Les Paul, the guitar virtuoso and inventor who revolutionized music and created rock ’n’ roll as surely as Elvis Presley and The Beatles by developing the solid-body electric guitar and multitrack recording, died Aug. 13 at age 94.
Known for his lightning-fast riffs, Paul produced a slew of hits, many with wife Mary Ford. But it was his inventive streak that made him universally revered by guitar gods as their original ancestor and earned his induction into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame as one of the most important forces in popular music.
Paul’s quest for a particular sound led him to create the first solid-body electric guitar, a departure from the hollow-body guitars of the time. His invention paved the way for modern rock ’n’ roll and became the standard instrument for legends like Pete Townshend and Jimmy Page.
He also developed technology that would become hallmarks of rock and pop recording, from multitrack recording that allowed for layers of overdubs to guitar reverb and other sound effects.
“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.”
“He was truly the cornerstone of popular music,” said Henry Juskiewicz, chairman and CEO of Gibson Guitar, which mass produced Paul’s original invention. “He was a futurist, and unlike some futurists who write about it and predict things, he was a guy who actually did things.”
Paul remained an active performer until his last months: He put out his first rock album just four years ago and up until recently played every week at a New York jazz club.
The news of his death prompted an outpouring of tributes from the music world.
“Les lived a very long life and he got to a lot of his goals, so I’m happy for him in that respect. … At least he realized that he was a legend in his own time while he was alive,” said Richie Sambora, Bon Jovi’s guitarist and a friend of Paul’s, on Thursday. “He was revolutionary in the music business.”
“I am deeply touched by the passing of Les Paul, who I first met in 1959,” said Randy Bachman of Bachman Turner Overdrive and The Guess Who. “As a guitarist, composer, electronic innovator and inventor, he was beyond genius and there was none other like him. He was a true musical gift from God to the world and spent his life honoring that gift.”
A musician since childhood, Paul experimented with guitar amplification for years before coming up in 1941 with what he called “The Log,” a 4-by-4-foot piece of wood strung with steel strings.
“I went into a nightclub and played it. Of course, everybody had me labeled as a nut,” Paul once said. He later put the wooden wings onto the body to give it a traditional guitar shape.
The use of electric guitar gained popularity in the mid-to-late 1940s. Leo Fender’s Broadcaster was the first mass-produced solid-body electric on the market in the late ’40s.
Gibson solicited Paul to create a prototype guitar and began production on the Les Paul guitar in 1952. Townshend of the Who, Steve Howe of Yes, jazz great Al DiMeola and Led Zeppelin’s Page all made the Gibson Les Paul their trademark six-string.
The Les Paul series has become one of the most widely used guitars in the music industry. In 2005, Christie’s auction house sold a 1955 Gibson Les Paul for $45,600.
Paul was born Lester William Polfuss, in Waukesha, Wis., on June 9, 1915. He began his musical career billing himself as Red Hot Red or Rhubarb Red. He toured with the popular Chicago band Rube Tronson And His Texas Cowboys and led the house band on WJJD radio in Chicago.
In the mid-1930s he joined Fred Waring’s Pennsylvanians and moved to New York to form the Les Paul Trio with Jim Atkins and bassist Ernie Newton.
Paul started out as an accompanist, working with key artists until he struck out on his own. His first records were released in 1944 on Decca Records. 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. He instructed the surgeons to set his arm at an angle that would allow him to cradle and pick his guitar.
Later, with Ford, his wife from 1949 to 1962, he earned 36 gold records for hits including “Vaya Con Dios” and “How High the Moon,” which both hit No. 1. For seven years in the 1950s, Paul and Ford broadcast a TV show from their home in Mahwah, N.J. (Ford died in 1977, 15 years after they divorced).
Paul’s work on recording techniques began in the years after World War II, when Bing Crosby gave him a tape recorder. Drawing on earlier experimentation, Paul added an additional playback head to the recorder. The result was a delayed effect that became known as tape echo. Tape echo gave the recording a more “live” feel and enabled the user to simulate different playing environments.
Paul’s next idea was to stack eight mono tape machines and send their outputs to one piece of tape, stacking the recording heads on top of each other. The resulting machine served as the forerunner to today’s multitrack recorders. Many of his songs with Ford used overdubbing techniques that Paul had helped develop.
“I could take my Mary and make her three, six, nine, 12, as many voices as I wished,” he recalled. “This is quite an asset.” The overdubbing technique was highly influential on later recording artists such as the Carpenters.
Paul’s use of multitrack recording was unique: Before he did it, most recordings were made on a single tape. By recording each element separately, from the vocals to instrumentation on different tracks, they could be mixed and layered, adding to the richness in sound.
In 1954, Paul commissioned the first eight-track tape recorder, later known as “Sel-Sync,” in which a recording head could simultaneously record a new track and play back previous ones.
In the late 1960s, Paul retired from music to concentrate on his inventions. His interest in country music was rekindled in the mid-’70s and he teamed with Chet Atkins for two albums. The duo were awarded a Grammy for best country instrumental performance of 1976 for their Chester and Lester album.
In 2005, he released the Grammy-winning Les Paul & Friends: American Made, World Played, his first album of new material since those 1970s recordings and his first official rock CD. Among those playing with him: Peter Frampton, Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton and Richie Sambora.
“They’re not only my friends, but they’re great players,” Paul told The Associated Press. “I never stop being amazed by all the different ways of playing the guitar and making it deliver a message.”
Paul was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2005.
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Discovery World in Milwaukee, Wis., is home to Les Paul’s House of Sound, which houses the largest collection of Les Paul’s personal sound equipment and guitars in the world (outside of Les’ own home). Tributes to the “Wizard of Waukesha” can be viewed at www.discoveryworld.org.