Les PaulYou Can't Talk Guitars Without Les Paul
Gibsons First Solid Body Electric
YOU CAN’T TALK GUITARS WITHOUT LES PAUL.
More accurately, you can’t talk about even recording music without Les Paul. The lifelong innovator created echo delay, overdubbing, multitracking and more. You can’t overstate Les Paul’s genius.
The Early Years
An innovative musician and recording artist who developed the solid-body electric guitar, Les Paul was born Lester William Polsfuss on June 9, 1915 in Waukesha, Wisconsin.
By at least one account, Paul’s early musical ability wasn’t superb. “Your boy, Lester, will never learn music,” one teacher wrote his mother. But nobody could dissuade him from trying, and as a young boy he taught himself the harmonica, guitar and banjo.
By his teen years, Paul was playing in country bands around the Midwest. He also played live on St. Louis radio stations, calling himself the Rhubarb Red.
Coupled with Paul’s interest in playing instruments was a love for modifying them. At the age of nine he built his first crystal radio. At 10 he built a harmonica holder out of a coat hanger, and then later constructed his own amplified guitar.
Not content to strictly be a country musician, Paul developed an interest in jazz music and by the mid 1930s had moved to Chicago and formed the Les Paul Trio. He formed his first trio and learned jazz on the South Side of Chicago while he was playing country music during the day on the Chicago radio stations.By the 1940s Paul had established himself in the jazz world, recording with such stars as Nat King Cole, Rudy Vallee and Kate Smith.
A New Guitar is Born
It was the first solid-body guitar, and it changed music in unbelievable ways. In the 1960s, the rock world embraced and adored his instrument. By then, Paul had teamed up with the guitar manufacturer Gibson, which had hired him to design a Les Paul guitar. Paul had approached Gibson in 1941, but it took 10 years, and Leo Fender introducing his solid body guitar for Gibson, for the company to develop what is now known as the Gibson Les Paul.
Musicians such as Keith Richards, Eric Clapton and Paul McCartney all used the guitar. Since its debut in 1952 the Gibson Les Paul has been one of the most popular and best-selling guitars.
A Rock and Roll Hall of Fame
The name Les Paul is synonymous with the electric guitar.
As a player, inventor and recording artist, Paul has been an innovator his entire life.
Born Lester William Polfuss in 1915 in Waukesha, Wisconsin, Paul built his first crystal radio at age 9—which was about the time he first picked up a guitar. By age 13 he was performing semi-professionally as a country-music guitarist and working diligently on sound-related inventions. In 1941 Paul built his first solid-body electric guitar, and he continued to make refinements to his prototype throughout the decade. It’s safe to say that rock and roll as we know it would not exist without his invention.
But Les Paul didn’t stop there. He also refined the technology of sound recording, developing revolutionary engineering techniques such as close miking, echo delay, overdubbing and multitracking. He also busied himself as a versatile bandleader and performer who could play jazz, country and pop.
The guitar that bears his name—the Gibson Les Paul—is his crowning achievement. It grew out of his desire, as a musician and inventor, to create a stringed instrument that could make electronic sound without distorting. What he came up with, after almost a decade of work, was a solid-bodied instrument—that is, one that didn’t have the deep, resonant chamber of an acoustic guitar.
As he told writer Jim O’Donnell, “What I wanted to do is not have two things vibrating. I wanted the string to vibrate and nothing else. I wanted the guitar to sustain longer than an acoustical box and have different sounds than an acoustical box.” The fact that the guitar’s body was solid allowed for the sound of a plucked string to sustain, as its vibrating energy was not dissipated in a reverberant acoustic chamber.
He experimented with different designs until he had his non-vibrating guitar body, which he called “The Log.” Gibson Guitars initially turned him down, calling his invention “a broomstick with pickups” and pointing out that this meant guitarists would now have to carry around two instruments—one electric and one acoustic—which they viewed as prohibitively inconvenient. As a result, Paul was beaten to the marketplace by Leo Fender, whose Fender Broadcaster—the first mass-produced solid-body electric guitar—was introduced in 1948. That same year, however, Paul unveiled overdubbing, a breakthrough recording technique that would forever change music. Capitol Records released the Paul’s experimental eight-track recordings of “Lover (When You’re Near Me)” and “Brazil,” which he made in his garage workshop.
Paul’s career as a musician nearly came to an end in 1948, when he suffered near-fatal car accident in Oklahoma, skidding off a bridge into a river during a snowstorm. The guitarist shattered his right arm and elbow, and he also broke his back, ribs, nose and collarbone. He managed to salvage his career as a musician by instructing 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.
Paul subsequently made his mark as a jazz-pop musician extraordinaire, recording as a duo with his wife, singer Mary Ford (who was born Colleen Summers). Their biggest hits included “How High the Moon” (1951) and “Vaya Con Dios” (1953), both reaching Number One. The recordings of Les Paul and Mary Ford are noteworthy for Paul’s pioneering use of overdubbing (i.e. layering guitar parts one atop another, a technique also referred to as multitracking or “sound on sound” recording). He also speeded up the sound of his guitar. The results were bright, bubbly and a little otherworldly—just the sort of music you might expect from an inventor with an ear for the future.
In 1952 Les Paul introduced the first eight-track tape recorder (designed by Paul and marketed by Ampex) and, more significantly for the future of rock and roll, finally saw the release of the gold-top solid-body electric guitar that bears his name. Gibson’s Les Paul Standard went on to become one of the most popular of all models of electric guitar. Built and marketed by Gibson, with continuous advances and refinements from Paul in such areas as low-impedance pickup technology, the Les Paul is a staple instrument among many of rock’s greatest guitarists. He introduced the latest model in 2008. According to Gibson U.S.A., its design amendments include “a new asymmetrical neck profile that makes it one of the most comfortable and playable necks ever offered on any guitar.”
The list of musicians associated with the Gibson Les Paul include Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton, Duane Allman, Mike Bloomfield, Eddie Van Halen and Jimmy Page. Paul is guitarist Steve Miller’s godfather. Jimi Hendrix consulted him about the construction of Electric Lady Studios. In a British periodical, Led Zeppelin’s Page once wrote of Paul, “He’s the man who started everything. He’s just a genius.” While sharing a stage with Paul, Eddie Van Halen once told him, “Without the things you’ve done, I wouldn’t be able to do half the things I do.”
Iridium Jazz Club
Beginning in 1995 and continuing until his death at age 94, Paul performed 2 shows every Monday night at The Iridium Jazz Club with guitarist Lou Pallo, bassist Paul Nowinski (and later, Nicki Parrott), and guitarist Frank Vignola and for a few years, pianist John Colaianni.
The Iridium Jazz Club is a jazz club located on Broadway in New York City. The club hosts weekly performances by John Colianni, and also featured weekly performances by Les Paul for nearly fifteen years.
The club opened in January 1994 at its original location, at 63rd Street and Central Park West, with a minimal cover charge. That first location, known as the “Iridium Room Jazz Club”, was a basement room below the Merlot restaurant across from Lincoln Center; it initially booked traditional, swinging jazz musicians.
Everyone Loves The LP
The list of artists who have wielded Les Pauls is legion. As noted above, it was British blues rockers like Clapton who led the way to the LP’s resurgence. They had been listening to LP-brandishing guitarists such as Texas bluesman Freddie King and his rollicking instrumental “Hideaway,” and to Howlin’ Wolf axman Hubert Sumlin’s stinging riffs on “Smokestack Lightning.” And they wanted some of that sound too!
On this side of the Atlantic it was Michael Bloomfield who helped cement the LP’s position as the go-to electric among heavy rock and blues players. The phenomenally talented Chicago native first owned a 1954 Les Paul goldtop, later trading up for the ‘59 LP Standard with which he’s most closely associated. The fat yet clean sound of Bloomfield’s LP was an urgent driving force in the Paul Butterfield Blues Band—for a time Dylan’s electric backup band that caused a ruckus at the Newport Folk Festival. In 2009 Gibson’s Custom Shop, recognizing Bloomfield’s contribution to LP lore, produced a painstaking limited-edition reproduction of his axe, replete with battle scars and Bloomfield’s mods.
A list of the other signature and tribute Les Pauls that Gibson has built invoke some of the most stellar names in modern music. They include Jimmy Page, Slash, Joe Perry, Ace Frehley, Marc Bolan, Jeff Beck, Pete Townshend, Billie Joe Armstrong, and dozens more. As we explore the many Les Paul models available today, we’ll touch on some of these special editions.
Guitar Players and Musicians who changed the way we all listen to music
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