I heard it on the car radio earlier today. Les Paul has died. For the past week, I’ve been reminiscing a lot about 1969. This weekend is the 40th anniversary of the Woodstock Music and Arts Festival, and I don’t really have much desire to hear about it for days on end. But it does give me pause to realize that the music that was played at that long ago festival could not have happened without Les Paul’s innovations and inventions.
Mr. Paul first came to prominence for his fast and flashy jazz-guitar style, which backed such entertainers as Bing Crosby and Nat King Cole. In the 1940s and early 1950s, he and singer Mary Ford, his wife, had hits with “How High the Moon,” “The Tennessee Waltz,” “Vaya con Dios” and “The World Is Waiting for the Sunrise.”
All along, he refined musical inventions in his workshop. He was an early designer of an electric guitar that had a solid body, and his model managed to reduce sound distortions common to acoustic instruments.
He actively promoted such guitars for the Gibson company, and the Les Paul line of guitars became commonplace among such musicians as bluesman Eric Clapton and rockers Pete Townshend and Jimmy Page.
From the New York Times obituary:
Mr. Paul was a remarkable musician as well as a tireless tinkerer. He played guitar alongside leading prewar jazz and pop musicians from Louis Armstrong to Bing Crosby. In the 1930s he began experimenting with guitar amplification, and by 1941 he had built what was probably the first solid-body electric guitar, although there are other claimants. With his guitar and the vocals of his wife, Mary Ford, he used overdubbing, multitrack recording and new electronic effects to create a string of hits in the 1950s.
His interest in gadgets came early. At the age of 10 he devised a harmonica holder from a coat hanger. Soon afterward he made his first amplified guitar by opening the back of a Sears acoustic model and inserting, behind the strings, the pickup from a dismantled Victrola. With the record player on, the acoustic guitar became an electric one. Later, he built his own pickup from ham radio earphone parts and assembled a recording machine using a Cadillac flywheel and the belt from a dentist’s drill.
In 1940 or 1941 — the exact date is unknown — , Mr. Paul made his guitar breakthrough. Seeking to create electronically sustained notes on the guitar, he attached strings and two pickups to a wooden board with a guitar neck. “The log,” as he called it, if not the first solid-body electric guitar, became the most influential one.
“You could go out and eat and come back and the note would still be sounding,” Mr. Paul once said.
The odd-looking instrument drew derision when he first played it in public, so he hid the works inside a conventional-looking guitar. But the log was a conceptual turning point. With no acoustic resonance of its own, it was designed to generate an electronic signal that could be amplified and processed — the beginning of a sonic transformation of the world’s music.
Mr. Paul never played anything that sounded in the least bit like rock. His style was a highly distinctive combination of swing, country, and pop. Yet it’s hard to imagine the electric guitar becoming the king of rock without Mr. Paul having played kingmaker.
The success of Mr. Paul’s recordings gave the electric guitar a newfound prominence. As the jazz critic George Simon noted with startling prescience in 1953, “What Benny Goodman did for the clarinet … Les Paul has done for the guitar. He has brought it into such prominence that it has become an almost newly discovered instrument for many people, as well as one with which musicians can make more sound, and more money than ever before.”
A year earlier, Gibson had brought out its first Les Paul model guitar. It has remained on the market ever since, along with subsequent model lines. Mr. Paul actually contributed only a few details to the design, but he received a royalty on every one sold. More important, the name “Les Paul” became inextricably linked with the electric guitar in the public imagination.
“I’m so identified with the Les Paul electrics that sometimes a kid’ll come up and say, ‘Hey, you’re a real person, not a guitar.’” Mr. Paul wrote in 1981.
While Paul had an extremely successful career as a performer, he is best known for his many musical innovations. Feeney again:
…it was as an inspired musical tinkerer that Mr. Paul had his greatest impact. He essentially invented the technique of multi-track recording, and it was at his behest that Ampex built the first eight-track recorder. Mr. Paul’s overdubbing of his guitar playing and Ford’s singing was so unprecedented that Capitol Records billed it as “The New Sound.”
I had come across Jimi sometime before at a roadhouse spot in New Jersey called the Allegro. I know the year was 1965 for two reasons: the Gibson Guitar Corporation and I were in the middle of what I call our divorce, and second, Simon and Garfunkel had a hit on the radio, ”The Sounds of Silence.” I came up playing with the best of the best jazz and pop musicians in the 30’s and 40’s, and I believe if you want to stay at the top of anything, you’ve got to remain curious. That’s why I dropped by places like the Allegro. Right now I’m trying my damnedest to keep up with the latest computerized recording equipment.
The afternoon I first saw Jimi, he was playing a Les Paul Black Beauty, left-handed. Man, was he all over that thing! …. Jimi was auditioning that day. My son had been helping me distribute some of my records, so he was waiting in the car. But when I walked in and heard this guy wailing — he had that guitar wide open — I decided to stick around for a while. It was the afternoon; the place was pretty empty, so the bartender was watering down the drinks. I never got Jimi’s name. I asked — the bartender didn’t know. Then I realized my son’s still in the car! I go out there and tell him that we’re going to swing back after we finish dropping off records. When we got back to the Allegro, Jimi was gone. I said to the bartender, ”Where is that guy? . . . Did he get the gig?”
”Are you kidding?” the bartender said. ”He was too loud. We threw him out.” Luckily the guy had snapped a picture, probably because I was interested. I have the photo on the wall. It took me years to come across him again.
RIP Les Paul, and thanks for the music!
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