Les Paul wasn't just a pioneer of guitar design. Although he was that too. He pioneered the design or at least the use of the solidbody electric guitar, the magnetic pickup (in the late 1920s he jammed a photograph needle in the top of his Sears-Roebuck guitar to amplify it), multitrack recording technology - he even invented his own harmonica rack when he was still a kid! With all this inventiveness and inquisitiveness it's sometimes easy to forget that everything Les created was in the service of creating music. So let's look at some of the guitar techniques that Les put into his creative vision.
Start at the Start
Les was always great at creating distinctive intros. If you happen to have a Best of Les Paul compilation, scroll through and listen to the first seconds of each track. Whether it's an unaccompanied guitar interlude or a more orchestrated mini musical statement, Les Paul's songs never just 'started' - they 'began.' Listen to the beautiful pitch-sped first notes of "Lover" or the gentle, lonely notes of "How High The Moon" or the moody slides of "Deep In The Blues" for some great examples of how Les introduced the listener to the song. In a way his presentation is almost like a ride at Disneyland, in the sense that he sets up an environment, leads you through a few twists and turns with lots of excitement and color, then ties it all up with an ending that drops you off again.
Don't Be Afraid To Wail
Les Paul was capable of some pretty incredible sustained barrages of speed. He often pushed this even further by recording at a slow tape speed then playing it back at full blast, but even in real-time Les could play. And while there are plenty of tricks and techniques for learning to play fast with distortion, learning to play fast without it is an entirely different kettle of fish. If you're used to playing with high gain but you'd like to explore clean-toned shredding a la Les, there are two ways to go about making a smooth transition. Both will get you there, but from opposite directions.
The first way is to wean yourself off high gain by practicing with a compressor instead. This way you'll still get the sustain and fullness you're used to, but obviously with a cleaner tone. Over time you can gradually reduce the intensity of the effect until you don't need it any more. Gain or compression can trick your hands into relaxing, but a clean tone forces you to pay extra close attention to the volume of every note, whether it's picked, plucked or hammered. So slowly working your way towards not needing either of these effects in order to play a super-fast shredding solo.
The second way is to start by playing an unplugged electric guitar. You'll need to pick a little harder to be heard clearly, especially if you live in a noisy house, so this will help to build up your picking stamina when playing with such an utterly raw sound. It can be surprisingly difficult at first, especially if you record your practice and listen back to it, because this uncovers all sorts of revelations about your playing which you might overlook while you're actually doing it. But it's well worth it.
Lay It On
Les Paul pioneered the multitrack tape tricks that we still use today - in the digital realm - and effects like delay. His use of pre-recorded parts, which he could play back with his Les Paulverizer system, has a lot in common with the current crop of loop-friendly musicians such as Matt Stevens and Steve Lawson. There are plenty of looping devices out there which allow you to capture, play back and layer sounds in much the same way that Les Paul used to. There are lots of ways you can incorporate layers and loops in your music. The most obvious is to play a simple rhythm part that you can then solo over. Most current looping devices have pretty respectable recording times, so you can use a verse or chorus as an excuse to live-record a rhythm guitar part which you can then trigger to play in the background when it's time to take a solo. Or you can build up multiple layers and bring them in and out as needed, as David Bowie guitarist Gerry Leonard does in this haunting live version of 'Loving The Alien'
Get High. Not Literally.
Once upon a time you needed some pretty sophisticated tape equipment if you wanted to copy the sped-up tones of Les Paul on your own. Now it's as easy as using pitch shifting effects. But pretty much every digital pitch shifter introduces a slight chattery effect which is especially noticeable in the high end, so try using an analog pedal such as a tube preamp or a nice warm overdrive to take some of this edge off when using a pitch shifting unit to get up there in the octaves that make dogs bark.