News

Rock Would Not Exist Without Les Paul

By Phil Hood Published August 14, 2009

It is not too farfetched to say that rock music with not exist without Les Paul, the guitar innovator who passed away yesterday at the age of 94. He invented the solidbody electric guitar, thereby liberating musicians from the volume limits of acoustic instruments. After electricity, drummers no longer had to worry about being too loud around other instruments. In fact, they could just hit harder and harder. Through a 70+ year career as an inventor, top-selling musician and great guitar slinger, Les Paul was notable for his sense of humor. If you ever caught him at his weekly gigs at Fat Tuesday's or Iridium in New York you saw a musician, who could still play (despite terrible arthritis) and just loved being in a club making music. Even in the last year of his life he was still ready to rock.

He was born Lester William Polfus on June 9, 1915 in Waukesha, Wisconsin. As a teen he was playing guitar, harmonica and banjo in country bands. In his twenties he started playing jazz, later touring with artists like Bing Crosby and Louie Armstrong. Consider that: Les Paul played with Louie Armstrong, but also with Chet Atkins, Keith Richards and Eric Clapton. With Crosby he built a studio where he experimented with, and in many cases invented, techniques such as overdubbing, multi-tracking, and pitch-shifting. In the early '50s he invented the guitar that bears his name, which has become a mainstay of rockers to this day. The New York Times obituary about Les is definitely worth a read as is the Gibson home page.

Rock Hall Issues Statement

Cleveland, OH – In response to the death of 1988 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Inductee Les Paul, the Rock Hall has issued the following two statements:

“Without Les Paul, we would not have rock and roll as we know it,” said Terry Stewart, president and CEO 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.”

“Les Paul was truly a unique human being,” said Jim Henke, vice president of exhibitions and curatorial affairs. “He was an artist who made his mark as a tremendously influential guitarist. He was also an inventor, the man responsible for the solid-body electric guitar and multi-track recording. Few people have accomplished as much as Les did in his legendary career. We will truly miss him.”

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame honored Les Paul for the 13th annual American Music Master’s series in Cleveland – November 15, 2008.

About Les Paul

As a player, inventor and recording artist, Les Paul has been an innovator from the early years of his life. Born Lester William Polfus in 1915 in Waukesha, Wisconsin, the first instrument he learned to play was actually the harmonica at age eight. After brief experimentation with the piano, Paul picked up the guitar, not knowing he would one day shape the sound of songs composed by countless musicians around the world. By age 13 he was performing semi-professionally as a country-music guitarist and working diligently on sound-related inventions. With his newfound talent, Paul formed a trio and moved to New York. All the while he busied himself as a bandleader who could play both jazz and country music. After moving to Los Angeles, Paul and his trio backed Bing Crosby, and with Crosby’s encouragement, Paul built his first studio in his L.A. garage in 1945.

His career as a musician, however, nearly came to an end in 1948, when a near-fatal car accident shattered his right arm and elbow. Nevertheless, he instructed the surgeons to set his arm at an angle that would allow him to cradle and pick the guitar. Paul subsequently made his mark as a jazz-pop musician extraordinaire, recording as a duo with his wife, singer Colleen Summers (a.k.a. Mary Ford). Their biggest hits included “How High the Moon” (1951) and “Vaya Con Dios” (1953), both reaching #1.

Over the years, Paul had become frustrated that the audiences were not able to hear his guitar, so he set out to build one that they could. In 1941, he built “the Log,” his first attempt at creating a solid-body electric guitar. He continued to make refinements to this prototype throughout the decade. In 1952, his dream became a reality when Gibson introduced the solid-body guitar that bears Paul’s name. Because of his pioneering work, Paul is often called the “Father of the Electric Guitar.” The Les Paul guitar has become a staple instrument among discerning rock guitarists. This list of musicians associated with the Gibson Les Paul includes Duane Allman, Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton, Billy Gibbons and Jimmy Page.

In 1956, Les Paul introduced yet another technological innovation: the first eight-track tape recorder (designed by Paul and marketed by Ampex). Over the ensuing decades, Paul himself has remained active, cutting a Grammy-winning album of instrumental duets with Chet Atkins, Chester and Lester, and still indulges his inventor’s curiosity in a basement workshop at his home in Mahwah, New Jersey. In celebration of his 90th birthday, a staggering number of musicians came together to record Les Paul & Friends: American Made and World Played.

Les Paul was inducted into the Early Influence category of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1988. Today, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum has a permanent exhibit “The New Sound: Les Paul and the Electric Guitar” on the Museum’s second floor in the “The Architects of Rock and Roll” room. The exhibit highlights items loaned by Paul, including the first guitar he ever owned, a 1927 Sears Troubador acoustic guitar and many experimental guitars, including a reproduction of “The Rail” made out of a 2 1/2 -foot length of steel rail with a string held down by a screw at each end. In 2008, he was honored at the Rock Hall’s 13th Annual American Music Masters series® event.

Paul performed weekly – at New York’s Iridium Jazz Club – and indulged his inventor’s curiosity in a basement workshop at home in Mahwah, New Jersey up until his death on August 13, 2009. He was 94 years old.

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