Guitar innovator Les Paul dies age 94
Guitar player, inventor and recording pioneer Les Paul has died, age 94, in hospital in New York, following complications arising from pneumonia.
Les Paul’s music career spanned eight decades, from the 1930s to the 21st century. His influence on the evolution of the electric guitar and his explorations in recording sound and compiling multitrack recordings helped shape the music industry from the 1950s onwards.
Born Lester William Polsfuss in Waukesha, Wisconsin on June 9, 1915, Les Paul started performing publicly as a honky-tonk guitarist at the age of 13. Paul’s celebrated playing established his reputation – picking up the stage name “Rhubarb Red" along the way – before he moved first to Chicago in 1934 and then New York in 1938, becoming a guitar-picking radio star along the way.
Early Les Paul recordings were played on an acoustic guitar, but unhappy with the early hollow-body electric guitars available at the time – notably their thin tone, lack of sustain and inherent feedback problems associated with a hollow body cavity – Paul began experiments in constructing his own electric guitar.
“I was interested in proving that a vibration-free top was the way to go," Paul has said. “I even built a guitar out of a railroad rail to prove it. What I wanted was to amplify pure string vibration, without the resonance of the wood getting involved in the sound."
Hearing about Paul’s experiments, Epi Stathopoulo, president of the Epiphone guitar company (now owned by the Gibson Guitar Corporation) gave Paul access to the Epiphone plant and machinery in 1941, a collaboration that resulted in Les Paul’s first solid-body electric guitar, affectionately dubbed “The Log”.
During World War II, Les Paul moved to California – drafted into the Army but permitted to stay in America, where he became a regular player for Armed Forces Radio Service – and ultimately played alongside singers like Nat King Cole and Bing Crosby while also performing at major jazz concerts.
The Les Paul Trio cut records for Decca, culminating in the group’s first number one hit and million-seller, “It's Been a Long, Long Time."
At this time, Les Paul was also experimenting with dubbing live tracks over recorded tracks and altering the playback speed. These experiments resulted in “Lover (When You're Near Me)," Paul’s revolutionary 1947 showcase of multitrack recording. The hit instrumental record featured Les Paul on eight different electric guitar parts, playing simultaneously.
In 1948, while recovering from a car accident that shattered his right arm and elbow, Paul began exploring multitrack recording further, using an Ampex tape recorder borrowed from Crosby. By adding a fourth head to the machine, Paul was able to create sound-on-sound recordings. Further experiments yielded the concept of tape delay and these innovations formed the basis of another number one single, “How High the Moon", performed as a duet with future wife Mary Ford.
The duo’s later work in the 1950s for Capitol Records displayed further studio innovations, exhibiting a unique layering of guitars and vocals.
Prior to this, in 1948, Gibson Guitar set out to design its first solid-body guitar and identified Les Paul as the man to perfect and promote the instrument: Paul became the namesake of Gibson’s first electric solid-body with exclusive design privileges, a union unbroken to this day.
The Gibson Les Paul model began with the 1952 release of the Les Paul Goldtop, followed later by the Les Paul Standard in 1958, which featured a change from the single-coil P90 pickups to Gibson’s revolutionary double-coil humbucker pickups. These guitars are still available today, virtually unchanged in design and style.
Les Paul’s 2005 LP Les Paul & Friends: American Made World Played, featuring collaborations with celebrity fans such as Keith Richards, Buddy Guy, Billy Gibbons, Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton, and Joe Perry, won two Grammy awards.
The Les Paul Trio continued to perform twice a week in New York until very recently, with the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame paying tribute to Paul in 2008 with a week-long celebration of his life and work, culminating in a concert featuring Paul.
“The world has lost a truly innovative and exceptional human being today. His musical charm was extraordinary and his techniques unmatched anywhere in the world," said Henry Juszkiewicz, Chairman and CEO of Gibson Guitar. “We will dedicate ourselves to preserving Les' legacy to insure that it lives on forever."
Guitarist and long-term Les Paul enthusiast Slash, formerly of Guns’n’Roses, now of Velvet Revolver, said yesterday, “Les Paul was a shining example of how full one's life can be, he was so vibrant and full of positive energy. I'm honored and humbled to have known and played with him over the years. He was an exceptionally brilliant man."
ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons – whose “Pearly Gates” signature Les Paul guitar, based on Gibbons’ original 1959 Les Paul Standard, was recently launched by Gibson – said, “Les Paul brought six strings to electricity and electricity to six strings. Les Paul was an innovator, a groundbreaker, a risk taker. Try to imagine what we'd be doing if he hadn't come along and changed the world.”
Les Paul is the only individual to be inducted in to the Grammy Hall of Fame, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the National Inventors Hall of Fame, and the National Broadcasters Hall of Fame.
He is survived by three sons Lester (Rus) G. Paul, Gene W. Paul and Robert R. Paul, his daughter Colleen Wess, son-in-law Gary Wess, long time friend Arlene Palmer, five grandchildren and five great grandchildren.