Happy Birthday Les Paul, The Man Who Asked: “How Can I Make My Guitar Louder?
With this simple desire, Les Paul revolutionized the way guitarists play the instrument. But in truth, Les Paul, who would have been 96 today had he not passed away in 2009 of complications from Pneumonia, changed more than that. Les Paul changed the way music was recorded, with his pioneering experiments in overdubbing, and the way musicians approach the very nature of “documentation” of their works. Before Les Paul, recording was like a snapshot of a “true” moment, “Here son, play your trumpet into this here microphone and we’ll make a record.” After Les Paul, the concept of a recording artist as an “aural sculptor” became commonplace, with artists like Prince, Stevie Wonder, Paul McCartney and Todd Rundgren taking up the torch with albums of material played entirely themselves on numerous overdubbed tracks.
To celebrate Les’s birthday, today, Google famously made their “Google Doodle” into a recording “guitar” (link here, but note it will only work for the duration of Google’s promotion)..
Who was Les Paul. Allow me to paraphrase Wikipedia for you!
Lester William Polsfuss was born in Waukesha, Wisconsin, on June 9, 1915 and became obsessed with music by the age of 8. After being drawn to the banjo, Les moved on to guitar and even then pioneered the “neck-worn harmonica holder”, a hands-free brace which allowed one to play and sing as Bob Dylan and Neil Young would later demonstrate.
“And I thought, ‘How can I make my guitar louder?'”
Even more importantly, when he was a teenage guitar player in various Wisconsin dance bands, he had become frustrated by not being heard over the band. He rigged a phonograph needle to a radio speaker and amplified the sound of his acoustic guitar. Ladies and gentlemen, the pickup and the amplifier.
But Les wasn’t done innovating.
By the early 1930s, he was living in Chicago in 1934, he was recording and playing on the radio, sometimes as the hillbilly singer, “Rhubarb Red” but mainly, by this time as “Les Paul”, a Django Reinhardt obsessed jazzbo and proud owner of a genuine Selmer Maccaferri guitar, alleged to be a gift from Reinhardt’s widow. In 1939, he had moved to New York with his jazz trio who were frequent guests on the Fred Waring radio show.
Living in Queens, Les tinkered with innovations on the electrified guitar, sometimes coming precariously close to frying himself in the process. and his most well known early project was called, quite simply, “The Log”, a block of lumber with a pickup and strings (and a cosmetic shell to make it look more like a “normal” guitar.) In 1940, he nearly died of electrocution, and moved to L.A. for a time before joining the fight (WWII) and playing in the backing bands of Bing Crosby and The Andrews Sisters. Crosby began to underwrite many of Paul’s recording experiments and they collaborated on a few recordings, including the 1945 single, “It’s Been a Long, Long Time.” After a near-fatal car crash in 1948, Paul suffered permanent damage to his right arm and, famously, he had the surgeons set his damaged arm at a 90 degree angles so he could still pick at the guitar.
Along with Leo Fender and Adolph Rickenbacker, Les Paul was a pioneer of commercially available electric guitar, and began working with the Gibson Guitar Corporation until around 1961. On January 30, 1962, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office issued Paul a patent, Patent No. 3,018,680, for an “Electrical Music Instrument.”
Les Paul began to explore multi-track, or sound-on-sound, recording in his home studio in Hollywood and by 1948, one of his experiments “Lover, When You’re Near Me” was issued on Capitol Records. He wasn’t even working with tape to tape yet, instead cutting acetate discs (cut on a machine he built himself) for each overdub and tracking that as the basis of the next overdub. Eventually, he found a way to do this using magnetic tape.
Les Paul & Mary Ford
In 1945, he met Colleen Summers, better known as Mary Ford and began multi-tracking her unique voice on a series of duo recordings including “How High the Moon”, “Bye Bye Blues”, “Tiger Rag”, “Don’cha Hear Them Bells”, and “Vaya con Dios”.
Okay, I know I’m skipping a lot, so there’s some links below to get the full story.
Skipping to the end, Les Paul died on August 12, 2009 and was buried a few days later in Waukesha.
In life, Paul had been inducted to the Cleveland Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1988, by his friend and admirer Jeff Beck. After his death, of course, more accolades continue to stream in. In 2005, he was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame for his development of the solid-body electric guitar. In 2006, Paul was inducted into the National Association of Broadcasters Hall of Fame. He was named an honorary member of the Audio Engineering Society.
“I’ve copied more licks from Les Paul than I’d like to admit.” Jeff Beck.
“He could burn the frets right off a guitar” – Steve Miller
“He put the tools in our hands” – Keith Richards
“Les Paul is the Boss!” – B.B. King
Of course, there’s “more to explore” and allow me to make some recommendations.
The Wizard of Waukesha (1980)
From NY Times: “Les Paul “and his band of renown” are shortened to simply the renowned Les Paul in this entertaining and informative documentary on one of the long-lasting talents in the music business. Excerpts from Les Paul’s popular performances on radio in the 1930s highlight his quick rise to fame. His years with Fred Waring and recordings with his wife Mary Ford are balanced against his successes in designing electric guitars and one of his better-known inventions, the eight-track recording system. As urbane and versatile in person as his accomplishments suggest, Les Paul’s own accounting of his past and snippets at the guitar round out this excellent documentary.”~ Eleanor Mannikka, Rovi
Chasing Sound: Les Paul at 90
I highly recommend this award-winning documentary, often called the “Definitive portrait of Les Paul, musician, inventor, and American legend.” It features a privileged behind-the-scenes tour of his museum-like New Jersey home and footage from his last dates of his long-standing Monday night gig at Iridium in downtown Manhattan.
Jeff Beck Rock ‘n’ Roll Party: Honoring Les Paul
Recorded on June 9, 2010, which would have been Les’s 95th birthday starring Beck, Imelda May and Brian Setzer, at the Iridium Jazz Club where Les played nearly every week almost to the end of his life.
In August, 2009, Paul was named one of the ten best electric guitar players of all-time by Time magazine.
Here’s a nice link to New York Times thing about Les Paul, Happy Birthday to the Wizard of Waukesha!