By Ted Drozdowski
Les Paul was part Rube Goldberg and part Thomas Edison — a blend of whacky inventor and genius whose impact on the world of music was so deep and profound that he is one of the few creators who has a permanent exhibit on his life and works at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Of course, every time somebody plays a multi-tracked recording, picks up a solid body guitar or cranks up an echo or delay pedal that's also a tribute to Les, knowing or not.
Paul was born Lester William Polsfuss on June 9, 1915. And likely, he was born precocious. At age eight, he began playing harmonica and, after he picked up guitar and banjo in his early teens, he invented and patented a device to hold the harp in front of his mouth while he played. The harmonica holder Paul designed is still the industry standard.
He also began tinkering with amplification around this time. For his first attempt, he stuck the needle of his parents' record player into the surface of his acoustic guitar. This ultimately led to the development of a primitive amplification system he used to play country gigs at a local drive-in.
Paul's graduation from semi-pro to professional musician came in 1934, when he went to Chicago to perform on the radio and record, and adopted his stage name. Still working in the country vein, his first single was released under the name Rhubarb Red. He also accompanied blues artist Georgia White on record. Ultimately, Paul found his heart in the jazz scene, after sophisticated players like Django Reinhardt, who became a close friend, and Charlie Christian captured his imagination.
Tireless and always focused on the need to develop his career and his music, Paul moved to New York City in 1939 with his trio and landed a featured chair in Fred Waring's Pennsylvanians — a popular big band of the day with their own much-loved radio show. Paul bluffed his way through the audition and many subsequent broadcasts, hiding the fact that he couldn't read music with his musical ear and gift for fluid improvisation.
All along, Paul was developing his own distinctive voice as a player, inspired not only by his heroes like Reinhardt and Christian, whose work on the Gibson ES-150 indelibly marked the history of that instrument, but also by horn players. His vocabulary included sax-like trills and shimmering high-speed chord solos and did much to help extend the voice of the guitar in the era's popular music.
Shortly after landing his gig with Waring, Paul began trying to improve the voice of the electric guitar. State-of-the-craft guitars at the time were glorified acoustic models run through an amplifier. At low or moderate volumes, the guitar easily disappeared in the mix of a band like the Pennsylvanians. At high volume, hollow-body guitars howled with feedback.
Paul set out to conquer these problems with a solid-body guitar, an instrument he reasoned would provide better volume control, less feedback and a rich, sustained tone, thanks to the vibrational qualities and sheer mass of its wood. Developing what would become the Gibson Les Paul model guitar was a tricky process with years of trial and error experiments. Paul created several versions of his now legendary "Log," a 4x4 piece of lumber with a neck, a bridge, a pickup and tuners attached. At one point, he was electrocuted so severely, while tinkering in his Queens apartment, that he had to be hospitalized.
As legend spins it, the final version of Paul's "Log" was completed at the Epiphone guitar factory in New York City, after hours, in 1940, and was prettied up when he split a conventional hollow-body guitar in half and attached each curved side to his "Log" to make it more acceptable to the eye.
The Gibson Les Paul debuted in 1952 and immediately became popular with a host of cutting edge players, including bluesmen B.B. King and Muddy Waters. As manufacturing continued, the guitar retained its size, shape and weight — although Paul's trapeze tailpiece was replaced with a stationary one – but evolved in other ways. The two P-90 pickups, for example, were replaced by three pick-ups on the Gibson Les Paul Custom model of 1954, and humbuckers became an option. The sunburst finish became an option for the famed classes of '59 and '60, whose alumni include Billy Gibbons' "Miss Pearly Gates" and Peter Green's "Holy Grail."
For Paul, the Les Paul model guitar was always a work in progress — right up until he passed away on August 12, 2009 at age 94. Those who attended Paul's concerts at the New York City club Iridium in his final years saw him spinning beautiful melodies out of instruments with puzzling buttons, switches and LEDs set in their bodies. He built customized ways to switch between and blend pickups, enhance sustain and activate various effects — engendering those Rube Goldberg comparisons, but always producing wonderful music.
Paul's other enormous contribution was multi-track recording. His first multi-tracked single, "Lover (When You're Near Me)," was issued in 1948, but he'd been trying to impress record companies with the virtues of the process since the 1930s. He originally experimented with acetate discs in his garage studio. Paul would cut a guitar track to a disc, play it back while cutting a second guitar part, and so on until his arrangement was realized. Paul reportedly went through roughly 500 acetate discs, recording on cutting machinery he made himself, before he was satisfied with "Love (When You're Near Me)." He also invented a kind of Cro-Magnon version of Vari-Speed by playing some of the song's eight guitar parts at half speed and then playing them back at the actual rate for his overdubs. And not only did Paul build his own cutting machinery — he did so using auto parts, including a flywheel from a Cadillac.
Eventually Paul switched to magnetic tape. He actually commissioned Ampex to build the first eight-track recorder. He carried it on tour and used it occasionally to create episodes of his weekly radio show. Although Paul didn't actually create the tape recorder, it should be no surprise, given his passion for technology and tinkering, that he played such a role in its development.
At the close of World War II, engineer Jack Mullin acquired a captured German Magnetophon tape recorder and sent it back to the States. When he returned, he gave a series of demonstrations of the mono machine's capabilities in Hollywood, prompting Bing Crosby, with whom Paul had recorded, to finance the creation of the mono Ampex Model 200. Crosby got the first one and he gave the second to Paul, who immediately saw its potential for creating echo effects. Paul added a second playback head, which allowed him to play along with the part he'd just recorded.
Next came the two-track and three-track recorder, but eight seemed like the magic number to Paul, who commissioned his Ampex eight-track in 1954. It took three years to perfect Paul's sonic octopus, but by then he was through with acetates for good.
Another of Paul's innovations was in the area of production. He was the original D.I.Y. artist, not only in sound recording, with home-cut projects like "Lover (When You're Near Me)" and many of his subsequent singles, but for radio and TV. Paul and his wife and musical partner Mary Ford co-hosted a 15-minute radio program on NBC radio in 1950. It was a blend of music and gentle period humor that Paul recorded on tape at home.
During the show Paul introduced his listeners to the concepts of multi-tracking and varying the speed of recordings, using imaginary gadgets like the "Les Paulverizer" to illustrate how these techniques worked. He even made a version of the "Les Paulverizer" — essentially a tape echo device like the better-known Echo-Plex, for the stage.
When The Les Paul & Mary Ford
show made the leap to television in 1954, Paul manned both the tape machines and the cameras and kept copies of the recordings that were broadcast in five-minute segments. Busy creating and tinkering till the end, one of Paul's final projects, uncompleted when he died, was restoring and converting these short programs to DVD quality.
It is safe to say there will never be another Les Paul. But Gibson Guitar strives, to this day, to continue his legacy of innovation and determination. Revolutionary, indeed.