Les Paul’s Experiments in Sound

by Steve Waksman

          During the long career of Les Paul, the search for a readily identifiable sound, a unique musical identity, has gone hand in hand with technological experimentation.  As Rolling Stone writer Chet Flippo observed in 1975, Paul regarded every guitar he owned as “an imperfect object to be rebuilt,” a quality which led Flippo to further comment, “That’s why Les Paul may well be the most important figure in popular music in the last two-and-a-half decades.  He is not interested in music per se; he is an electronics technician and inventor (self taught) whose mania is music delivery systems.” 
          What connects Les Paul’s endeavors as an inventor with his music and his performing career is an overriding preoccupation with sound, and specifically with the sound of the electric guitar.  Whereas jazz great and electric guitar pioneer Charlie Christian was lauded for playing guitar “like a horn,” it was largely through the efforts of Les Paul that the electric guitar assumed its own distinctive sound.  In his efforts to master both the technical elements of guitar playing and the technological trappings of his instrument, Paul combined technological and musical creativity in a way that few other twentieth century musicians could match.  And his namesake Gibson Les Paul guitar is unquestionably one of the most recognizable and beloved instruments of the past six decades.
          The sound that Paul pursued through his development of the solid body electric guitar is best termed tonal purity, a sound marked by a lack of distortion or any extraneous noise.  This quest for tonal purity complemented Paul’s musical taste for unfettered melody.  The music that Paul recorded with his wife and long-time performing partner Mary Ford was pop music, designed to have the broadest possible appeal.  Melding Ford’s voice with Paul’s guitar, both recorded in rich layers through Paul’s early mastery of multiple track recording techniques, the pair scored some of the biggest hits of the immediate pre-rock ‘n’ roll era of the early 1950s – most notably “How High the Moon” and “Vaya Con Dios” – while Paul’s sonic inventiveness set the stage for the sound of popular music to come.
          Born Lester Polfuss on June 9, 1915 in Waukesha, Wisconsin, Les Paul came of age during a time when Americans held a broad and powerful enthusiasm for technology.  Like thousands upon thousands of other boys and young men, Paul devoted himself to his crystal radio set, through which his interest in electronics grew.  He built his first set some time around 1927.  Only a couple of years later he constructed his first amplified guitar using pieces “borrowed” from his father’s Kolster radio-phono set, so that he could be better heard by the audiences he entertained in the parking lot at Beekman’s barbecue stand in Waukesha.
          Some time in the early 1930s, Paul’s idea for a solid body electric guitar began to crystallize. Leading a dual life as a jazz and hillbilly musician (under the pseudonym Rhubarb Red) over the Chicago radio airwaves, Paul came to recognize that “when you’ve got the top [of the guitar] vibrating and a string vibrating, you’ve got a conflict.  One of them has got to stop, and it can’t be the string, because that’s making the sound.”  Paul’s realization was based on the fact that early electric guitars were noisy creatures.  The hollow body of the guitar gave rise to unwanted resonances that were difficult to stifle using the standard pickups of the era.  For Paul, the goal became to get rid of these noisy intrusions; and the solution he arrived at was to create a guitar that exchanged the standard hollow body for a solid plank of wood.
          In 1941 Paul constructed “the Log,” a solid body prototype that remains one of the most unusual instruments in electric guitar history.  The Log was essentially a 4 x 4” strip of wood with an Epiphone neck and pickups designed by Paul, but the instrument was so unsightly that he added “wings” cut from the sides of an acoustic jazz guitar to normalize its appearance.  Strange though it may have looked, the Log was a perfectly functional instrument with a rich tone and greater sustain than other available guitars of the period.  Over the years Paul used it to record a number of songs; and, recognizing its design as something of a breakthrough in terms of sound, in 1946 he tried to sell the concept behind it to the Gibson company – and was flatly refused by M.H. Berlin, head of Gibson’s parent corporation, Chicago Musical Instruments.  At the time there was no perceived market for a solid body guitar, especially not one that looked like a “broomstick” with a pickup.  It would be another six years before the Gibson Les Paul would see the light of day and become – along with Fender’s Telecaster and Stratocaster models – the standard against which all other solid body electric guitars were measured.
          As Paul refined the technology of the electric guitar, he also made the instrument widely popular and accessible.  This he accomplished through his recording career and the success he achieved alone and in tandem with Mary Ford.  It was in his recordings that the sound Paul had been pursuing in his head assumed realization and became a source of enjoyment for millions of listeners.  And it was in making his recordings that Paul came upon his other great innovation, his mastery of multiple track recording.
          Paul’s recording methods, like his solid body innovations, first emerged during the 1930s.  He played along with the sound of his own guitar in private for almost a decade before applying some of the techniques he’d developed to a hit Bing Crosby song, “It’s Been a Long, Long Time,” which became a number one single in 1945.  At Crosby’s encouragement, Paul began to focus more attention upon his recording experiments, building a small studio in the garage of his Hollywood home.  Here, Paul devised what became known as his “new sound,” testing different styles of microphone placement, altering the tape speed of his recording equipment to achieve unique sonic effects, and most significantly, producing overdubbed recordings of considerable clarity and lack of surface noise.  Paul recorded tracks onto shellac disks (this was before tape was a readily available medium), and overlaid each new track onto the previous ones, so that no single track was retrievable once recorded.  A mistake meant starting over from scratch.  As Paul put it, “You can never go back – you can only keep going on.  So you just don’t make a mistake.”
          The first fruit of his experimentation came in 1947.  “Lover,” a Rodgers and Hart composition, became in Paul’s hands a multi-tracked orchestra of eight guitars, all played by Paul. Describing the piece, Paul explained that “until ‘Lover,’ I’d never been able to combine all my inventions and recording techniques into one bag of tricks – to use the delay, echo, reverb, phasing, flanging, sped-up sounds, muted picking and everything else on a multiple recording.” On the strength of the track, he secured a contract with Capitol records, whose A&R head Jim Conkling expressed amazement at Paul’s feats as a recording engineer:  “He was feeding in the bass end and top end of the scale all at the same time, which was a feat I never understood.”  Capitol’s own recording engineers were similarly puzzled, and Paul’s technological expertise became a key selling point as he began his career with the company.
          Not until 1949 did Paul begin to record with Ford, after an automobile accident had left him badly injured and his recording career hanging in the balance.  Ford’s smooth, crooning vocal style suited Paul’s pure guitar tone.  Together they projected a sound that was warm, intimate, and inviting, as though they were not on stage but in a room with the listener, sharing something personal.  This element of intimate sound matched the image that the couple portrayed.  As early as 1949, they appeared on radio as Les Paul and Mary Ford “at home,” a motif that would define their public image throughout the 1950s.  For Paul and Ford, home was at once that “intimate” space where romantic sentiment could flourish and the place where they made their music, using an expanded home studio in their Mahwah, New Jersey residence.  Home was also the setting within which most of their audience would encounter them. Performing over radio and television, or having their records played over hi-fidelity sound systems, Les and Mary would play from one home to another, publicly transmitting a version of domestic life built around the incorporation of electric technologies into the comfortable privacy of the middle-class home.
          The ingenious use of electricity was at the core of Les Paul’s career as musician and inventor.  In Paul’s hands, the electric guitar became just that, an instrument capable of producing an electronic tone relatively independent of its acoustic properties.  Similarly, making sound recordings became far more flexible through Paul’s experiments in layering tracks and manipulating sound through electronic means.  Regularly championed as an innovator of major proportions (more than one commentator has labeled him the Edison of the electric guitar), Paul is important for having demonstrated the accessibility of new technologies as well as their novelty.  He domesticated the electric guitar at the same time as he showed its remarkable capacity for expanding the sonic possibilities of popular music.  Rock and roll’s own sonic innovations are hard to imagine without him.