Les Paul is a towering figure of modern music. A performer for more than 80 years, he made unsurpassed contributions to the sound, scope, and design of the electric guitar. He was among the very first performers to use overdubbing, delay and phasing effects, tape echo, and multi-track recording. He designed the first eight-track recorder. As noted British critic Charles Shaar Murray describes, “If anybody is the missing link between Charlie Christian and Jimi Hendrix, it’s Les Paul. He was the first person to really understand the extent to which the electric guitar was a new instrument, as different from the acoustic as a Hammond organ is from a Steinway piano – or a car from a horse.”
As a musician and inventor, Les Paul influenced many of the world’s most renowned rock and blues guitarists, including Chuck Berry, Link Wray, The Ventures, Jimmy Page, Eric Clapton, Keith Richards, Peter Green, Brian May, Joe Perry, Steve Vai, Paul McCartney, and Mike Bloomfield. As Joe Walsh once told me, “Les Paul was one of the great innovators of the early electric guitar, and he made some fantastic guitar records. To me, Les Paul is very much it.”
Les Paul likewise exerted a profound influence on jazz greats from Wes Montgomery, George Benson, Al DiMeola, and Pat Martino to Stanley Jordan, whose neck-tapping technique is highly reminiscent of some of Paul’s records. Country legends such as Hank Garland and Chet Atkins were equally quick to sing his praises. Chet Atkins first heard Les in the mid 1930s: “It was a great thrill to listen every night and hear him on NBC radio. Les played just as great then. And then later on, in the 1950s, Les Paul turned the whole world on to guitar. He’s just a terrific, flashy, tasty guitarist.”
As Les Paul was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1988, Jeff Beck echoed the thoughts of many of his peers when he introduced Les with the words, “I’ve copied more licks from this man than I’d like to admit.” Jimmy Page is equally quick to credit Les Paul: “That’s where I heard feedback first – from Les Paul. Also vibratos – even before B.B. King, you know. I’ve traced a hell of a lot of rock and roll, little riffs and things, back to Les Paul – it’s all there. I mean, he’s the father of it all: multi-tracking and everything else. If it hadn’t been for him, there wouldn’t have been anything really.”
And then there’s the guitar. Few images say “rock and roll” more vividly than the Gibson Les Paul guitar. During the past six decades, the instrument that bears Les’ name has appeared in the hands of everyone from the earliest rockabillies and the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, the Allman Brothers Band, ZZ Top, Peter Frampton, Aerosmith, Neil Young, and Joe Walsh all the way to today’s up-and-coming rockers. It is, without doubt, the best-known endorsement in rock and roll history. But, as Les was fond of saying, this distinction carried a slight downside: “There’s millions and millions of people who think Les Paul is a guitar!”
Descended from German immigrants, Les Paul was born Lester Polsfuss in Waukesha, Wisconsin, on June 9, 1915. His lifelong interest in music, he told Jon Sievert in their 1977 Guitar Player magazine cover story, kicked into high gear when he was nine years old: “I was walking down the street, and I saw a sewer digger on his lunch hour open his lunch pail, dig out a harmonica, knock out the cracker crumbs, and play a bunch of tunes on it. I was fascinated by that harmonica, so I stared the guy out of it. I just stared at him. He said, ‘Here, kid, take it. Get out of here.’”
Soon afterward, one of his friends showed him how to fashion a crystal radio set, which Les used to dial-in radio broadcasts from the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville and WLS in Chicago. His musical hero in those days was Claude Moye, who performed as Pie Plant Pete. Moye, who hosted a hillbilly-themed show on WLS, played acoustic guitar and a harmonica held in a homemade rack around his neck. Backstage after a 1927 concert in Waukesha, Moye let Les hold his guitar and, seeing the boy’s fascination with the instrument, drew him some basic chord patterns. Les’ mother went right out and bought her son a Sears, Roebuck acoustic that came with a capo and a book entitled E-Z Method for Guitar. An early photo of Les depicts him dressed as a sailor, with that acoustic guitar and a large chromatic harmonica affixed to a homemade rack. Les drew inspiration from the 1920s guitar recordings of Nick Lucas and Eddie Lang, and by the 1930s Django Reinhardt had become his main influence.
From the beginning, Les was into customizing his guitar. He turned his Sears, Roebuck acoustic into a 5-string and experimented with moving its bridge around and resetting the action. Since many of his early gigs were held outdoors around Waukesha, where he was known as “Red Hot Red,” he experimented with amplifying his guitar. “First I did it with a phonograph needle,” he explained to Jon Sievert. “I took my mother’s record player apart and jabbed the needle into the guitar, and it came out the speaker. I didn’t realize it then, but I was also doing stereo back in the ’20s. The reason for that was my own ignorance. The only way I could figure out how to get amplified was to use my mother’s radio, and I could plug a mike into that. It was fine for my voice and harmonica, but I couldn’t figure out how to put another mike in there so that I could also amplify the guitar. Then I took my dad’s radio and hooked it all together and put one radio on one side of the stage and one on the other. Instant stereo. I just kept studying electricity and eventually figured out how to make a magnet, how to wind a coil, and what induction and capacitance are. It was fun. I built my own recording machine when I was 12.” His dad, who owned a garage, helped young Les make the machine’s parts on a lathe.
At age 12, Les journeyed to the Gibson factory in Kalamazoo, Michigan, to personally pick out his first good guitar, a Gibson L-5. He kept that one for about a year, and then got a 1928 L-5 that he kept for decades. Around the summer of 1932, Paul dropped out of high school to play with multi-instrumentalist Joe Wolverton, who gave him the stage name of Rhubarb Red. The duo billed themselves as Sunny Joe & Rhubarb Red, with Les singing and playing guitar, jug, harmonica, and piano. Les built a P.A. system for their act, but Wolverton insisted he only play acoustic guitar. In 1934, they changed their name to the Ozark Apple Knockers and moved to Chicago, where they secured a countrified radio show on WBBM. At night, Les put aside his hick Rhubarb Red persona and made the rounds of venues featuring jazz luminaries. “That was easy,” Les remembered, “because Chicago was a fireball in the early 1930s. All the great music was in Chicago. They either came to town or they were already there. You never took a streetcar or bus to get to clubs. They were too close. You’d just take your guitar in your hand and walk from one club to another. Every theater in the neighborhood had vaudeville. We lived jamming. It was wonderful. I was playing all night, so I would sleep in the lobby of the studio where we did the Rhubarb Red radio show. I needed every minute of sleep I could get. I worked out of the concept that every minute of my life was valuable.”
Soon after moving to Chicago, Les commissioned the Larson Brothers to build him a solid-top guitar: “Early on,” he told Sievert, “I figured out that when you’ve got the top vibrating and a string vibrating, you’ve got a conflict. One of them has got to stop, and it can’t be the string, because that’s making the sound. So in 1934 I asked the Larson Brothers – the instrument makers in Chicago – to build me a guitar with a half-inch maple top and no f-holes. They thought I was crazy. They told me it wouldn’t vibrate. I told them I didn’t want it to vibrate, because I was going to put two pickups in it. As far as I know, I was the first guy to put two pickups in a guitar. The next step was in the late 1930s, when I took an Epiphone [archtop] and bolted a 3/8-inch steel bar across the top of the body on the inside. The pickup was completely immune from vibrations from the bridge and neck. It was suspended, so it didn’t touch the bar or the guitar and was shock-mounted so that it would not move. It gave me the equivalent of a solidbody guitar. The sides of the body were for cosmetic purposes only.”
By the mid 1930s, Les Paul, George Barnes, Tampa Red, and Big Bill Broonzy were the top guitarists in Chicago. African-Americans, Tampa and Big Bill led the blues scene. Les and George worked as session guitarists for blues artists, and participated in onstage “cutting contests” at white nightclubs such as the Barrel of Fun. In May 1936 Les played acoustic guitar on the first of many records with blues singer Georgia White. His standout performance on White’s “I’ll Keep Sittin’ On It (If I Can’t Sell It)” strongly resembles Eddie Lang’s playing. That month Les also made his first records as a leader – “Just Because,” “Answer to Just Because,” and the two-part “Deep Elm Blues.” Recorded by Decca and issued under the Montgomery Ward label, these first releases were credited to Rhubarb Red.
In 1936 Les dropped the Rhubarb Red persona for good and formed the Les Paul Trio with Jimmy Atkins (Chet’s brother) on vocals and rhythm guitar and Ernie Newton on bass. The trio moved to New York City and began a four-year stint appearing on nationwide radio show with Fred Waring’s Pennsylvanians. During this period, Paul forged his reputation a jazz guitarist, jamming with legendary musicians including Art Tatum, Louis Armstrong, and Roy Eldridge. Among the first to play electric guitar over the radio, he showcased an exceptionally fluid, hard-driving style. He often played outrageously fast for the era, using hammer-ons, pull-offs, and trills and mixing straight jazz with crowd-pleasing gimmicks such as quotes from country and pop tunes. Audiences loved it.
In 1941 Les left Waring to become musical director for two radio stations in Chicago. He delved into electric guitar design, building a prototypical solidbody electric guitar that he named “The Log.” (Les is holding this in the photo at the top of this page.) To create this historic instrument, he mounted a pickup to a 4×4 board and attached an Epiphone neck and Epiphone body bouts. “Epiphone gave me the use of their factory on Sundays,” he told Jon Sievert. “I could go down there and use their tools and work all day. That’s where I built it. It was the next logical step. The Epiphone people would come in and shake their heads when they looked at it. I used it to put the bass guitar lines down on my records. I used it a lot when I was in California in the ’40s. I was living in Hollywood, and everybody – Leo Fender, [Paul] Bigsby, all of them – were in my backyard looking at that Log and the Epiphone with the steel bar. When I took The Log to Gibson around 1945 or 1946, they politely ushered me out the door. They called it a broomstick with a pickup on it.”
Paul had moved to Hollywood in 1943, formed a new trio, and was soon working with established stars such as Rudy Vallee, Kate Smith, Johnny Mercer, and Burns & Allen. He was drafted into the service and stationed in Hollywood, where he made V-discs for the Armed Forces Radio Services. After his discharge, Les went on the road with one of the most popular acts of the era, the Andrews Sisters, and played at the first Jazz at the Philharmonic Concert, delivering dazzling jazz solos behind Nat King Cole. The Les Paul Trio recorded many records for Decca between 1944 and 1947, delving into jazz, country, and Hawaiian music. Les also worked with Bing Crosby, backing him on national radio broadcasts and several recordings. His playing on Bing Crosby’s “It’s Been a Long, Long Time,” a #1 hit in 1941, had a profound influence on young Jimmy Page. “You ought to hear that,” Page said. “He does everything on that, everything in one go. And it’s just basically one guitar, even though they’ve tracked on rhythms and stuff. But my goodness, his introductory chords and everything are fantastic. He sets the whole tone, and then he goes into this solo which is fantastic.”
Encouraged by Bing Crosby, in 1946 Les built his first recording studio in the garage of his Hollywood home at 1514 North Curson Street. There he began pioneering new techniques for close-miking, echo delay, and multi-tracking. After nearly five hundred failed experiments, he finally succeeded with the futuristic instrumental “Lover,” playing at dizzying speed and showcasing layered guitar tracks. “I was doing disc-to-disc multiples in those days,” Les explained. “I built the two recording lathes out of Cadillac flywheels – cost a lot less that way, and they worked better than anything else that was around then. I had seven number-one hits with disc multiples: ‘Lover,’ ‘Nola,’ ‘Goofus,’ ‘Little Rock Getaway,’ and some others. They were all recorded on disc – no tape. You’d get two machines going, record on one, play that back, then play and sing along with it, recording on the other. And you just keep doing that, back and forth. ‘Lover’ had some 24 parts in it. That was played on an aluminum guitar that I’d made. I had a few hits on that guitar – ‘Caravan,’ ‘Brazil.’” In 1947, Capitol Records agreed to release “Lover,” which became a hit. The distinctive “Les Paul sound” was born.
The following year, Les suffered a broken right elbow in an auto accident. He instructed the doctors to reset it at a special angle so he could still play guitar. By then Les had begun working with a young country singer and guitar player, Colleen Summers, whom he married the following year and renamed Mary Ford. They billed their act as Les Paul and Mary Ford. One of their selling points was the interplay between Mary’s voice and Les’ “talking” guitar, which combined lightning speed and bluesy bends with an undeniable jazz sensibility. Although he couldn’t read music, Paul had an uncanny ability to play by ear and a fantastic sense of structure that allowed him to do complete head arrangements before recording them onto disc. He often achieved a bass guitar sound by recording at a fast tempo and then playing it back at half speed. For a “piccolo guitar” sound, he’d play along while the already-recorded sections ran at half speed.
During the early 1950s, Les Paul and Mary Ford seemed to rule the airwaves. Their 15-minute radio broadcast The Les Paul Show debuted on NBC in 1950. A few years later, they took their routine to television with The Les Paul and Mary Ford Show. In 1951, the duo released three of Billboard’s Top-30 hits: “How High the Moon,” “Mockin’ Bird Hill,” and “The World Is Waiting for the Sunrise.” The following year, “Vaya Con Dios” reached #1. On his own, Les also had a string of instrumental hits, notably 1950’s Nola,” 1951’s “Whispering,” and 1952’s “Tiger Rag” and “Meet Mister Callaghan.” The Les Paul and Mary Ford records singles had a profound influence on many young musicians in England, such as Ritchie Blackmore, who’d find fame with Deep Purple: “I loved Les Paul and Mary Ford; I had all of their records,” Blackmore recalls. “I was into Les for years. Chet Atkins was the other guitarist that everybody was into, but his thumb thing got on my nerves a bit. I thought Les Paul was much better, and Mary Ford was better to look at.” Paul McCartney recalled that during their formative days in Liverpool, The Beatles used to kick off every performance with “How High the Moon” or “The World Is Waiting for the Sunrise”: “That would get the crowd’s attention right away,” McCartney explained. “Everybody was trying to be a Les Paul clone in those days.”
Les Paul and Mary Ford’s biggest hit, “How High the Moon,” was recorded onto tape rather than to disc. “I began experimenting with doing sound-on-sound on tape in 1949,” Les told Jon Sievert. That year, Bing Crosby had given him one of the first Ampex Model 200A reel-to-reel recording machines. “I never told Ampex what I was doing,” Les continued. “I just asked them for a fourth head, and they just drilled a hole and put it in there. They had no idea what I was doing, and I didn’t tell them until five years later. ‘How High the Moon’ was our first big hit on tape.” Joe Walsh points to “How High the Moon” as one of his all-time favorite guitar tracks. “Les invented the trick of speeding the tape recorder up and slowing it down. You can hear that in ‘How High the Moon.’ That song was very influential to Jeff Beck.” Bill Wyman of the Rolling Stones has vivid recollections of hearing the hit record being played over England’s BBC Radio the year it came out: “‘How High the Moon’ by Les Paul and Mary Ford had a great sound that caught my ear. Here was the first example of electric guitar played imaginatively, and it must have influenced thousands of kids my age. It had terrific verve, proof at last that pop music had something more than love songs, that it could provide stylish instrumental imaginativeness. Les Paul was the first person to turn me on to the guitar sound.”
In 1952, the Ampex company began marketing the first eight-track recorder, which Les claimed he helped design. “I just went to Ampex with the idea and handed it to them,” Les recounted. “I never did patent it.” 1952 also marked the beginning of Les’ ongoing relationship with the Gibson company. That year, Gibson introduced the gold-top Les Paul Model. Compared to the twangy early Fender solidbodies, Gibson’s Les Paul had hotter pickups, a fuller tone, and better sustain. While Les Paul’s name went on the guitar, others at Gibson – notably Ted McCarty – played key roles in its design. Among the guitar innovations that can be credited to Paul are the floating bridge pickup and electro-dynamic pickup, both of which he patented, as well as various types of transducers. Gibson soon expanded the Les Paul line to include the deluxe Les Paul Custom and three economy-models – the Junior, the TV, and the Special. In 1960, the Les Paul Model became the Les Paul Standard, and in 1961 the company unveiled the double-cutaway.
Les Paul and Mary Ford continued to make hit records through 1955, when “Hummingbird” became their last Top-10 record. They made it into the charts again – with “Cinco Robles” in 1957, “Put a Ring on My Finger” in ’58, and “Jura (I Swear I Love You)” in ’61 – but their commercial heyday was over. A stint on Mitch Mitchell’s popular TV show didn’t help much. Things became tense between Les and Mary, and in 1964 they had a bitter divorce. Mary Ford passed away 13 years later. Les cut an album of remakes for London Records in 1967, and then went into semi-retirement from music. An ear injury in the early 1970s led to a long recuperation, during which he continued to experiment with electronics. Les reemerged as a recording artist in 1976, recording a jazz and country album with Chet Atkins, Chester & Lester, which won a Grammy Award. The duo reunited in 1978 to record another album, Guitar Monsters.
In 1980 Les was the subject of the film documentary The Wizard of Waukesha, which showed his skillful playing as well as his latest device, a little box called the Les Paulverizer, which could record, play back, and change the pitch of a guitar. “Basically, it’s a remote control box for a tape recorder,” Les explained. “It’s mounted right in the guitar.” He also made a stellar guest appearance on Al DiMeola’s Splendido Hotel album, playing “Spanish Eyes.” In the mid 1980s, the Les Paul Trio issued an album called Feedback. From 1984 through 1996, Les appeared weekly at Fat Tuesday’s in New York City. Many famous guitarists made the pilgrimage there to sit in with the master, including Mark Knopfler and Steve Vai, who had Les prominently autograph his favorite JEM guitar. “Les is one of the true geniuses of the electric guitar,” Vai said, echoing the sentiments of many others. “It was an honor to share the stage with him.” In 1993, Mary Alice Shaughnessy’s excellent biography Les Paul: An American Original was published by Morrow.
In February 2001, Les Paul received a special Grammy Award in recognition of his six decades of technological contributions to the recording industry, including the Les Paul guitar, multiple-track recording, overdubbing techniques, tape echo, and the eight-track recorder. Asked to name his favorite among all the guitars he designed and endorsed, Les responded, “The Gibson Les Paul Recording Model. It’s an excellent box, although the guy playing with a rock group who wants to drive the daylights out of a Marshall may want to use a regular Les Paul, because he can get more power out of it. The Recording has low-impedance pickups, and I feel it strikes the best balance of any guitar ever made.”
During the final years of his life, Les performed on Monday nights at the Iridium Club near New York City’s Lincoln Center. Slowed by arthritis but showcasing a style reminiscent of his early records, Les could please the crowd every time. “My philosophy over the years,” he said, “has been to play what I felt the public would like to hear and what I enjoy playing. The main thing was that no matter what I did, I wanted people to be able to recognize me instantly, but I didn’t want to just copy myself. I always wanted to play something new and different, and yet something that you could still say, ‘That’s Les Paul playing.’ In other words, I wanted to change the frame around the picture.”
In his 1977 interview with Jon Sievert, Les observed that “the one thing I get asked all the time is: ‘How long are you going to keep playing?’ And I say, ‘Until someone tells me not to.’ The day that I recognize the fact that I’m not needed or can’t make somebody happy, then I’m not going to play.” Luckily for us, that day never came. On the occasion of his 90th birthday, the Iridium Club threw Les a party that brought out the stars. Footage from this was used for the Les Paul Live in New York DVD. The event captured Les in great form, sharing the spotlight with Keith Richards, Tony Bennett, David Grisman, Tommy Emmanuel, Jose Feliciano, Steve Miller, and other friends. Les Paul lived to be 94, passing away on August 13, 2009.
Over the years, I had many encounters with Les Paul and can honestly say I enjoyed every one of them. He was charming, brilliant, enthusiastic, insightful, and very funny. Les epitomized the concept of making every moment count, and I miss him.
Thanks to Jon Sievert for permission to use his quotes and photos. In a companion article, Jon shares his recollections of spending time with Les Paul.