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 nine - 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 solidbody 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’d 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 #1. 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 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.”
Over the ensuing decades Les Paul has remained active on all fronts. He recorded a Grammy-winning album of instrumental duets with Chet Atkins, Chester and Lester, in 1976. From the mid-Eighties through the mid-Nineties, he performed weekly at Fat Tuesday’s, a New York City jazz club. In 2005, at the age of 90, he released American Made/World Played, which featured guest spots from several of his most illustrious rock and roll disciples and won him a pair of Grammys.
Paul performed weekly – at New York’s Iridium Jazz Club – and indulged his inventor’s curiosity in a basement workshop at home in Mahwah, New Jersey up until his death on August 13, 2009.