Real-life guitar hero: Les Paul
The ultimate 'can do' guy helped Woodstock plug in.
With all the Woodstock reminiscing and hoo-ha going on this week, I'd like to remind one and all that the legendary festival was not all about Jimi, Janis, Jefferson Airplane, CSN&Y, or Sly and the Family Stone. It was a lot about a guy who wasn't even there. So if I had his cellphone number handy, I'd personally request that the Who's great guitarist Pete Townshend plug in and unleash a vigorous windmill guitar strum in honor of the godfather of the electric guitar, Les Paul.
The musician, songwriter, inventor, innovator, dreamer, real-life guitar hero, and life-long perfectionist passed away this week. Anyone who's ever played an electric guitar is in his debt, for the precocious guitar virtuoso from Waukesha, Wisc., was already playing his own cobbled- together electric guitar a dozen years before the first commercial models appeared. Anyone who's ever enjoyed layered, imaginative recordings like The Beatles' "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" or Pink Floyd's "Dark Side of the Moon" should tip a hat to Les, who invented multi-track recording. And tape delay. And echo.
And what weekend warrior wouldn't marvel at his Les's can-do spirit? If he wanted to electrify his guitar? He'd tinker and then tinker some more until he did it. When he wished he had the Andrews Sisters singing on his record? No problem, he invented a machine that could stack up his wife's (Mary Ford) vocal harmonies six times, then six times again. When he decided he couldn't play that guitar solo fast enough? No sweat: He invented a recorder that allowed him to play it at half speed, then seamlessly blend it back in at normal tempo.
Born Lester William Polsfuss in 1915, Les was the stage name that stuck after Red Hot Red and Rhubarb Red were trotted out and discarded. By his early teens, he was already touring the Midwest as guitar player with popular Chicago band Rube Tronson and His Texas Cowboys. Frustrated that his guitar could barely be heard over the rest of the band, he started working on his first electric guitar prototype in 1929. His first successful version, nick-named "the log," debuted in 1941. It was literally a solid plank of wood with strings and a microphonic pick-up on it. Eleven years later, the Gibson guitar company would profoundly prettify it and call it the Les Paul model – one of the all-time classic rock guitars. Its design and electronics remain largely unchanged more than a half-century later.
His sound experiments with magnetic tape began when advanced German tape recorders were discovered by GIs liberating Berlin. A few were brought to the States and one was given to Bing Crosby, then a friend of Les's. Crosby saw great potential in the reel-to-reel machines for movies, radio, and recording, and gave one to Les, who pretty much reinvented it. So much for potential – how about "Hello, future." And the rest, as they say… is your record collection. (Everything after 1950 or so, anyway. )
As a duo in the 1950s, Les Paul and Mary Ford sold millions of records with Les's "sound experiments," constantly pushing the multitracking envelope on hits like the echo-drenched "How High the Moon" and "Vaya Con Dios."
He played for FDR at the White House. He is the only person to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame – and The Grammy Hall of Fame,The National Broadcasters Hall of Fame, and the National Inventors Hall of Fame. In 2006, at the age of 90, he was awarded two Grammys. His typical autograph reads,"Play hard! – Les Paul."
Just weeks before his passing, the "can do" guy was still playing his signature Les Paul guitar with his trio every Monday night at the NY's Irridum jazz club. His friends would often stop buy and sit in with the ageless guitarist. You know, friends like Led Zeppelin's Jimmy Page, Dire Straits' Mark Knopfler, Bruce Springsteen, and Eddie Van Halen – guitar heroes to many grateful subsequent generations. U2 guitarist The Edge, who creates his own unique sounds on the Gibson Les Paul guitar, calls him "A legend of the guitar and a true renaissance man, Les Paul disproves the cliche that you can only be famous for one thing," he said. "His legacy as a musician and inventor will live on and his influence on rock and roll will never be forgotten."
For those of us who love electric guitars, pop music and recording gadgets, Les made it all possible. Every time I plug in my guitar and my dog runs out of the room, I blame Les. I'm sure he'd be delighted.
John Kehe is the Monitor's design director and occasional music critic.