Les Paul’s importance blurs idiomatic lines

Thursday, August 13, 2009 at 12:35pm
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No figure in contemporary music history crossed more idiomatic lines or influenced more people as both a player and an inventor than Les Paul.

A brilliant soloist and equally vital conceptualist, Paul, who died Thursday in White Plains, N.Y., of complications from pneumonia at 94, was a key figure in the evolution of jazz, rock, pop and modern recording.

As a creator and designer, Paul’s contributions include creating the classic solid-body hollow guitar and adding an electric pickup to it, while also developing multi-track recording, an innovation allowing artists to record various instruments at different times, sing harmony with themselves, then go back and balance the finished product into a polished recording.

Paul was a comrade of Charlie Christian and Chet Atkins, George Benson and Joe Satriani, Wes Montgomery and Mark Knopfler. During his extensive career, which began in the 1930s and continued into the 21st century, Paul at various times was in western swing and cowboy bands, jazz trio’s, pop duet with then wife Mary Ford, and jam sessions with assorted rock, blues, jazz and country players.

He did nationwide radio shows, numerous televised variety shows, and in recent years even turned up on instructional videos and concert DVDs.

“Without Les Paul, we would not have rock and roll as we know it,” said Terry Stewart, president of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum on Thursday in a story for Yahoo!.com. “His inventions created the infrastructure for the music and his playing style will ripple through generations. He was truly an architect of rock and roll.”

Ironically, it was a gift from a vocalist that helped fuel Paul’s inventive side. Though he’d been experimenting with volume and ways to amplify it since his teen years, after Bing Crosby gave him a tape recorder, Paul began working in earnest on what ultimately became multi-track recordings. He used multiple machines, stacking recording heads on top of each other and also utilizing echo, until he eventually developed what became a revolutionary studio concept.

By 1954, Paul commissioned Ampex to build the first eight-track recorder, a device that had a recording head that could simultaneously record a fresh track while also playing back old ones.

“As a guitarist and a fan of music in general, I know the amazing contributions Les Paul made in his lifetime to the art of making music,” Aerosmith’s Joe Perry said in comments he issued upon hearing of Paul’s death. “I think if the general public knew how much of that influence is heard every day in the music they listen to, they would be amazed.”

Country superstar Keith Urban, one of many guitarists around the world using a signature model Gibson Les Paul guitar, added that Paul “is also very present every time I set foot in the studio and am able to lay multiple tracks as I record, when I use echo, etc., the list of his inventions, in addition to his famous signature model Gibson, are extraordinary.

“I also feel that even in his nineties, the fact he was still playing every Monday night in New York is perhaps the most beautiful and inspiring achievement of all.”

Others currently using a Les Paul model include Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page, Pete Townshend of the Who, Steve Howe of Yes, and former Return to Forever guitarist Al DiMeola.

Les Paul is a member of the Rock and Roll, and National Inventors Halls of Fame.

Among his many great albums were two he made with Chet Atkins in the mid’70s. Chester and Lester won a Grammy in 1976 for Best Country Instrumental Performance. His 2005 release Les Paul & Friends: American Made, World Played featured Paul playing alongside Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton, Richie Sambora and Peter Frampton.


2 Comments on this post:

By: Blanketnazi2 on 8/14/09 at 7:20

RIP, Les. You will be missed.

By: dgallent on 8/15/09 at 5:52

Les was a real innovator and had incredible timing in his playing. The article is correct about the inventions concerning recording but Les did not invent the electric guitar. That was done by Paul Bigsby at the behest of the great Merle Travis in 1948 and then later modified by Leo Fender.

HIs Les Paul design guitars are widely used but it is hard to find a country band that does not have a Fender Telecaster which provides that driving country twangy sound.

I met Les on two occasions and he was a genuinely nice guy. He could still play despite losing mobility in three of his fingers and having his elbow fused after an automobile accident.

Les and Mary Ford (who were married) both had perfect pitch. He said they would begin to disagree on the road while listening to a song on the radio. He said many times he would have to stop the car and unpack it to his guitar to prove to Mary what key a song was being played.

To this day, Mary Ford is one of my favorite singers and Les made her great.

Les told me that every December, Bing Crosby would book his trio for the entire month. They did concerts and Christmas shows together.

Gonna miss him.