and roll, metal, punk and all forms of modern music. Guitar World remembers the man that brought his brilliance to the music and gave his name to a very special electric guitar.

It's hard to believe that Les Paul is no longer with us. For decades and decades, he’s always been there: the man whose name is on one of the most well-known and widely played electric guitars in the world. It’s almost as if the instrument’s enduring appeal for generation after generation of guitarists had conferred eternal youth on the man himself. It just seemed like Les would always be holding forth at the Iridium jazz club in New York City on Monday nights, or picking up another award, or dispensing another wisecrack, tall tale or piece of homespun wisdom redolent of a more innocent and uncomplicated time in our history.

To borrow a phrase from the Ramones, Les seemed too tough to die. He triumphed over so many afflictions—chronic arthritis, Ménière’s disease, major heart surgery and an automobile accident that almost left him without the use of his right arm. Life’s hardships and nasty shocks just seemed to make him stronger. “That’s what keeps you ticking,” he once told me. “If it was all a gravy train, you wouldn’t fight so hard and you’d probably never accomplish anything.”

On August 14, 2009, Les succumbed to complications from pneumonia, in White Plains, New York. He was 94. His passing leaves us to reflect on his many accomplishments and marvel at the range and breadth of his contributions to music and the world. Les had a role in developing many of the essential musical tools that we take for granted today, including the solidbody electric guitar, sound-on-sound multitrack recording, echo/delay effects and the home studio. Beyond that, he left behind a fascinating body of recorded music and television/film performances—everything from suave jazz stylings to cornball pop whimsy. He was quite an accomplished jazz player in his prime: agile, fast and harmonically inventive. And in many ways, the marvelous gadgets he invented were an extension of his playing technique—one more way of achieving the sounds he heard in his head.

“Looking back over my life, I think I probably spent a little more time tinkering with electronics than I did playing music,” he told me in 2002. “I don’t know if that was foolish or not.”

From a very early age, music making and inventing things seemed to go hand in hand for the boy born Lester William Polfus on June 9, 1915, in Waukesha, Wisconsin. He altered the player piano rolls at home, adding notes that weren’t meant to be there. By around 1927 he’d created a homemade electric guitar, amp and P.A. system using a record player pickup, telephone mouthpiece and parts from the family radio. These he built in order to entertain at a local hamburger stand, playing guitar to accompany his vocals and harmonica playing. The harmonica was mounted in a holder Lester had fashioned out of a coat hanger.

At age 13, he hit the road as a professional musician for the first time, joining up with a traveling cowboy band during a summer break from school. By the mid Thirties, Lester had gone fully professional and landed in Chicago, where he gained success performing country music on the radio under the cheerful name Rhubarb Red. As Rhubarb Red, he also recorded a few sides for the Montgomery Ward label, including “Just Because” and “Deep Elem Blues.”

At the same time, he forged a more sophisticated persona. Lester Polfus became Les Paul. Under that name he recorded with blues singer Georgia White and made the rounds of Chicago’s jazz clubs. From his teen years onward, he’d been influenced by jazz guitarists Nick Lucas and Eddie Lang. And in 1937 he formed the first of many Les Paul Trios.

“Chicago was the place to lock into jazz,” Les recalled in 2002. “I liked St. Louis and lots of other places where I’d traveled. But [they were] not like Chicago. Chicago had [famed gangster] Al Capone. It had…everything! It was the place for excitement.”

During this period, Les was becoming increasingly serious about guitar design. He teamed up with the Larson brothers, two luthiers who had a workshop in a barn outside Chicago. Les had the duo build him a guitar with a solid maple top (no f holes) and two pickups. Some historians credit Les with being the first guitar designer to employ two pickups.

At the time, electric Spanish guitars were predominantly hollowbody instruments—jazz archtops, essentially, with a pickup attached. Solidbody designs were largely employed for Hawaiian lap steel guitars but not the electric Spanish guitar. That got Les wondering if there wasn’t a better way to go about things. He was among the many people during the Thirties that were looking for the best way to amplify the guitar. The essential question was whether to amplify the top or the bridge. In California, George Beauchamp and Adolph Rickenbacher had figured out that, since the string was the primary sound source on a guitar, it was probably the best thing to amplify, a breakthrough that was reflected in the Rickenbacker A-22 and A-25 “Frying Pan” guitars of the early Thirties.

Working independently, Les Paul had arrived at much the same conclusion. Summing up his thinking at the time, he put it this way: “What if we could hear the string all by itself? We know that a hollowbody guitar has an acoustic chamber that is resonating at different frequencies. But what if we could isolate the string from that? If you could take the string all by its lonesome, with nothing sustaining it but the nut and the bridge, what would this honest-to-God string sound like? Is it something we would want to hear? Could the sound be manipulated electronically in some way? That was the challenge: to take a string that was completely divorced from the box and make it sound better, or at least just as good.”

This would be Les’ quest for years to come. It’s an idea he carried with him from Chicago to New York, when the Les Paul Trio relocated to the Big Apple in 1938. Shortly after arriving, Les managed to wangle an audition with popular bandleader Fred Waring, who decided to feature the Les Paul Trio on his weekly national radio show for NBC. In those pre-television, pre-internet days, radio was the prime medium for musical exposure. And while the trio was enjoying new heights of popularity, Les continued his quest for a guitar design that could effectively isolate string vibrations from body resonance.

His next effort along these lines was the fabled “Log” guitar. Pickups, bridge and a crudely wrought vibrato tailpiece were mounted on a central four-by-four block of solid pine. A Gibson neck was attached to this central beam, and two body wings fashioned from an Epiphone hollowbody archtop were affixed to either side. What Les had come up with was essentially a solidbody electric Spanish guitar—“essentially” because, although the sides were hollow, they were simply added on to make the Log look more like a traditional guitar. He began building the instrument in 1939, doing some of the work at the Epiphone factory in lower Manhattan. He often recalled Epiphone chief Epi Stathopoulos’ reaction to the Log: “Epi looked at me and said, ‘What in the hell are you doing?’ I spent a few Sundays at the Epiphone factory making that thing. They were all curious to see what I was up to. And when I got done making it, the only ones who liked it were the night watchman and me. No one was very impressed with it.”

Nor was Gibson interested when Les brought it to the company’s Kalamazoo, Michigan, headquarters in 1941. Gibson was then enjoying huge success with its hollowbody archtop electrics and saw no reason to take a chance on a solidbody design. Les was dismissed as “that character with the broomstick with a pickup on it.” Years later, the president of Gibson would confide to him, “We laughed at you for 10 years.”

But it was Les, of course, who eventually had the last laugh. And while the Log wasn’t much to look at, it was a completely functional and fine-sounding instrument, one that Les would use on many hit recordings during the Forties and early Fifties, including “Lover,” “Nola” and “Lady of Spain.” It was also in 1941 that he acquired another guitar that would become a key element in his recorded sound during this period. He was in Chicago when a man approached him with a hollowbody Epiphone and an amp.

“The guy told me that he’d got his hand caught in a bread-wrapping machine at work and he’d mangled it badly,” Les recalled. “He said, ‘I can’t play guitar anymore, and I’d like to give you this guitar and amp.’ Well, that guitar and amp were to become history. I said to myself, ‘I can operate on this guitar. I can cut it all up. It’s a guitar I don’t care about. I’ll make it different than any other guitar I got, and I’ll do some of the things I always wanted to do but couldn’t.’ ”

Les’ pet name for this highly customized Epiphone was “the Clunker.” And like most of Les’ guitars, both the Clunker and the Log would undergo a process of constant rewiring, revamping and revision as their owner experimented with new sonic ideas. The two instruments served Les well in his new home: Hollywood. The Les Paul Trio relocated there in 1942. With characteristic resourcefulness, Les landed himself and the trio gigs as staff musicians at the NBC radio studios, knowing that Bing Crosby broadcasted live from there every Thursday night. At the time Crosby was at the height of his fame as a crooner. A star of radio, records and film, he was one of the great icons of the pre-rock era. It wasn’t long before the Les Paul Trio became Crosby’s backing band.

Their first recording with Crosby, “It’s Been a Long, Long Time,” became a hit for Decca Records in 1945. It was the start of a long and successful relationship with Crosby and Decca. Les also recorded with popular singer Helen Forest and “America’s sweethearts,” the Andrews Sisters. He toured with Crosby and the Andrews as well, and was also quite active in radio during this period. NBC placed him in charge of several shows, some featuring jazz and others country. Searching for a singer for one of his country spots, he was introduced to Colleen Summers. The two hit it off and would later marry and recordtogether as Les Paul and Mary Ford. The latter name is one that Les found in a phone book and subsequently copyrighted.

The Les Paul trio cut many recordings of their own music for Decca. A number of these, such as 1947’s “Guitar Boogie,” “Steel Guitar Rag,” “Caravan” and “Somebody Loves Me,” feature an innovative headless aluminum guitar that Les designed.

Recognizing Les’ gifted way with technology, Bing Crosby offered to set him up in his own recording studio and music school, Les Paul’s House of Music. The guitarist declined, preferring to put together a studio in the detached garage of his home on Curzon Street, just north of Sunset Boulevard, near where the West Hollywood Guitar Center now stands. There he began to perform some of the earliest known experiments with multitrack recording, using not tape but a disc-cutting lathe he built with the flywheel from a Cadillac and outfitted with multiple cutting heads. Les says he was playing around with “disc multiples” (his term) as early as the Thirties, but by 1946 all the pieces were in place for him to exploit these technological innovations in a major way. By this point, he’d also discovered how to create echo effects via the record and playback heads, thus pioneering the use of slapback echo.

He deployed all of these discoveries on a single recording of momentous historic importance. The instrumental called “Lover” is a heavily overdubbed, sped-up tour de force of glycerin guitar work performed on the Log and the Clunker. The origins of modern multitrack recording and signal processing can be traced back to this disc. Even today “Lover” sounds like a band of mischievous Martian munchkins riffing on an old Rodgers and Hart standard. One can only imagine how strange it sounded in the Forties.

It was too weird for Decca. The label refused to put the track out, which led Les to sign a new deal with Capitol Records. Released in 1947, “Lover” was billed as introducing “Les Paul’s New Sound.” It did much to foster public perception of Les as the high-tech Svengali of the electric guitar—“The Wizard from Waukesha.” It also inaugurated a long string of Les Paul and Mary Ford hits for Capitol.

But this run of good fortune came perilously close to being nipped in the bud. Les was involved in a serious auto accident in 1948. His right arm was broken and his elbow joint was rendered incapable of motion. With characteristic determination, Les had the doctors set his broken bones in such a manner that his partially immobilized arm would always be in position to pick a guitar.

Shortly after that, in 1949, Les and Mary were married. By the early Fifties, they’d relocated to the metropolitan New York area, where they began to perform on television, at the time a new medium. The duo had a regular, nationally televised show, At Home with Les Paul and Mary Ford, sponsored by Listerine. The format was unique, even for the experimental years of television’s infancy, and yet another testimony to Les’ gift for innovative thinking. For one, the show was broadcast live daily from Les and Mary’s home in Mahwah, New Jersey, which had been specially outfitted with the necessary equipment. In addition, Les hit on the idea of doing several five-minute shows daily, rather than following the usual format of one 30- or 60-minute show per week. Les and Mary packed each five-minute segment with comedic dialog, music and, of course, a plug for Listerine. The shows helped make them a household name in the early Fifties, as did their hit records, which included “Tennessee Waltz,” “Mockin’ Bird Hill” and “Vaya Con Dios.”

Given Les’ high visibility at this time, and his reputation as the Thomas Edison of the electric guitar, it made perfect sense for Gibson to approach him in 1950 with the idea of using his name and design input on a brand-new instrument they’d come up with. The guitar market had shifted appreciably since 1941, when Les first brought the Log to Gibson and was laughed at for his pains. Most significantly, Fender had introduced a solidbody guitar called the Broadcaster (subsequently renamed the Telecaster) in 1950, and it had become hugely popular. To remain competitive, Gibson needed a solidbody design of its own.

Gibson’s Ted McCarty did the main design work. He brought a prototype of the instrument to Les and Mary, who were recording in Pennsylvania. After inspecting and playing the instrument, Les is reported to have said, “They’re getting too close to us, Mary. I think we should join them.”

Les, as usual, had a few ideas of his own. He was keen on the notion that Gibson’s solidbody should represent an upmarket alternative to the popular Fender Telecaster. “We knew what our competitors were doing. My argument was, ‘What they’ve got is just an ironing board.’ My idea was to make our guitar so beautiful you’d just have to love it. It looks as good as it sounds.”

The first production model Gibson Les Pauls were introduced in 1952. But he had begun using prototype versions of the guitar as early as 1951. According to Les, his recording of “Tiger Rag” featured a model so early it still had a flat top, not the contoured carved top that would later become a hallmark of the Gibson Les Paul. Later tracks like “Meet Mr. Callaghan” and “My Baby’s Comin’ Home” feature a prototype Les Paul gold top.

“How High the Moon,” released in 1951, is significant for another reason. It is the first track where Les switched from cutting lathes to tape recorders. He modified an Ampex tape machine with an extra head and stacked up 24 tracks for “How High the Moon”—an astonishing number of tracks back in ’51. Les developed a relationship with Ampex as well and was a pioneering figure in the development of multitrack tape recording.

The dawn of the Sixties brought an end to America’s post-WWII age of innocence. With it went the kind of endearing naiveté typified by At Home with Les Paul and Mary Ford and the duo’s pop hits. This shift in American popular culture was reflected in the couple’s personal lives as well. They divorced in 1961 and left Capitol in ’62, the same year the Beatles began their recording career. Les was stricken with Ménière’s Disease that year as well, and also underwent a bone-graft operation on the little finger to his left hand in an effort to combat what was becoming an increasingly severe arthritic condition. It was the beginning of a long spell of heath problems. In 1964, a visiting friend accidentally cuffed Les’ ear, breaking the eardrum. Les wound up undergoing four very difficult ear surgeries.

In 1965, Les Paul decided to retire from playing music and focus on his inventions. But a decade later, he was back in the game, unable to leave the guitar alone. “My doctor said, ‘Les, I want you to go back to work,’ ” he reported at the time. “ ‘And work hard. You’ll live longer.’ ” Les survived a stroke and a heart attack in 1975. The very next year he recorded a Grammy-winning duet album, Chester and Lester, with his fellow guitar legend, Chet Atkins. A quintuple-bypass heart operation landed Les in the hospital in 1980, but he was back onstage by ’82, and in ’84 began a regular Monday night residency at New York City jazz club Fat Tuesday. He later moved uptown to another Manhattan nightspot, Iridium. But Monday night remained his night.

Numerous musical icons, including Paul McCartney, Keith Richards and Tony Bennett, stopped by Iridium to sit in with Les. Up-and-coming players were also invited onstage. The greats and the unknowns were equally subject to Les’ good-natured wisecracks, but all came away delighted at having traded riffs and remarks with the grand old man of guitardom.

The final years of Les Paul’s life were filled with well-deserved honors. Guitar greats Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Buddy Guy, Keith Richards, Billy Gibbons and Joe Perry flocked to perform on Les’ final album, Les Paul and Friends: American Made World Played, released in celebration of his 90th birthday in 2005. The disc placed two more Grammys in Les’ collection. To these honors were added major tributes at the Smithsonian Institution, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and even the White House. On the latter occasion, then-president George W. Bush asked, “How are they treating you, Les?” To which he promptly replied, “To tell you the truth, I’m a little hungry.” He was quickly escorted down to the White House kitchen.

Les is sure to receive many more tributes and honors, and of course the guitar that bears his name will remain in demand perhaps forever. His longtime sidemen at Iridium plan to keep the Monday night institution going—one more guarantee that Les Paul’s name and legacy will endure. His onstage spot may be vacant, but his place in history is well assured.