The Music Experience | Innovation Icon – Les Paul
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Innovation Icon

Les Paul

Les-PaulHe invented multitrack recording and overdubbing, using those techniques for the first time in 1947; within a few years they were essential to hundreds of popular record releases, and most popular song recordings are inconceivable without them today. Paul also pioneered other recording sound effects such as reverb, delay, and phase shifting. He was among the first developers of the solid-body electric guitar, which went on to become the defining instrument of rock and roll, and he designed the Gibson Les Paul, one of the two dominant electric guitar makes of the classic rock era. As a recording artist, Paul and his wife, Mary Ford, enjoyed a run of popularity in the late 1940s and early 1950s. In the words of former Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page, as quoted in a Melody Maker interview appearing on the Web site of the Rock and Roll Journal, Paul was “the man who started everything. He’s just a genius.”


Began on Harmonica

Les Paul was born Lester William Polsfuss on June 9, 1915, in Waukesha, Wisconsin. His family shortened their German name, awkward for English speakers, to Polfuss early in his childhood. His parents, George and Evelyn, lived in an apartment next to his father’s auto mechanic’s shop. When Paul was eight, a local construction worker gave him a harmonica, which he liked immediately. Soon he was playing in school talent contests. Formal piano lessons went nowhere, but Paul had a knack for entertaining people; he began playing the harmonica on the streets and later added a guitar that he bought for five dollars, earned by picking bugs off potato plants. By the time he was 12, he was taking in $30 in tips every week. He was also an avid electronics experimenter, building a crystal radio when he was nine.


It was hearing guitarists like Eddie Lang on the radio that inspired Paul to take up the instrument, and later he would emulate guitarist Django Reinhardt and other jazz musicians. But his first influences came from country music, in the form of a guitarist named Pie Plant Pete, who performed on the Saturday Night Barn Dance program that was broadcast on Chicago radio station WLS. Pie Plant Pete gave Paul some pointers when he appeared in person in Waukesha, and Paul began to land jobs at service clubs, fraternal organizations, and summer concerts around Waukesha. His high school education was doomed, and he dropped out to pursue music full-time. When he played at Waukesha’s Cutler Park, he was frustrated by the limited volume of his acoustic guitar and experimented with using a phonograph needle wedged into the instrument as an electric pickup, attached to a wire plugged into a radio at the other end.


Dubbed “Rhubarb Red” for his red hair, Paul began performing in country bands such as Rube Tronson’s Cowboys, traveling as far afield as St. Louis. He and local guitarist Sunny Joe Wolverton formed a duet called Sunny Joe and Rhubarb Red. They headed for Chicago to seek out the abundant performing opportunities at the city’s Century of Progress Exposition in 1933, and after that world’s fair ended, he stayed on in Chicago and snared a pair of radio shows: on station WJJD in the morning he was Rhubarb Red, playing country music, and then he moved over to WIND, playing jazz and using the new name of Les Paul. He also performed around Chicago in a jazz trio that included Jim Atkins, brother of his future collaborator Chet Atkins, and Ernie Newton.


In 1939 this trio took a major step forward when they were signed to perform with Fred Waring and His Pennsylvanians, an orchestra with a show broadcast nationally on NBC radio from New York. Paul played electric guitar in the band. The instrument had appeared in a few jazz and Western swing bands, but in the more conservative Waring group it was unusual enough to stir protests from listeners. Paul flipped a coin to decide whether he should stick to his instincts, and the coin apparently answered in the affirmative. He returned to Chicago to perform with the Ben Bernie big band but continued to spend time in New York as well.


Sought Sustained Guitar Sound

Ever since he had started to play the electric guitar, Paul had dreamed of a different sound than the instrument had produced thus far. Electric guitars of the 1930s tended to produce short blasts of sound, actuated by the player’s plucking of the strings and then decaying in much the same way an acoustic guitar chord would. As he played in large dance halls, Paul experimented with ways of creating a more sustained sound. He realized that the sound decayed partly because it was diffused by the soundbox, so he tried filling in the hollow body of the guitar. “I chucked rags in it. I poured it full of plaster of Paris. I tried everything with the guitar to try to get it to not feed back and not sound like an acoustical box,” he told Jim O’Donnell of the Rock and Roll Journal. The plaster of Paris idea seemed promising but resulted in an unacceptably heavy guitar. He began working on further refinements during off hours at an Epiphone guitar factory on 14th Street in New York City, while taking time off after an accident in which he received a severe electric shock from a radio transmitter.


Finally, in 1941 Paul constructed a guitar he called the Log, made from a solid four-by-four piece of wood. He noted with satisfaction that he could plug the guitar into an amplifier, pluck a string, go out for a meal, return to his workshop, and hear the note still sounding. Paul is often recognized as the inventor of the solid-body electric guitar. The claim is difficult to evaluate, for guitars were evolving rapidly at the time, and other inventors were pursuing similar paths; the Rickenbacker company had manufactured a solid electric lap steel guitar as early as 1934. But Paul’s Log, onto which he soon glued two wings from another Epiphone guitar to make it look more guitar-like, was undoubtedly a major step in the development of the modern electric guitar. Moving to Los Angeles in 1943, Paul quickly attracted the attention of other guitar designers such as Leo Fender.


Paul’s Log was so far ahead of its time, in fact, that his first attempts to market the guitar came to nothing. Executives at Gibson Guitars to whom he showed his project in 1945 or 1946 derided it as a broomstick with a pickup. Paul shelved the guitar temporarily and turned to production work, building a home studio in his garage (using a Cadillac flywheel as a recording lathe) at the urging of singer Bing Crosby, after the two worked together on the recording “It’s Been a Long, Long Time.” Paul produced songs for other artists who were part of the rapidly growing Los Angeles recording industry, which was oriented toward vocals with instrumental accompaniment rather than the old big bands. He also began to make instrumental electric guitar recordings himself and to experiment with the new technology of tape recordings that had been perfected by the American and German militaries during the war.


In 1947 one of these recordings led to Paul’s second breakthrough. Performing an obscure Richard Rodgers-Lorenz Hart composition called “Lover,” he recorded eight parts separately (using records in his first attempts, not tape) performing over previously recorded tracks in layers until he had created the finished recording—which required 500 attempts before Paul was satisfied. The new “Les Paul sound” caught on fast, and Paul had hits as a performer on the Capitol label with “Brazil,” “Goofus,” “Nola,” “Little Rock Getaway,” and other single releases that marked the first known uses of the overdubbing technique. In 1948 he was injured again in an automobile crash in Oklahoma; for the rest of his life, seven screws held his right arm at an angle that allowed him to play the guitar.


Recorded Duo Hits with Wife

After his recovery, Paul married Colleen Summer, a singer who had worked with the band of Western star Gene Autry. He renamed her Mary Ford for professional purposes, and the two went back into the studio at Capitol. By now Paul had adapted magnetic tape to his multiple-source recording technique, and true multitrack recording was born in such Les Paul and Mary Ford hits as “How High the Moon,” which sold a reported 1.5 million copies, and their biggest hit, 1953’s “Vaya con Dios,” a number one record for nine consecutive weeks. Paul also introduced such now-commonplace effects as reverb and phase shifting in these sessions. Paul and Ford raised an adopted daughter, Colleen, and a biological son, Robert, before their divorce in 1964.


Paul’s inventions became standard industry equipment in the 1950s. His solid-body electric guitar became the subject of intense new interest from Gibson after the rival Fender company introduced its Broadcaster model in 1951, and Gibson worked with Paul (the exact nature of his contributions is a matter of debate) to develop a Les Paul model that he played exclusively. The Les Paul and its Fender competitors became fundamental to the sound of rock and roll music as it emerged in the mid-1950s and developed over the rest of the century. Among the Les Paul’s famous players were Paul McCartney, Keith Richards, Eric Clapton, and Slash, who conceded that when he acquired his first Les Paul he did not know anything about the man for whom it was named. Ironically, the new music Paul helped make possible put an end to his own career as a hitmaker; the last Les Paul and Mary Ford recording to reach top chart levels was “Hummingbird,” in 1955, although they recorded several LPs for Capitol in the late 1950s and early 1960s.


Health problems, including arthritis, coronary difficulties, and a ruptured eardrum suffered while rough-housing with a friend in 1969 plagued Paul in the 1960s and 1970s, but his creativity was undiminished. In the late 1960s Paul anticipated synthesizer-guitar hybrids by decades with his never-marketed Paulverizer, a guitar that could control prerecorded sounds on tape, and he recorded several solo LPs in the late 1960s. he returned to his country roots in 1976 with the RCA label album Chester & Lester, a collaboration with Nashville guitarist Chet Atkins, another star who owed much of the basic vocabulary of his music to Paul’s innovations.


In 1984 Paul began appearing weekly at the club Fat Tuesday’s in New York’s Greenwich Village neighborhood, and he experienced a renewal of attention paid to both his technical and musical contributions. In 1988 the Cinemax cable television network broadcast a Paul tribute concert held at New York’s Majestic Theater, featuring guests such as B.B. King, Stanley Jordan, and Eddie Van Halen, and a 1991 four-CD retrospective showcased Paul’s skills as a guitarist. A reissued version of “Nola” became a number one hit in China. In 1995 Paul’s weekly engagement moved to the Iridium club, and now in his nineties, he has continued to perform regularly in New York. In 2007 he was awarded the U.S. National Medal of Arts by President George W. Bush.