It is too easy when talking about music to use lots of superlatives which only leads to them being devalued. So, when I say that Les Paul was one of the true greats of popular music that is exactly what I mean. I am not trying to ‘big him up’, he was the real deal.
He was still performing right up to his death. He was regarded with awe and affection by many leading guitarists (only last year Slash was quoted as saying that he spoke to Les Paul once a week and spoke of their friendship). He said: “Les Paul was a shining example of how full one’s life can be. He was so vibrant and full of positive energy. I’m honoured and humbled to have known and played with him over the years.”
Les Paul invented multi-tracking, for which we should all be grateful (and by extension to Bing Crosby – read why here). He experimented with echo and effects, he and Mary Ford, his wife, recorded in different rooms of their home to get different feels to the recordings. Paving the way for people like Joe Meek. He was also a pioneer in other recording techniques such as phasing and over dubbing.
Oh yes, he also invented and designed the most successful electric guitar in the world. The guitar he designed and that bears his name was the preferred choice for many guitar greats including: Joe Satriani, Jimmy Page, Gary Moore, Peter Green, Pete Townsend and many, many more.
His personal story is as full, interesting and inspiring as his professional story. Born on 9th June 1915 and named lester William Polsfuss. At the age of eight he learned harmonica and it was not until he was 13 (after he had failed to play banjo) that he turned to the guitar. he left school when he was 17 to concentrate on a life as a musician.
In the thirties he was playing on the radio in Chicago and developing the individual style that still influences modern guitarists to this day. He eventually moved to Hollywood in 1943, formed a trio and gained the role of Bing Crosby’s backing group on his radio and TV shows. This helped propel him to stardom. he also met and Married Mary Ford and together they recorded many records employing all his skills, leaving rivals in their wake. His recording career continued into his 80s and won two Grammys in 2006 for his album ‘Les Paul & Friends: American made World Played Hero’
In 1948 he had a serious car accident smashing his right arm and elbow. He was told that his arm would never work again, there would be no movement in it and that it would have to be set. He told the doctors to set his arm at an angle so that he could play the guitar. It took Les Paul 18 months to learn how to play guitar again.
In the ’30s he became dissatisfied with acoustic guitars for performance. he wanted something louder with more presence. HI solution was, initially, a 4×4 piece of wood with a bridge and guitar neck and a pick up running through an amplifier. It was called ‘the log’. As well as not being particularly attractive it also suffered from feedback. The solution was to take an acoustic guitar split it legnth ways and put the log inside it. Style and playability (though still pretty heavy). Gibson loved the design and so began manufacture (any colour you want as long as it is a goldtop, at least at first).
Together with Fender, Gibson revolutionised modern music. It is arguably which design of guitar has most affect, and really that is a sterile debate. What is beyond doubt is that Les Paul himself had an enormous affect on modern music and we all owe him a great debt.