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Guitar pioneer Les Paul - 1915-2009

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August 17, 2009

Les Paul Live @ Iridium Jazz Club / NYC (Photo: Thomas Faivre-Duboz, Creative Commons)

Les Paul Live @ Iridium Jazz Club / NYC (Photo: Thomas Faivre-Duboz, Creative Commons)

Genuis. Pioneer. Innovator. Words that don't even come close to describing the revolutionary thinking of one Lester William Polsfus. Better known as Les Paul, he had such a huge influence on the world of modern music that it's difficult to sum up his achievements in such a short piece. I use the past tense because sadly the Wizard of Waukesha died in a New York Hospital on August 13th.

Les Paul will forever be associated with the best-selling guitar that bears his name, a guitar that could just as easily have been called the Rhubarb Red after Paul's earlier stage name. Following an early stint on the harmonica, failed piano lessons and a brief encounter with the banjo, he picked up the guitar in his early teens and, by the mid-1930s, was playing Reinhardt-inspired jazz. Soon developing his own style with lightning fast runs and chunky rhythm, he quickly became a guitarist of some note.

Not satisfied with early attempts at solid body guitars, he began experimenting with his own designs that led him to "The Log", made by fusing a railroad log to an Epiphone neck and two halves of an acoustic body. Although Gibson initially showed no interest in Paul's plank of wood, the company later incorporated his ideas into a production guitar which was to bear his name and would be the axe of choice for all rock gods that followed. In 2005 Les Paul was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame as the creator of the solid-body electric guitar.

Not content with inventing a guitar for the electric generation, Les Paul appeared from his garage workshop in 1947 with all the basics of multi-track recording laid down on his soon to be hit, "Lover", which saw Paul playing eight guitars using various multi-speed effects. Instead of using traditional methods of recording onto tape, Paul again broke new ground by recording his guitar virtuosity onto acetate disks and then overlaying track on track until the final piece was assembled.

At the height of his guitar-playing career, tragedy struck when in 1948 Paul was involved in a car accident in Oklahoma. As an alternative to amputation, Paul convinced doctors to set his crushed right arm in a permanent right-angled guitar strumming position. He then teamed up with and married a young singer named Colleen Summers, who was renamed Mary Ford, and subsequently enjoyed numerous chart-topping hits. In 1978, Les and Mary were inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.

In the mid 1950s Les Paul commissioned Ampex to build the first eight-track tape recorder, featuring technology that would become the industry standard for the next 30 years. Les Paul went into semi retirement in the 1960s. Inventions and awards continued to come though. Highlights included induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame by Jeff Beck in 1988 and, in 2006, being chosen for the National Broadcasters Hall of Fame. Appearances on disc, though, have been quite sporadic - his last outing being the wonderful "Les Paul & Friends" tribute disc with the likes of Billy Gibbons, Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Keith Richards and Peter Frampton.

Just about everyone who has ever played an electric guitar has played a Les Paul and for that we give thanks to the man. Gratitude also for multi-track recording and a host of techniques and effects that have enhanced our appreciation and enjoyment of all kinds of music over the last 60+ years. And much thanks for dazzling us all with his own guitar virtuoso wizardry on disc and in the flesh. The legend has gone but his legacy lives on.

Les Paul RIP

About the Author
Paul Ridden While Paul is loath to reveal his age, he will admit to cutting his IT teeth on a TRS-80 (although he won't say which version). An obsessive fascination with computer technology blossomed from hobby into career before the desire for sunnier climes saw him wave a fond farewell to his native Blighty in favor of Bordeaux, France. He's now a dedicated newshound pursuing the latest bleeding edge tech for Gizmag.   All articles by Paul Ridden
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