Les Paul: A Musical Pioneer

When Les Paul died in 2009 at the age of 94, his passing was mourned by musicians and music-lovers all over the world. There is arguably no one that has influenced the sound of rock, blues and other popular genres more than Les Paul. He is one of only a few people to have a permanent display at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Paul was also honored with a Grammy Award for Lifetime Achievement and has been inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame and the National Association of Broadcasters Hall of Fame. Paul is an honorary member of the National Audio Engineering Society and received the National Medal of Arts in 2007.

Who was this man that achieved so much in such different areas of endeavor? Was he a musician that had a gift for invention? Was he a scientist who happened to like music? Was he a talented performer and showman at heart who just liked to tinker around with instruments? A closer look at his life will help answer these questions.

Early Years

Les Paul was called Lester William Polsfus when he was born near Waukesha, Wisconsin in 1915. He simplified his Prussian name when he began performing regularly on stage.

Paul’s first musical instrument was a harmonica that he played as an 8-year-old. He took a few piano lessons as a youngster, but never did learn to read music. As he entered his teens, Les’s mother encouraged him to try another instrument. He first attempted the banjo, but soon settled on the guitar. Paul invented a holder for his harmonica about this time that allowed him to play it while he accompanied himself on the guitar. When he was in high school, he and some friends formed a band known as the Red Hot Ragtime Band and Les adopted the nickname, “Red Hot Red.” His group played for dances at lake resorts and beach parties and became well known in the area.

At the age of 17, Les got an opportunity to join Sunny Joe Wolverton’s cowboy radio band in St. Louis and dropped out of high school to take advantage of it. By 1934, he had moved to Chicago and was doing a live hillbilly music act under the name of Rhubarb Red and a separate jazz act as Les Paul. His first two records were released two years later. One was a Rhubarb Red album and the other featured him accompanying blues-singer Georgia White on his guitar.

Life in New York

Les Paul formed a trio in 1937 with Ernie Newton as the bass/percussionist and Jim Atkins as singer and rhythm guitarist. (Jim’s younger half-brother is famous guitarist Chet Atkins, who credits Les Paul with giving him the first professional-quality guitar he ever owned.) The trio moved to New York and soon landed a radio gig with Fred Waring’s Pennsylvanians.

While living in New York, Les eagerly entered the world of jazz. He joined in jam sessions with many greats of the era including Louis Armstrong and Art Tatum. Les examined the acoustic-style electrified guitars that were on the market at the time. He could see the benefits of amplification for a guitarist, especially when playing with an orchestra, but he was not satisfied with the sound and feel of the instruments he found. The hollow-body guitars of the day were prone to producing vicious electronic feedback and the strings did not have a great deal of sustain. He began to experiment with solid-body instruments that could solve these two problems thereby making them practical for jazz musicians.

Paul built several versions of his prototype electric guitar called “The Log.” It is described in various sources as being made from a 4 x 4 piece of lumber, a railroad tie, or a fence post. At any rate, its interior was a solid piece of wood covered with the body of an Epiphone acoustic that he cut in half. He attached electronic pickups, a neck and strings, and liked the results he got. The log instruments did not produce feedback because the solid bodies didn’t resonate with the amplified sound, and they had great sustain since the energy of the vibrating strings was not dissipated through a hollow body.

As is the case with nearly all inventors, Les Paul’s path toward perfection was not always smooth. In 1940, he was experimenting with amplification and suffered a serious electrocution injury. It took him almost two years to recover fully. During that time, he supported himself by becoming a radio producer and learned many of the ins and out of the broadcast business.

The 1940s

Paul moved to Hollywood and was drafted by the US Army shortly after World War II began. Luckily, for the world of music, his performance skills were put to use and he served in the Armed Forces Network where he worked with some of the biggest names in popular music of the day. He played backup for the Andrews Sisters, Bing Crosby and Kate Smith, and performed as a soloist, as well.

Les approached the Gibson Guitar Company with his ideas for a solid-body guitar during this time period, but was not given much encouragement to pursue the idea. In 1948, Les was involved in a nearly fatal car crash. His right arm was severely wounded and in order to avoid amputation, the doctors told him it must be set at whatever angle he chose for it. Paul had it set with his elbow bent at 450 so he could still hold and pick a guitar.

When World War II ended, Paul built his own recording studio in his garage. In the late 1940s, Les married singer Mary Ford. They began recording together and produced several hit records like “Mockingbird Hill,” and “How High is the Moon?” These were some of the earliest songs to be recorded with modern multi-track techniques.

Collaboration With Gibson

In the early 50s, Fender began marketing its Esquire and Telecaster guitars, which were solid-body electrics. The technicians at Gibson developed a guitar based on the ideas Paul had given them several years before and invited him to try it. He was happy enough with what he saw that he entered into a contract to endorse the Gibson Les Paul guitar. It debuted in 1952 and was originally available only in a gold top finish. Paul agreed that he would never perform in public with any guitar other than a Gibson.

Sales of the new guitars were brisk for a while. When they began to lag in 1961, however, Gibson made some major design changes to the Les Paul model without its namesake’s knowledge. The new instrument was lighter and thinner than the original and had two “horns” cut out of the body instead of just one. Paul was not happy with the guitar and asked Gibson to remove his name from the model. The company subsequently renamed it the SG for “solid guitar” and it became a hot seller.

A few years later, Eric Clapton rose to fame playing an original Les Paul. Les resumed his partnership with the Gibson Corporation and maintained it until his death. Hundreds of musicians have used Les Paul models over the years including such big names as Pete Townshend, Slash, Billy Gibbons, Jimmy Page, Frank Zappa and Zakk Wylde.

Gibson Les Pauls have been released in a myriad of models, colors and finishes and at just about every price point. The original Goldtop was followed by the Custom, which had a black finish and was nicknamed “Black Beauty.” Next came the Les Paul Junior that was originally developed for beginning guitarists but eventually proved popular with more experienced players, as well. The Les Paul TV model was very similar to the Junior except that it had a natural-looking wood grain finish that would reduce the glare often present when guitarists performed on TV. The Special came next that had two P-90 single coil pickups. Les Paul Standards were produced with a sunburst finish that made them distinct from the SGs. The DeLuxe model came out in the late 1960s and featured new pickups known as mini-humbuckers. The Les Paul Studio guitar was introduced in 1983 and is still in production today. It was designed specifically for musicians working in a recording studio and was built without many ornaments that did not specifically contribute to its great sound.

Other Innovations

Les Paul did not lend his name only to guitars. In the early 1950s, he developed the first known eight-track recorder, which provided the basis for all modern recording practices. He also created a process called overdubbing in which he recorded sound over sound. In fact, at one point Les played eight different guitar parts and combined them all into a single song. He was the inventor of floating bridge pickups, the dual pickup, several kinds of transducers used in studio recording and the 14-fret guitar.

Later Life

Even though Les Paul went into semi-retirement in 1965, and was plagued by heart problems, he remained active in the world of music. In 1976, he teamed up with guitarist Chet Atkins and produced a country and jazz improvisational album called Chester and Lester. Even when he reached his 90s, Les was a regular Monday night performer at a jazz club in New York called Fat Tuesday’s and later The Indium, which is near Lincoln Center. He was known to tinker in his basement workshop until he died of pneumonia at the age of 94.

Les Paul arguably contributed more to the world of popular music than any other person did. He was a scientist, inventor, and creative genius as well as a talented performer.