Les Paul (9 June 1915 - 13 August 2009) was best known as a guitarist, and as one of the most important figures in the development of modern electric instruments and recording techniques. He was a pioneer in the development of the solid-body electric guitar (the Gibson Les Paul he helped design is one of the most famous and enduring models), multitrack recording, and various reverb effects.
Paul, born Lester William Polfus (Polsfuss) in Waukesha, Wisconsin, first became interested in music at the age of eight, when he began playing the harmonica. After an attempt at learning to play the banjo, Paul began to play the guitar. By 13, Paul was performing semi-professionally as a country-music guitarist. At the age of 17, Paul played with Rube Tronson's Cowboys. Soon after, he dropped out of high school to join Wolverton's Radio Band in St. Louis, Missouri on KMOX.
In the 1930s, Paul worked in Chicago, Illinois in radio, where he performed jazz music. Paul's first two records were released in 1936. One album was credited to 'Rhubarb Red', Paul's hillbilly alter ego, and the other was in the backing band for blues artist Georgia White.
Paul was unsatisfied by the electric guitars that were sold in the mid 1930s and began experimenting with a few designs of his own. Famously, he created 'The Log' which was nothing more than a length of common "4 by 4" fence post with bridge, guitar neck, and pickup attached. For appearances he attached the body of an Epiphone jazz guitar, sawn lengthwise with the 'Log' in the middle. This solved his two main problems - feedback, as the acoustic body no longer resonated with the amplified sound, and sustain, as the energy of the strings was not dissipated in generating sound through the guitar body.
In 1938, Paul moved to New York and landed a featured spot with Fred Waring's Pennsylvanians radio show. Paul moved to Hollywood in 1943, where he formed a new trio. As a last-minute replacement for Oscar Moore, Paul played with Nat King Cole and other artists in the inaugural Jazz at the Philharmonic concert in Los Angeles on 2 July 1944. Also that year, Paul's trio appeared on Bing Crosby's radio show. Crosby went on to sponsor Paul's recording experiments. The two also recorded together several times, including a 1945 number one hit, 'It's Been a Long, Long Time'. In addition to backing Crosby and artists like the Andrews Sisters, Paul's trio also recorded a few albums of their own in the late 1940s.
In 1941, Paul designed and built one of the first solid-body electric guitars (though Leo Fender also independently invented his own solid body electric guitar around the same time, and Adolph Rickenbacker had marketed a solid body guitar in the 30s). Gibson Guitar Corporation made a number of these guitars for Paul, but insisted that their name be left off of the instrument. In later years, they would change their mind. These days, Gibson Les Paul guitars are used all over the world, both by novices and professionals.
In 1947, Capitol Records released a recording that had begun as an experiment in Paul's garage, entitled 'Lover (When You're Near Me)', which featured Paul playing eight different parts on electric guitar. This was the first time that multi-tracking had been used in a recording. Amazingly, these recordings were made, not with magnetic tape, but with wax disks. Paul would record a track onto a disk, then record himself playing another part with the first. He built the multi-track recording with overlaid tracks, rather than parallel ones as he did later. There is no record of how few 'takes' were needed before he was satisfied with one layer and moved onto the next.
Paul even built his own wax-cutter assembly, based on auto parts. He favoured the flywheel from a Cadillac for its weight and flatness. Even in these early days, he used the wax disc setup to record parts at different speeds and with delay, resulting in his signature sound with echoes and birdsong-like guitar riffs. When he later began using magnetic tape, the major change was that he could take his recording rig on tour with him, even making episodes for his 15-minute radio show in his hotel room.
Paul was injured in a near-fatal automobile accident in January 1948 in Oklahoma, which shattered his right arm and elbow. Paul spent a year and a half recovering. Paul instructed the surgeons to set his arm at an angle that would allow him to cradle and pick the guitar.
In the early 1950s, Paul made a number of recordings with wife, Colleen Summers (known on record as Mary Ford). These records were unique for their heavy use of overdubbing, which was technically impossible without Paul's inventions. In 1954 Paul, continued to develop this technology, by commissioning Ampex to build the first eight track tape recorder, at his expense. His idea, later known as 'Sel-Sync', in which a recording head could simultaneously record a new track and play back previously recorded ones, would further establish the future of multi-track recording.
During his early radio shows, Paul introduced the mythical 'Les Paulverizer' device, which was supposed to multiply anything fed into it, like a guitar sound or a voice. This even became the subject of comedy, with Mary Ford multiplying herself and her vacuum cleaner with it so she could finish the housework faster (a typical joke in the pre-feminist era). Later Paul made the myth real for his stage show, using hidden equipment which over the years has become smaller and more visible. Currently he uses a small box attached to his guitar - it is not known how much of the device remains off-stage. He typically lays down one track after another on stage, in-sync, and then plays over the repeating forms he has recorded. With newer digital sound technology, even the meanest basement guitar player can purchase a box that allows him to do the same, so this part of the act has lost some of its luster.
In the late 1960s, Paul went into semi-retirement, although he did return to the studio occasionally. He recorded an album Lester and Chester with Chet Atkins. He and Colleen divorced amicably in 1964, as she could no longer tolerate the itinerant lifestyle their act required of them.
In 1978, Les Paul and wife, Mary Ford, were inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame. He received a Grammy Trustees Award for his lifetime achievements in 1983. In 1988, Paul was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame by Jeff Beck, who said, 'I've copied more licks from Les Paul than I'd like to admit.' Les Paul was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in May 2005 for his development of the solidbody electric guitar.
In 2004, Les Paul performed weekly at the Iridium Jazz Club on Broadway in New York City. He often remarked at shows 'When I introduce myself to people, they are always surprised to learn that I'm not a guitar and I'm not dead!' On 13 August 2009, Paul died of complications from pneumonia at White Plains Hospital in White Plains, New York.
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- Huber, John (1991) The Development of the Modern Guitar. Westport, CT: The Bold Strummer. ISBN 0-933224-59-1
- Lawrence, Robb (2008) The Early Years of the Les Paul Legacy: 1915-1963. New York: Hal Leonard Books. ISBN 0-634-04861-9
- Millard, André J. (2004) The Electric Guitar: a History of an American Icon. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press. ISBN 0-8018-7862-4
- Noonan, Jeffrey J. (2008) The Guitar in America: Victorian Era to Jazz Age. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi. ISBN 1-934110-18-3
- Shaw, Robert (1997) Great Guitars. New York: Hugh Lauter Levin Association. ISBN 0-88363-397-3
- Waksman, Steven (2001) Instruments of Desire: The Electric Guitar and the Shaping of Musical Experience. Cambridge, Mass.; London: Harvard University Press. ISBN 0-674-00547-3
- Wyckoff, Edwin Brit (2008) Electric Guitar Man: The Genius of Les Paul. Berkeley Heights, NJ: Enslow Publishers. ISBN 0-7660-2847-X
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