Les Paul, born Lester William Polsfuss, June 9, 1915 died of complications from pneumonia in White Plains, New York on August 13, 2009 .
Les Paul 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, he 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 Texas Cowboys, and 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 in radio, where he performed jazz music. Paul’s first two records were released in 1936. One was credited to Rhubarb Red, Paul’s hillbilly alter ego, and the other was as an accompanist for blues artist Georgia White.
In January 1948, Paul was injured in a near-fatal automobile accident in Oklahoma, which shattered his right arm and elbow. Doctors told Paul that there was no way for them to rebuild his elbow in a way that would let him regain movement, and that his arm would remain permanently in whatever position they placed it in. Paul then instructed the surgeons to set his arm at an angle that would allow him to cradle and pick the guitar. It took him a year and a half to recover. His innovative talents extended into his unique playing style, including licks, trills, chording sequences, fretting techniques and timing which set him apart from his contemporaries and inspired many of the guitarists of the present day.
Les was a pioneer of the early innovations in recording techniques, 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. Paul even built his own wax-cutter assembly, based on auto parts. Even in these early days, he used the wax disk 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.
In 1938, Paul moved to New York as part of a trio that included Jim Atkins (older half-brother of guitarist Chet Atkins) and bassist/percussionist Ernie Newton. They 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 July 2, 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 on the Decca label in the late 1940s.
Les Paul, unsatisfied with 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.
“The Log“, built in 1939, was one of the first solid-body electric guitars. (Leo Fender created his own solid-body electric guitar around this time and Adolph Rickenbacher had marketed a solid-body guitar in the 30s). Gibson Guitar Corporation designed a guitar incorporating Paul’s suggestions in the early fifties, and presented it to him to try. He was impressed enough to sign a contract for what became the “Les Paul” model (originally only in a “gold top” version), and agreed never to be seen playing in public, or be photographed, with anything other than a Gibson guitar. The Les Paul model was the result of a design collaboration between Gibson Guitar Corporation and pop star, electronics inventor, and accomplished jazz guitarist Les Paul. In 1950, with the introduction of the Fender Telecaster to the musical market, electric guitars became a public craze. In reaction, Gibson Guitar president James Verdon brought guitarist Les Paul into the company as a consultant. The arrangement persisted until 1961, when declining sales prompted Gibson to change the design without Paul’s knowledge, creating a much thinner, lighter, and more aggressive-looking instrument with two cutaway “horns” instead of one. Paul said he first saw the “new” Gibson Les Paul in a music store window, and disliked it. Though his contract required him to pose with the guitar, he said it was not “his” instrument, and asked Gibson to remove his name from the head stock. (Others claimed that Paul ended his endorsement contract with Gibson during his divorce, to avoid having his wife to get his endorsement money.) Gibson renamed the guitar “Gibson SG” (which stands for “Solid Guitar”), and it also became one of the company’s best sellers.
Although numerous other prototypes and limited-production solid-body models by other makers have since surfaced, it is known that in 1945-1946, Les Paul had approached Gibson with “The Log” prototype, but his solid body design was rejected. In 1951, this initial rejection became a design collaboration between the Gibson Guitar Corporation and Les Paul. It was agreed that the new Les Paul guitar was to be an expensive, well-made instrument in Gibson’s tradition. Although recollections differ regarding who contributed what to the Les Paul design, it was far from a market replica of the competing Fender models. Since the 1930s, Gibson had offered electric hollow-body guitars, such as the ES-150; at minimum, these hollow-body electric models provided a set of basic design cues to the new Gibson solid-body, including a more traditionally curved body shape than offered by competitor Fender, and a glued-in (“set”) neck, in contrast to Fender’s bolt-on neck joint design.
The significance of Les Paul’s contributions to his Gibson guitar design remains controversial. The book “50 Years of the Gibson Les Paul” limits Paul’s contributions to two: advice on the trapeze tailpiece, and a preference for color (stating that Paul preferred gold as “it looks expensive”, and a second choice of black because “it makes your fingers appear to move faster on the box”, and “looks classy—like a tuxedo”
The original Gibson Les Paul guitar design regained popularity when Eric Clapton began playing the instrument a few years later (although he also played an SG and an ES-335). Paul resumed his relationship with Gibson, and endorsed the original Les Paul guitar from then on (though his personal Gibson Les Pauls were much modified by him — Paul always used his own self-wound pickups and customized switching on his guitars). To this day, various models of Gibson Les Paul guitars are used all over the world, by both novice and professional guitarists. A less expensive version of the Les Paul guitar is also manufactured for Gibson’s lower-priced Epiphone brand.
In 1948, 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, some of them recorded at half-speed, hence “double-fast” when played back at normal speed for the master. This was the first time that multi-tracking had been used in a recording. These recordings were made not with magnetic tape, but with acetate 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 many “takes” were needed before he was satisfied with one layer and moved onto the next.
Paul even built his own disc-cutter assembly, based on auto parts. He favored the flywheel from a Cadillac for its weight and flatness. Even in these early days, he used the acetate disk 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.
Les Paul and his wife Mary Ford at work recording during the late 1940s.
Electronics engineer Jack Mullin had been assigned to a US Army Signals unit stationed in France in WWII. On a mission in Germany near the end of the war, he acquired and later shipped home a German Magnetophon (tape recorder) and 50 reels of I.G. Farben plastic recording tape. Mullin rebuilt and developed the machine back in the US with the intention of selling it to the movie industry, and held a series of demonstrations which quickly became the talk of the US audio industry. Mullin’s second demonstration was witnessed by Murdo MacKenzie, technical director for the Bing Crosby radio show.
Within a short time Crosby had hired Mullin to record and produce his radio shows and master his studio recordings on tape, and he invested US$50,000 in local electronics firm Ampex. With Crosby’s backing Mullin and Ampex created the Ampex Model 200, the world’s first commercially-produced reel-to-reel audio tape recorder. Crosby gave Les Paul the second Model 200 to be produced and Les immediately saw its potential both for special effects, like echo, and eventually its suitability for multi-track recording, of which he is considered the father. Using this machine, Paul placed an additional playback head, located before the conventional Erase-Record-Playback heads. This allowed Paul to play along with a previously recorded track, both of which were mixed together on to a new track. Keep in mind that this was a mono tape recorder – just ONE track across the entire width of quarter-inch tape – and so the recording was ‘destructive’ in the sense that the original recording was erased and replaced with the new recording.
One need only listen to any of the early Capitol recordings from the early 1950s to realize how great a challenge this process was. These revolutionary recordings were made with his wife, Mary Ford, who sang. The couple’s hits included “How High the Moon”, “Bye Bye Blues”, “The World Is Waiting for the Sunrise”, and “Vaya Con Dios”. These songs featured Mary harmonizing with herself, giving the vocals a very novel sound.
Les Paul’s need for multiple non-destructive tracks was obvious and his re-invention of the Ampex 200 inspired Ampex to develop two-track and three-track recorders. These machines were the backbone of professional recording, radio and television studios in the 1950s and early 1960s. In 1954, Paul continued to develop this technology by commissioning Ampex to build the first eight track tape recorder, at his expense. The machine took three years to get working properly, and Paul said that by the time it was functional his music was out of favor and so he never had a hit record using it. His design became known as “Sel-Sync,” (Selective Synchronization) in which a specially modified electronics could either record or playback from the Record Head, which was not optimized for playback but was acceptable for the purposes of recording an “overdub” (OD) in sync with the original recording. This is the core technology behind multi-track recording.
Like Crosby, Paul and Ford also used the now-ubiquitous recording technique known as close miking, where the microphone is less than six inches from the singer’s mouth. This produces a more intimate, less reverberant sound than is heard when a singer is a foot or more from the microphone. When implemented using a cardioid-patterned microphone, it emphasizes low-frequency sounds in the voice due to a cardioid microphone’s proximity effect and can give a more relaxed feel because the performer isn’t working so hard. The result is a singing style which diverged strongly from un-amplified theater-style singing, as might be heard in musical comedies of the 1930s and 40s.
Paul had hosted a 15-minute radio program, The Les Paul Show, on NBC in 1950, featuring his trio (himself, Ford, and rhythm player Eddie Stapleton) and his electronics, recorded from their home and with gentle humor between Paul and Ford bridging musical selections, some of which had already been successful on records, some of which anticipated the couple’s recordings, and many of which presented dazzling re-interpretations of such jazz and pop selections as “In the Mood,” “Little Rock Getaway,” “Brazil,” and “Tiger Rag.” Several recordings of these shows survive among old-time radio collectors today.
The show also appeared on television a few years later with the same format, but excluding the trio and re-titled The Les Paul & Mary Ford Show (aka Les Paul & Mary Ford At Home) with “Vaya Con Dios” as a theme song. Sponsored by Warner Lambert’s Listerine, it was widely syndicated during 1954-’55, and was only five minutes (one or two songs) long on film, therefore used as a brief interlude or fill-in in programming schedules. Since Les created the entire show himself, including audio and video, he maintained the original recordings and was in the process of restoring them to up-to-date quality up until his death.
During his radio shows, Paul introduced the legendary “Les Paulverizer” device, which multiplies anything fed into it, like a guitar sound or a voice. Paul has stated that the idea was to explain to the audience how his single guitar could be “multiplied” into an orchestra. The device even became the subject of comedy, with Ford multiplying herself and her vacuum cleaner with it so she could finish the housework faster. Later Paul claimed to have made the myth real for his stage show, using a small box attached to his guitar, which was really just a stage prop. He typically pretended to lay down one track after another on stage, in-sync, and then play over the repeating forms he had recorded.
In the late 1960s, Paul went into semi-retirement, although he did return to the studio occasionally. He and Mary Ford (born Iris Colleen Summers) had divorced in December 1964, as she could no longer countenance the itinerant lifestyle their act required of them. Paul’s most recognizable recordings from then through the mid-1970s were an album for London Records, Les Paul Now (1967), on which he updated some of his earlier hits; and, backed by some of Nashville’s celebrated studio musicians, a meld of jazz and country improvisation with fellow guitar virtuoso Chet Atkins, Chester and Lester (1976), for RCA Victor.
By the late 1980s, Paul had returned to active live performance. In 2006, at the age of 90, he won two Grammy’s at the 48th Annual Grammy Awards for his album Les Paul & Friends: American Made World Played. He also performed every Monday night, accompanied by a trio which included guitarist Lou Pallo, bassist Nicki Parrott and pianist John Colianni, at the Iridium Jazz Club on Broadway in New York City.
In 1978, Les Paul and Mary Ford were inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame. Paul 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.” In 1991, the Mix Foundation established an annual award in his name; the Les Paul Award which honors “individuals or institutions that have set the highest standards of excellence in the creative application of audio technology. Les Paul was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in May 2005 for his development of the solid-body electric guitar. In 2006, Paul was inducted into the National Broadcasters Hall of Fame. He was named an honorary member of the Audio Engineering Society.
A 1 hour biographical documentary titled The Wizard of Waukesha was shown at the Los Angeles International Film Exposition (FILMEX) March 4-21, 1980 and later on PBS.
A biographical, feature length documentary, titled Chasing Sound: Les Paul at 90, made its world premiere on May 9, 2007 at the Downer Theater in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Paul appeared at the event and spoke briefly to the enthusiastic crowd. The film is being distributed by Koch Entertainment and was broadcast on PBS on July 11, 2007 as part of its American Masters series and was broadcast on October 17, 2008 on BBC Four as part of its Guitar Night. The premiere coincided with the final part of a three part documentary by the BBC broadcast on BBC ONE entitled The Story of the Guitar.
In June 2008, an exhibit showcasing his legacy and featuring items from his personal collection opened at Discovery World in Milwaukee . The exhibit was facilitated by a group of local musicians under the name Partnership for the Arts and Creative Excellence (PACE). Paul played a concert in Milwaukee to coincide with the opening of the exhibit.
Paul’s hometown, Waukesha, Wisconsin is planning a permanent exhibit to be called “The Les Paul experience”.
In July 2005, a 90th-birthday tribute concert was held at Carnegie Hall in New York City. After performances by Steve Miller, Peter Frampton, Jose Feliciano and a number of other contemporary guitarists and vocalists, Les was presented with a commemorative guitar from the Gibson Guitar Corporation.
On November 15, 2008, Les Paul received the American Music Masters award through the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame at a tribute concert in the State Theater in Cleveland. Among the many guest performers were Duane Eddy, Eric Carmen, Lonnie Mack, Jennifer Batten, Jeff “Skunk” Baxter, Dennis Coffey, James Burton, Billy Gibbons, Lenny Kaye, Steve Lukather, Barbara Lynn, Katy Moffatt, Alannah Myles, Richie Sambora, The Ventures, and Slash.
Les Paul was an Honorary Board Member for Little Kids Rock, a nonprofit dedicated to bringing free musical instruments and music instruction to under served schools across the country.
Paul was the godfather of rock guitarist Steve Miller of the Steve Miller Band, to whom Paul gave his first guitar lesson.