Les Paul: the original circuit bender

Les Paul will always be remembered for the guitar that carries his name, but his most pervasive musical legacy lies in his enthusiasm for modifying electronics.

Born Lester Polfuss in 1915 in Waukesha, Wisconsin, the late Les Paul started his practice of engineering cannibalism at an early age. He was taking apart telephones and radios by seven, ultimately rebuilding them into rudimentary amplifiers for his guitar playing.

Several people can take credit for understanding how a guitar could be amplified electrically. But as a skilled guitar player himself, he quickly found their limitations and worked on ways to overcome them. Today, musicians around the world follow in his footsteps by taking electronic devices and "circuit bending" them to tease, and sometimes torture, new sounds out of them.

He told Richard Buskin, writing for Sound on Sound - a music-engineering magazine that took its name from one of his famous studio techniques - in 2006: "I knew from the beginning that there was a great marriage between electronics and music.

"The electronics were all in my living room. In addition to the phonograph, I had a player piano, a telephone and a radio. I took the telephone apart at the receiver end, and when I looked at it I figured that the two coils were humbucking and quickly understood what the receiver was doing. Then I looked at the mouthpiece and worked out what that was doing. It was all right there in the living room. I never had to leave it - and I didn't!"

Although electric guitars, such as those made by Epiphone, went on sale in the 1930s, they were effectively acoustic instruments with magnetic pickups. Paul disliked the sound, believing that the resonances from the hollow body interfered with the pickups and distorted the tone. A solid body would not ring nearly so badly, he thought.

In the 1940s, he convinced guitar maker Epiphone - later bought by the parent of Gibson, the maker of the original Les Paul guitar - to let him test ideas in their workshop. The result of this work was 'The Log' - a solid strip of pine with the two halves of a standard acoustic guitar stuck to the sides. Although Paul, already a famous jazz guitarist at that point, took the idea to Gibson, the company rejected it. Not until the early 1950s did Gibson take another look at a solid-body instrument - after Fender had launched the Stratocaster.

Paul conceived the original guitar as a flat-top: it didn't really even need a full body other than to balance it for the player - the later, thinner SG had a tendency to be slightly top heavy. Paul told interviewer Gary James that the head of Gibson was a violin collector who was convinced that the company's arch-top design was better for an acoustic instrument's acoustics and had become something of a trademark shape. So, he convinced Paul that an arch-top design would look better and, as all the machinery was in place to do it for a solid-body instrument as well, they might as well opt for that design.

Paul's name, however, does not appear on the trademark instrument because Gibson was keen to lionise an inventor. As the top-selling guitarist of his day, Paul's name was seen as vital for marketing the electric instrument to a community brought up on its acoustic counterpart. It was the first large-scale, and arguably the most successful endorsement programme for a musical instrument. Today, artists such as former Guns 'n' Roses guitarist Slash are paid to be seen only with a Les Paul, even though they may use a variety of guitars in the studio. There was no doubt that Paul played a Les Paul.

Sound on Sound

Although the Les Paul has become an iconic guitar, the inventor himself arguably had a much greater influence over modern music after his introduction to magnetic tape after the Second World War.

Paul did not invent the concept of 'sound-on-sound' recording, although it was his perseverance with sceptical tape-recorder makers that took the idea into the mainstream. And the credit for the 'munchkinisation' effect that Paul later used to create the voice effects for the first Alvin & the Chipmunks effect has to go to composer Paul Hindemith.

In 1930, before tape recording had arrived, Hindemith used gramophone records at the Neue Musik Berlin festival in his Trickaufnahmen compositions. Presumably, many users before him had found out the effect of slowing or speeding up a turntable on voices and music. But Hindemith used the timbral changes that munchkinisation makes to create music. And, to show off the power of recording, demonstrated how to overdub takes with different instruments. Without the luxury of tape, however, Hindemith had to use the 1970s teenager method for re-recording: play the existing track into a microphone. By cutting three or four vinyl records in series, he succeeded in creating the first overdubbed music.

For his first attempts at overdubbing or sound-on-sound recording, Paul also went to the gramophone, using wax discs to record each take. He said in 2006: "I built two disc machines, and I'd bop between them while I played the first part and then added the second, third, fourth, fifth parts and so on.

"However, that was a rather difficult way of doing things, and the sound on sound also became a little tricky because of the degeneration that took place. After you'd go 25, 30 dubs down, that first part got to sound pretty bad."

Bing crosby and Ampex

The end of the Second World War brought a far more flexible alternative. While serving in the US Army Signal Corp, engineer Jack Mullin was assigned to study German electronics and was able to ship two Magnetophon tape recorders back to the US. The singer Bing Crosby saw the potential of tape to record his shows and promptly invested in the tiny company Ampex so that it could build its own.

During the war, Crosby and Paul built up a friendship through performing together and the singer arranged for an Ampex Model 200 to be sent to him. Paul immediately set about customising the machine - installing extra heads - so that he could overdub recordings.

At first Paul used just standard Ampex tape recorders. He demonstrated two running in parallel on a 1953 edition of 'Omnibus' hosted by Alistair Cooke. One recorded and played back several takes of Mary Ford singing 'How High the Moon' while the other captured his playing. Paul told Cooke that he had recorded a song with as many as 12 overlaid vocals from Ford and 12 of his guitar work.

The 'Omnibus' interview also showed off Paul's skill as a showman. The opening segment shows a giant box of tricks that applies some studio magic to some quick takes. Scaled down, Paul would often take his Les Paulverizer box of tricks on the road to gigs. The Paulverizer would let him demonstrate some new sonic wizardry based on tape overdubbing. In the 1970s, Robert Fripp would build on the idea of looping parts played on stage with his languid, evolving Frippertronics textures. Once tape had been absorbed into the production process, evolution was rapid.

The late Ross Snyder, who was special audio projects manager at Ampex in the mid-1950s, claimed to Howard Sanner, the organiser of the Ampex mailing list, that the idea to record tracks in parallel came from him. "Too many of Les's early recordings sounded like Brush Soundmirror tape, which was pretty awful, and something had to be done about it," said Snyder, referring to the post-war consumer-level tape recorders made by UK-based Brush.

"I decided that one way of doing this might be to make a stack of recording heads in such a way that you could record on one head and play back on another head on the same stack. Then it could be in perfect synchrony with the other tracks."

Although Paul later claimed he came up with the idea, Snyder maintained in the interview that the idea came from Ampex. "I'm not sure who offered the machine to Les. I didn't. My first contact was when we delivered the machine. But I insist that we thought of it and offered to him," said Snyder.

For the Ampex 300, later dubbed 'Octopus', Paul paid $10,000. "We didn't make a dime," said Snyder, adding: "It cost more money to fix because of the stupid mistakes we made in the design."

One such mistake was in leaving a cover on the capstan which, as Paul observed some years later, made it run at 30 or 60ips, not the designed, and ultimately industry standard speeds of 15 or 30ips.

By that time, Paul's star as top-selling guitarist was waning. Rock 'n' roll had arrived. So, very few hits were made on the eight-track machine. But many studios were equipped with the less ambitious four-track units, with copious amounts of overdubbing used ten years later to make albums such as The Beatles' 'Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band'.

Although he is immortalised in the guitar, Paul's contribution to the music industry is best expressed in his ability to combine technical experimentation with an ear for production. Modern popular music started with Les Paul.

To see footage of Les Paul and Mary Ford demonstrating multitrack recording to Alistair Cooke in 1953, and hear audio interviews with Ross Snyder, go to: http://kn.theiet.org/magazine/issues/0915/weblinks.cfm [new window].

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