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Les Paul, Electric Guitar Pioneer

Keith Richards, Brian Wilson remember the inventor and jazz great

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Anthony DeCurtis Sep 26, 2009
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Les Paul never played much rock & roll, but it’s hard to imagine the music without him. Paul, who died on August 13 in White Plains, New York, from complications of pneumonia at the age of 94, invented the solid-body electric guitar as we know it in the early Forties, which led to the Gibson Les Paul, a defining rock & roll instrument. “I wouldn’t be here without him,” says Keith Richards. “He made something without realising where it was gonna go. You can say, ”˜I’ve got an idea for a rocket,’ but you don’t expect to get to the moon.”

Paul ”“ a flashy, hitmaking jazz and country guitarist ”“ also invented the foundation of the modern studio: multitrack recording. His 1951 hit with wife Mary Ford, ”˜How High the Moon,’ was one of the first examples of overdubbing. He also pioneered electronic echo, and made early use of trickery such as varying tape speeds and close-miking instruments. “Les Paul did it all before everybody,” says Joe Perry of Aerosmith. “He invented all the stuff that computers reproduce now ”“ but it’s still the same sound.” Adds Brian Wilson, “He made the very best guitar sounds in the 1950s. There’s nobody that came close.”

Born Lester William Polsfuss in Waukesha, Wisconsin, in 1915, Paul learned to play guitar, harmonica and banjo at a young age. The son of an automobile mechanic, he tinkered with record players, radios and machines of all sorts, and became convinced that if he heard a sound in his head, he could somehow create it in the world. He started out playing country music but eventually formed a jazz trio and moved to New York. For the next three decades he would alternate between success as a performer and technological breakthroughs ”“ while becoming a living symbol of the electric guitar, winning friends and fans among generations of players. Jeff Beck, for one, counts his fluid, chromatic solos as a key influence.

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By 1941 he had invented an instrument he called “the log” ”“ a solid block of wood with a guitar neck, strings and electronic pickups. It was unsightly, but it served as the conceptual model for the far more shapely (“Like a woman,” Paul would say) Gibson Les Paul, which came on the market in 1952. He transformed the guitar, in his words, from an “apologetic” acoustic instrument that could barely be heard in band arrangements into “a monster, something that could really be powerful. We had that loudness.” Says Richards, “He put a lot of juice into that guitar. You could make it do incredible things. It’s something that’s got to travel, it’s got to be sturdy, reliable. Like a pickup truck. But also great-looking.”

In the meantime, Paul had also begun making groundbreaking records with his wife, singer Ford, that reflected his ongoing interest in reshaping recording technology. Paul and Ford enjoyed tremendous success throughout the Fifties ”“ ”˜How High the Moon’ and its follow-up, ”˜Vaya Con Dios,’ each sold more than 1 million copies ”“ even hosting their own television show. Their commercial run ended in the early Sixties, however, and the couple divorced in 1964. Paul then withdrew from show business and devoted himself to inventing and patenting new sonic devices and designing Gibson guitars.

Steve Miller recalls visiting a brand-new studio in New York with Paul and being stunned by his friend’s acute sensitivity to sound. “These guys were just wiring the board,” says Miller, “and Les walked in and said, ”˜There’s a dead spot right over here.’ He held his hand up in the air about four feet behind the board and five feet off the floor. After he left the room, these engineers were annoyed, because he was criticising their work. But they measured the room, and he was right.”

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Paul returned to recording in the mid-Seventies when he collaborated with country guitarist Chet Atkins and won a Grammy for their 1976 album Chester and Lester. Metallica’s Kirk Hammett recalls first seeing Paul perform on television as a teenager in the Seventies. “It was crazy, because he was playing all these open-string licks, really fast runs, jazzy,” says Hammett. “Then he turned around and played something that would totally fit in a rock context. I remember thinking, ”˜Man, that guy really can play.’ ”

In 1988, Paul was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. He had also begun weekly gigs at an intimate New York club, combining casual jams with his trademark stories and off-colour jokes. He was a ladies’ man to the end, flirting with women young and old ”“ Richards remembers bringing his elderly mother to see him play one night, only to watch Paul propose marriage. (“She was flattered,” says Richards.) Over the years, musicians from Paul McCartney to Derek Trucks of the Allman Brothers would drop by to pay respects and sometimes sit in.

Paul continued playing every week until early this summer. Trucks sums it up best. “Far too many times in this business, you see people go down, and it’s tragic,” he says. “With Les Paul it’s actually a good story, you know? That’s the way to live: Go out smiling, making the people around you happy.”

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