Les Paul (born Lester William Polsfuss on June 9, 1915 – age 92) is an American jazz guitarist and inventor. He is a pioneer in the development of the solid-body electric guitar which “made the sound of rock and roll possible.” His many recording innovations include overdubbing, delay effects such as “sound on sound” and tape delay, phasing effects and multitrack recording. In 2003, he was named the 46th best guitarist of all time by Rolling Stone Magazine.
His birthname was first simplified by his mother to Polfuss before he took his stage name. He had nicknames of Les Paul and Red Hot Red. He was born in Waukesha, Wisconsin. He first became interested in music at the age of eight, when he began playing the harmonica. After an attempt at learning to play the banjo, Paul began to play the guitar. But before he played guitar he played piano. By 13, Paul was performing semi-professionally as a country-music guitarist. At the age of 17, Paul played with Rube Tronson’s Cowboys. Soon after, he dropped out of high school to join Wolverton’s Radio Band in St. Louis, Missouri on KMOX. But his fame almost came to an end. Following a near-fatal car accident, doctors had to position his arm at a ninety degree angle so he could still play guitar.
In the 1930s, Paul worked in Chicago in radio, where he performed jazz music. Paul’s first two records were released in 1936. One was credited to “Rhubarb Red”, Paul’s hillbilly alter ego, and the other was as an accompanist for blues artist Georgia White.
Electric guitar innovations
Paul was unsatisfied by the electric guitars that were sold in the mid 1930s and began experimenting with a few designs of his own. Famously, he created “The Log,” which was nothing more than a length of common 4″ by 4″ fence post with bridge, guitar neck, and pickup attached. For the sake of appearance, he attached the body of an Epiphone hollow-body guitar, sawn lengthwise with The Log in the middle. This solved his two main problems: feedback, as the acoustic body no longer resonated with the amplified sound, and sustain, as the energy of the strings was not dissipated in generating sound through the guitar body.
The Les Paul Trio
In 1938, Paul moved to New York and landed a featured spot with Fred Waring’s Pennsylvanians radio show. Paul moved to Hollywood in 1943, where he formed a new trio. As a last-minute replacement for Oscar Moore, Paul played with Nat King Cole and other artists in the inaugural Jazz at the Philharmonic concert in Los Angeles on July 2, 1944. Also that year, Paul’s trio appeared on Bing Crosby’s radio show. Crosby went on to sponsor Paul’s recording experiments. The two also recorded together several times, including a 1945 number one hit, “It’s Been A Long, Long Time.” In addition to backing Crosby and artists like the Andrews Sisters, Paul’s trio also recorded a few albums of their own on the Decca label in the late 1940s.
Les Paul and “the Les Paul”
In 1941, Paul designed and built one of the first solid-body electric guitars (though Leo Fender also independently created his own solid-body electric guitar around the same time, and Adolph Rickenbacher had marketed a solid-body guitar in the 30s). Gibson Guitar Corporation designed a guitar incorporating Paul’s suggestions in the early fifties, and presented it to him to try. He was impressed enough to sign a contract for what became the “Les Paul” model (originally only in a “gold top” version), and agreed never to be seen playing in public, or be photographed with, anything other than a Gibson guitar. That persisted until 1961, when Gibson changed the design without Paul’s knowledge. He said he first saw the “new” Gibson Les Paul in a music store window, and disliked it. Though his contract required him to pose with the guitar, he said it was not “his” instrument, and asked Gibson to remove his name from the headstock. Gibson renamed the guitar the “SG”, and it also became one of the company’s best sellers. It has been said that Les had ended his endorsement contract with Gibson because he was going through a divorce, and didn’t want his wife to get all of his endorsement money. Later, Paul resumed his relationship with Gibson, and endorses the instrument even today (though his personal Gibson Les Pauls are much modified by him — Paul always uses his own self-wound pickups on his guitars). To this day, the Gibson Les Paul guitar is used all over the world, by both novice and professional guitarists.
Multitrack recording innovations
In 1947, Capitol Records released a recording that had begun as an experiment in Paul’s garage, entitled “Lover (When You’re Near Me)“, which featured Paul playing eight different parts on electric guitar, some of them recorded at half-speed, hence “double-fast” when played back at normal speed for the master. (“Brazil”, similarly recorded, was the B-side.) This was the first time that multi-tracking had been used in a recording. Amazingly, these recordings were made, not with magnetic tape, but with wax disks. Paul would record a track onto a disk, then record himself playing another part with the first. He built the multi-track recording with overlaid tracks, rather than parallel ones as he did later. There is no record of how few “takes” were needed before he was satisfied with one layer and moved onto the next.
Paul even built his own wax-cutter assembly, based on auto parts. He favored the flywheel from a Cadillac for its weight and flatness. Even in these early days, he used the wax disk setup to record parts at different speeds and with delay, resulting in his signature sound with echoes and birdsong-like guitar riffs. When he later began using magnetic tape, the major change was that he could take his recording rig on tour with him, even making episodes for his 15-minute radio show in his hotel room.
In January 1948, Paul was injured in a near-fatal automobile accident in Oklahoma, which shattered his right arm and elbow. Doctors told Paul that there was no way for them to rebuild his elbow in a way that would let him regain movement, and that his arm would remain in whatever position they placed it in permanently. Paul then instructed the surgeons to set his arm at an angle that would allow him to cradle and pick the guitar. It took him a year and a half to recover.