What the Row owes to Les Paul

Wednesday, August 19, 2009 at 10:45pm
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Of his many contributions to the music industry, Les Paul is the genius behind the eponymous guitar, now among the industry standards.

He wasn’t born in Nashville but “he lives on” here. And the Music Row industry that was born here could not have survived without him.

Les Paul, who died last week at 94, might only have been recognized locally for the magnificent Grammy-winning recording he made with guitar legend Chet Atkins, but everyone should be aware of just how much he’s meant to the recording industry.

A good argument can be made that beyond his huge influence on countless players, Paul’s inventions and overall contributions were more important to Nashville’s development as a recording and music center than those of any individual who didn’t make his home in Music City.

His innovations expanded technical and musical options for both producers and players. Paul’s two greatest creations — the solid body guitar and the multi-track recording — are undeniably fundamental to contemporary Nashville music creation and production. They changed the way players performed on and approached their instruments, and how producers and engineers captured their sounds and presented them electronically on recordings.

It also led to the rare honor of being a member of both the National Inventors’ Hall of Fame and the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.

“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. “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.”

Person of record

While the Les Paul guitar generates the most reverence and awe among fledgling six-stringers, it is his other innovation that helped change Nashville.

The creation of multi-track recording and overdubbing proved incredibly important.

Paul introduced overdubbing in 1948, thanks to the singles “Lover (When You’re Near Me)” and “Brazil,” both made in his garage workshop. Paul had taken a tape recorder he’d been given by Bing Crosby and adapted it by adding another tape head. The result was the first sound-on-sound tape machine, giving him the capacity to layer different tracks together in one recording.

He used these techniques on historic recordings with then wife Mary Ford. Her feathery, light voice was buttressed by Paul’s fleet guitar runs and accompaniment on a string of 1950s hits — particularly the No. 1 singles, “How High The Moon” and “Vaya Con Dios.”

Never one to stop tinkering, Paul not only often layered guitar solos and accompaniment on top of each other, but he also speeded up his guitar sound.

Later, he commissioned Ampex — the American company whose first tape recorder, the Ampex Model 200, revolutionized the radio and recording industries — to build the first eight-track recorder in 1954. It included a head Paul designed that he called “Sel-Sync.” The head could record or play back tracks.

Paul’s experimenting led to other important studio developments that became the standards of the recording industry that, now taken for granted, fill recording studios worldwide. These include phase shifting, reverb effects, close miking, echo, delay and many other techniques.

When you consider that country music was born by remote location acoustic recording sessions (think The Carter Family), where musicians and singers had to gather around a central recording horn, Paul’s multi-tracking invention was nothing short of revolutionary.

Despite this, Paul remains linked with the electric guitar that carries his name.

The body electric

The inspiration for Paul’s solid body electric guitar involved two things. One was changing the design of the guitar, the other improving the reproduction of the notes being played.

Paul was fascinated by sound and electricity as a child, and continually experimented with various designs. As a 13-year-old, he had previously created a rudimentary electric guitar while also playing country in his spare time.

He further developed his revolutionary concept in 1941 at age 26. By that time he was working part-time for New York’s Epiphone guitars. It was there that he reportedly took a four-inch-by-four-inch piece of wood and attacked the sides of a cut-up guitar onto it. He called the new device “the log.”

“What I wanted to do,” Paul told Jim O’Donnell for a 2005 article in The Rock and Roll Journal, “was not have two things vibrating. I wanted the string to vibrate and nothing else. I wanted the guitar to sustain longer than an acoustical box and have different sounds than an acoustical box.”

The other half of the puzzle involved bolstering the sound while finding a way to cut down on distortion. Paul had earlier experimented with taking part of a telephone (the magnet and coil) and putting it under the strings, then taking a phonograph needle and jabbing it in the top of the guitar, creating a very early prototype of a pickup.

From these various changes eventually came the Les Paul guitar, now among the industry standards. His new solid body guitar had a more sophisticated pickup, but was still based on original principles Paul had earlier pioneered.

Ironically, Gibson, who later would make the Gibson Les Paul Standard one of the country’s most popular instruments in any genre, initially rejected his instrument.

“They called it a broomstick with a pickup,” Paul has recalled in various stories and essays about his remarkable life.

Thus, he was beaten to the punch to become the first person to have a mass produced solid body electric guitar in the marketplace. That honor went to Leo Fender and the Fender Broadcaster.

If you knew…

Though Fender was first, the Gibson Les Paul Standard remains among the most popular guitars in modern history. Officially launched in 1952, and whose latest model was introduced last year, the Standard has been continuously tweaked and refined to reflect advances in pickup technology and instrument design.

“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,” said Aerosmith’s Joe Perry, who’s rarely captured in photographs without his Les Paul black pearl guitar. “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.”

Less remembered but just as important is Paul’s contributions to radio and television through a seven-year series of five-minute radio and television broadcasts he and Ford did from their home.

Paul did the engineering, writing and directing for The Les Paul & Mary Ford Show (a.k.a. The Listerine Show) throughout the show’s seven-year run. Paul did all the music using a quarter-inch Ampex tape machine he adjusted for sound-on-sound recording.

A 2008 DVD includes some of the content from the shows, along with Paul’s own commentary. In it, viewers can begin to understand Paul’s stature.

He was not only a great musician, innovator and producer, but a major figure responsible for the development and emergence of the modern music industry as we know it. His influence spanned the world, and that path runs up and down Nashville’s famed Music Row.