Les Paul is known mostly for his contributions to the development of the solid-body electric guitar, which ushered in the rock ’n’ roll era.
But that’s only the beginning. Without him and his inventive mind, popular music would likely sound very different, as Paul pioneered the use of overdubbing. His 1947 recording “Lover (When You’re Near Me)” — a hit instrumental — featured Paul’s studio experiments with dubbing live tracks over recorded ones, and the results were mind-blowing. And “Brazil,” the B-side, was recorded the same way.
In a 1999 Goldmine interview conducted by guitarist Lenny Kaye, best known as a member of the Patti Smith Group, Paul recounted hearing “Lover” come back over the speakers. “[I] knew that I had something that was unique,” said Paul. “I didn’t tell anyone. W.C. Fields was in the backyard to do his album. I didn’t know he was there. When I finished laying down the 12th or so part to ‘Lover,’ he snuck in and said, ‘You sound like an octopus!’”
Most reports, including a story on Les Paul’s passing on the guitar-maker Gibson’s Web site, have said that Paul was actually featured on eight different guitar parts, and the final recording had them playing all at once.
Along with overdubbing his parts on “Lover,” Paul recorded some of them at half-speed, resulting in them being “double fast” when played back at normal speed for the master. And so, multi-tracking was born.
The sound was almost alien, and as Kaye said in his interview with Paul, it needed the vocals of his partner, Mary Ford, to make it more human.
“It did. It’s normal to have a picture and want to put a frame around the picture,” said Paul to Kaye. “What I did, from the beginning on, was not to change the picture but to change the frame. In that way, you always knew it was Les Paul and Mary Ford.”
Paul would invent and improve on other recording techniques, specifically with regard to echo and delay effects. And he would reinvent the Ampex Model 200, the world’s first commercially produced reel-to-reel audio tape recorder, leading to the making of two- and thee-track recorders, and ultimately, in 1954, the eight-track recorder he commissioned Ampex to make.
All of his tinkering led to revolutionary changes in contemporary music, and all recording artists working today owe him a debt of gratitude.
“After he passed, we went out to dinner where we live, this little restaurant on the water, [and] this guy was playing solo, acoustic guitar,” says Ricky Byrd, former guitarist for Joan Jett and The Blackhearts. “But he had a little rig. He would play rhythm, and then he’d step on his pedal and the rhythm would continue, and then he would play some lead over it. And I’m thinking to myself, ‘S**t, if it wasn’t for Les Paul, man, that wouldn’t even have been [possible].”