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Les Paul’s Recording Innovations

Michael Leonard
|
12.23.2013
Les Paul

Les Paul will forever be associated with the Gibson solidbody guitar that bears his name, but the late maestro’s achievements with recording technology were just as – if not more – influential on the scope of modern music.

In the early days of rock’n’roll, most records were simply the best live take a band could achieve. No overdubs, no tinkering. And some bands still like it that way. But even from the 1930s, Les Paul started experimenting with recording over his own playing so that he could play multiple parts in the same song.

From Acetate to Tape

In the 1930s, Les Paul began working on multitracking using acetate disks. Using really old-school wax disks, Les even built his own home-made disc-cutter assembly, based on automobile parts. Example? He favored the flywheel from a Cadillac for its weight and flatness. Even dentistry played a part.

“The other part we needed,” recalled Les, “came from my drummer who was a dentist. One time, he was cleaning my teeth and I saw all these dental belts, so I asked where he got them and I ordered some because they were endless belts and they were perfect for isolating the flywheel, the turntable and the recording device from any vibrations in the motor or even from trucks driving by outside.”

Innovation, for sure. But Les made it work, using his acetate-disk setup to record parts at different speeds and with delay, resulting in his signature sound with echoes and birdsong-like trills and riffs. In his head, Les Paul knew what he wanted to hear… and by the late 1940s he got the tools he needed.

Les Paul and Multitracking

Weird fact? Bing Crosby was one of Les’s inspirations. In 1948, Les was given one of the first Ampex Model 200A reel-to-reel audio tape recording decks by crooner Crosby, and Les soon went on to use Ampex's eight track "Sel-Sync" machines for multitracking. Capitol Records released a recording that had begun as an experiment in Les’s garage, entitled “Lover (When You're Near Me),” which featured Paul playing eight different parts on electric guitar. Some of them were recorded at half-speed, so they “double-fast” when played back. The b-side, “Brazil,” was similarly recorded.

To Les’s frustration, Sidney Bechet used multitracking (via acetate disks) in 1941 to play half a dozen instruments on his hit “Sheik of Araby.” But Les took the idea further.

Les Paul and Mary Ford’s version of “How High the Moon,” which topped the Billboard singles chart for nine weeks in 1951, was a tipping point. It was a multi-layered, revved-up recording that highlighted not only Les’s guitar virtuosity (on a Gibson Les Paul Goldtop model, naturally), but also the capabilities of multitracking. It may sound cute now, but this was a true “eureka!” moment for tape recording.



Mulitracking soon became a norm for recording. In the 1960s, The Beatles, The Beach Boys and Phil Spector maximized multitracking. But it was Les who bought the first Ampex 8-track recorder in 1957. These days, at least 24-track recording is standard – expandable to 48 or 72 tracks if wanted. But without Les Paul’s pioneering efforts, it may have taken a lot longer.

Les Paul And Delay

Les was an early innovator of delay. Some modern players – U2’s The Edge is an obvious one – can turn delay effects into a signature sound. And Les saw the possibilities early on.

“Right from the start I wanted to get different sounds and I wanted to get different effects. The first thing that hit me was that if I played a note and I played an octave higher than that, playing the two notes together — even three octaves apart — it created big sounds and different sounds, making the whole thing very special because it had never been heard before. It was a new kind of music, and that turned me on…”

Les again built his own set-up: he installed a phonograph pickup behind his recording head on his early machines. “It took me about three years to figure that out — every Friday night this guy Lloyd and I would sit in a saloon and watch the fights on TV, and one time he asked me to explain what I was after in terms of echo, and when I said like a guy shouting 'Hello' in the Alps and hearing it come back to him multiple times, he said, 'You mean, like if you put a playback head behind the record head?'

“Oh my God, we were out of that saloon so fast. We left the girls there with 10 dollars to pay for the beer, we forgot all about the fights and we were on our way home. It took us 10 minutes to get there, and we had that thing up and running in no time at all. We quickly realised that by moving the playback head forwards or backwards we could also change the delay — the whole neighborhood could hear 'Hello... hello... hello...'"

The Les Paulveriser

Eventually, Les incorporated many of his ideas into his Gibson “Les Paulveriser.” It wasn’t a major commercial product, but multitracking, overdubbing, and “sound-on-sound” all came to life in Les Paul’s hands.



“Les Paul” may be, to some, just a respected name on some of Gibson’s greatest guitars. But Les Paul also influenced recording massively. Digital technology now makes it all easy. There are multitracks on your computer, robot guitars, delay pedals that can do just about anything…

But Les Paul deserves a salute for seeing the future… and helping others to make it real.

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