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General Interest

LES PAUL, MORE THAN A NAME ON YOUR FAVORITE GUITAR

Les Paul died yesterday at age 94, putting the lie to the axiom that only the good die young. Les Paul was a very good man, a great guitarist and an inspired inventor who changed the recording industry forever. There are a lot of musicians who use his name every single day, referring not to Mr. Paul himself but to their Gibson Les Paul guitar, one of the most popular, sturdy and versatile electric guitars ever made. He designed it and constantly refined it throughout his long life and it became synonymous with the man himself. There’s hardly a guitar hero on the planet who does not own a Les Paul guitar, if not several of them. A good portion of our iconic rock photographs shows the star slinging a Les Paul guitar.

But there’s a whole lot more for which we have Les Paul to thank. Number one, the fine music he played in many musical genres, from country to jazz to rock & roll to standards to blues and a whole lot of wonderful hybrids of all of these disciplines. His inventive explorations and collaborations never ceased, from Rudy Vallee, Kate Smith, Bing Crosby, Nat King Cole to Chet Atkins, Eric Clapton, Billy Gibbons, Jeff Beck, Joe Perry, Sting and Keith Richards. All that plus a string of million-selling hits and a popular TV show with his wife and singer Mary Ford. It was Bing Crosby who urged him to build his own studio, where he proceeded to revolutionize the way music is recorded forever.

He invented overdubbing, synchronized tracking that led to multi-tracking, phasing, tape delay and a hundred more special effects and recording techniques as well as scores of pickups and sonic improvements for his solid body Les Paul guitars. His name also became synonymous with Gibson, the reputable but formerly small company of mandolin and arch-topped guitar builders for which he created his line of instruments. The talented luthiers at Gibson fleshed out Les Paul’s seminal “log” design and created a classic. Other than Leo Fender, there hasn’t been another solid body electric guitar design genius remotely in his league. If he never accomplished anything else he would have been a legend, but this legend had a mind that never stopped asking why this thing or that gizmo hadn’t been invented yet and so took it upon himself to change the world. At the time of his death he was excited about a new invention he was working on. We can only hope we get to find out what it is.

Born in Waukesha, Wisconsin, he began playing radio dates as a country music guitarist at just 13 years old and by the time he was 17 he dropped out of high school to hit the road with Rube Tronson’s Cowboys to begin an epic journey through every genre of American music, leaving his indelible stamp on each of them. HIs tinkering with electronics began as a boy when he dismantled his mother’s Victrola and placed the pickup inside an acoustic guitar. Inspired by the great Belgian gypsy guitarist Django Reinhardt’s use of amplified acoustic guitars and American electric guitar pioneer Eddy Lang, his tinkering got more and more sophisticated and he came up with “the log,” one of the first-ever solid body guitars and one of the first stringed instruments to draw it’s tone almost completely from electronic amplification.

Still not satisfied, he designed a pickup that would allow for the long sustaining of notes so the guitar could be used to play expressive instrumental solos like a saxophone or trumpet. This led to the development of the famous “Humbucker” pickup by Gibson’s own Seth Lover. A long line of superb electric guitar instrumentalists owe their passionate and fluid techniques to this curious son of the Midwest, too many to mention. Think Leslie West at full slow sweet wail or Eliot Randall’s unbelievable guitar solo on Steely Dan’s “Reeling In The Years.” Think Joe Walsh joining The Eagles and making them real rockers with his Les Paul Custom or Jimi Hendrix turning Bob Dylan’s “All Along The Watchtower” inside out and you get an idea of the infinite possibilities Mr. Paul gave to talented players with his sonic tinkering.

And so we say goodbye today to an American original, a man who’s incredible musical talent and endlessly inventive mind were joined from the outset of his amazing career. A man who never rested on his laurels or played out his twilight years cranking out shows of his greatest hits. He never stopped growing and creating or asking questions. And when there were no answers to his questions he provided them himself. And all of us are the beneficiaries of his labors, not only the musicians but every lover of music. Every recording made since he got busy building studios and inventing cool gadgets owes a debt of gratitude to Les Paul, a humble American giant who gave more than he got. As for myself, I’m going to say goodbye to him like a million other guitarists. I’m whipping out my “Paul” and giving it hell. Thanks, Les.

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