Les Paul: A Tribute to the great man (updated for 2021)
Published on 09 June 2021
Playing guitar and smiling right up until he passed away at the grand old age of 94, Lester William Polsfuss, otherwise known as Les Paul, did more to single-handedly change music than any other human being in history. His list of achievements is incredible so we’ll take our time here to make sure we pay proper honour to a man who gave so much to every single one of us!
Some people grow up to be inventors; they make products that make our lives easier or more enjoyable. If they are lucky, one of their lifetime’s worth of inventions hits big and becomes a part of the fabric of the future.
Some other people are performers: they go out on the road with their tricks and hope to earn a living entertaining people. Others work behind the scenes, maybe writing things for other people to perform or perhaps working at a bench to refine and improve things, maybe innovate a little.
All of this pales next to what Les Paul achieved in his years: he did all of that, over and over again throughout the decades as everyone else ran to keep up. As a musician, he and wife Mary Ford sold millions of records. As an inventor, he not only popularised a certain solid body guitar but invented multitrack recording, flanging & phasing, tape delay (delay in general really), overdubbing and other concepts that effectively brought about modern recorded music. As a player, his distinctly deft lead playing with its slides, trills, hammer-ons and fluid speed left everyone else in the dust, shaking their heads. Once he added his delay and flanger effects, he caused a seismic shift with guitar layers which has never gone away.
Where did it all come from?
Well, it’s a hard question to answer but we can try to search for clues by looking into his illustrious life. It seems the inventor in him didn’t take long to come out: at age 8 he had industriously created a neck holder for his harmonica so he could accompany himself simultaneously on guitar. This basic design is still manufactured in accordance with his design!
Gigging in his teens, he wired a record player’s needle to his guitar and attached that to a radio speaker, creating an unordhodox impromptu amplifier. Restless kid.
Fast forward a little to the war years when Les’s career really took off. He was a popular jazz player on the scene and was building up a good audience. A lot of this was down to his attitude: “I think the most important thing about playing is to walk out with confidence, look the people right in the eye and say 'Here I am,' and go and do your thing. As soon as they know you're confident, they're confident. As long as you adjust to them you're not in trouble. You should eyeball them, find out what they want, and give it to them. They didn't pay to come out and look at the tapestries.”
Les the Inventor
He’d been a close friend of gypsy legend Django Reinhardt (Django’s own game-changing playing was a big influence on Les) and around this time, playing in New York, he started getting frustrated at the limitations of his hollowbody Gibson archtop. He clearly had deep love for the guitar (as this great quote proves: “This guitar is such a pal. It's a psychiatrist. It's a doggone bartender. It's a housewife. This guy is everything. Whenever I find that I've got a problem, I'll go pick my guitar up and play. It's the greatest pal in the whole world.”) but wasn’t blind to the drawbacks inherent in trying to place it in ever-louder bands. Looking to rid his playing of feedback, he created his fabled ‘Log’: a literal 4x4 lump of wood to which he attached a neck, pickup and set of strings. Since it looked ghastly and he knew about showmanship, he also added the wings of a hollowbody Epiphone to improve the aesthetic. His concept worked and solved the feedback problem. It would be a little while yet until his prodigious ideas took off though.
After inadvertently electrocuting himself in his workshop (we just love this guy’s indefatigable dedication!) in 1941 and taking two years to recover, he was drafted into the army and worked the Armed Forces Radio Network where he played both his own material and backed up artists like Bing Crosby. Crosby took a shine to Les and paid for some recordings, which included plenty of examples of Paul’s intimidatingly speedy playing, the likes of which no one had ever heard before. He was always a tasteful musician though, as Maxine Andrews of the Andrews Sisters remarked: “…he never once took the attention away from what we were doing. He did everything he could to make us sound better”.
More legendary accidental damage to Les Paul’s self occurred in 1948 when he, as passenger, was involved in a car crash that heavily shattered the bones in his right arm. The prognosis was not good for recovery but a Los Angeles hospital, rather than amputate his arm, responded favourably to Les’s suggestion that they reset his arm at a near-90 degree angle to let him hold and play a guitar. This inspiring return from despair took Paul 18 months of recovery time (seemingly something he was getting used to) but in the end, he and his arm lived to play another day. In Les’s own words: ‘Every setback might be the very thing that makes you carry on and fight all the harder and become much better’.
It’s a famous fact that Les approached Gibson with the ‘Log’ way back in 1941 to be faced with a unanimous snub, Gibson only changing their mind after witnessing the meteoric success of Leo Fender’s creation. Thus the legendary Gibson Les Paul took it’s bow in 1952, designed by Les along with John Huis (Gibson factory manager) and company president Ted McCarty. The Gibson Les Paul is a whole story unto itself so we’ll leave it here and keep the focus on our intrepid hero, Les.
Whilst recording with Bing Crosby (indeed, Crosby recommended he build his own home studio to continue his inexhaustible tinkering), Les began his experiments with altering the speed of the tape heads of his recordings, recording multiple experiments that led to multitrack recording (which of course has benefited absolutely every musician ever since from then till forever) which he used acetate discs to produce. This, let’s not forget, was nearly a hundred years ago! A gift from Crosby, an Ampex Model 200 reel-to-reel tape recorder, led to his ‘sound-on-sound’ innovations after Paul ingeniously added an extra reel to the tape heads. He also casually invented flanging in 1952, all whilst gigging, putting out million selling records and hosting his own television show with his wife and co-performer Mary Ford. Incidentally, the Gibson guitar colour TV yellow was also a Les Paul invention: he suggested a ‘wheat-coloured’ finish so that the guitar would show up as grey on the black and white TVs of the day. White guitars were too bright on people’s screens and black guitars disappeared into his tuxedo. This is also the reason that the Les Paul Custom (Les’s own favourite model) has thick multi-ply binding on the top and headstock: he wanted to rock a black guitar and wanted the folks at home to see it next to his suit! Ahh, showbiz…
In the mid-60s, Les started to get arthritis, eventually deciding to lighten his workload in 1965 by semi-retiring. His hearing started to go too during the late sixties so he did what only Les Paul could: he set about designing a new type of hearing aid! This project never reached fruition but right up until his last days he held down a Monday night residency at the Iridium in New York. A joker and a player until the end, his contributions to popular music and recording technology across the board are astronomically significant. Without Les and his ever enquiring mind (and ability to take plenty of physical punishment!), nothing we know about recorded music would ever have happened in the way we all take for granted now. There is simply no way to underestimate the genius and influence of this genuinely legendary man.