If you had to pick a guitarist that has had the greatest influence on modern music technology then the top candidate would have to be Les Paul. I don’t think any single guitarist has influenced the way we make and record music more than Les Paul has. His advances in the electric guitar and its amplification alone have completely changed the way guitarists play and perform in their live bands as well as in the studio.
Les Paul was born Lester William Polsfuss in Waukesha, Wisconsin on June 9, 1915. He later adopted the stage name Les Paul which would go on to be one of the most legendary names in all of electric guitar history. Les Paul’s contributions to music have been many and they’ve also been extremely groundbreaking and important. There have been a lot of great guitar players but let’s face it, great guitar players are a dime-a-dozen. Les wasn’t just a guitarist, he was an inventor and an innovator.
Some of Les Paul’s greatest contributions to music technology include such simple things as the Harmonica holder, which he developed to allow himself to play harmonica while playing the guitar. It is still used in its basic design as he designed it all those years ago. He also developed extremely advanced technologies such as multi-track tape recording which allowed him to record multiple instruments on separate tracks for later mixing and equalizing. He developed the original Tape Echo to add delay to music he was recording in his studio.
Les Paul also created other groundbreaking recording technologies but for us guitarists, it is his contributions to the development of the solid-body electric guitar that mean the most. In the 30’s Les began development on “The Log” which was basically a 4″ x 4″ piece of lumber with a guitar neck, bridge and pickup attached to it. It solved a lot of the problems that early electric guitar players who used hollow-body guitars with pickups attached to them faced. Primarily it got rid of the feedback associated with running a hollow-body guitar at high amplified volumes. It also increased sustain by allowing the strings to resonate without having to vibrate an entire hollow-body top. Later on, Les attached a guitar body to “The Log” even though it wasn’t really needed.
Les was also a great guitarist and he played a lot of live music over the years. His reputation as a guitarist was set when Gibson approached him to help develop a new electric guitar that could compete with the Fender Telecaster. The result was the Gibson Les Paul which was co-designed by Ted McCarty and Les Paul. Since Les Paul was already a well known and respected Jazz guitarist with a long list of record, radio and television performances behind him Gibson was eager to attach the Les Paul name to the instrument. Hence, the legendary Gibson Les Paul guitar was unleashed on the world. The Gibson Les Paul is one of the most famously played, recorded and collected instruments in the history of the electric guitar.
Les had an incredibly long career playing the electric guitar on record, radio and television. Some of his most famous recordings are “Vaya Con Dios” and “How High The Moon” both of which hit No. 1 on the charts and were recorded with his wife Mary Ford. He also famously recorded an album in 1976 at the age of 61 with Chet Atkins entitled “Chester and Lester”. All in all, Les Paul had 39 Gold Records attributed to him. That my friends, is a major recording career!
What I am the most impressed with about Les Paul is the fact that he was able to adapt his playing style to his aging body and abilities. One of my favorite stories is from an interview with Les Paul in Guitar Player Magazine. He tells a story about a nurse who happened to hear him playing. She was not familiar with his music but heard him struggling and gave him this piece of advice “Play like you do now and not like you used to.”. Les said that really freed him to enjoy playing again.
I am so amazed that Les was able to perform weekly at Iridium Jazz Club in New York City until almost the time of his death. It is an inspiration to see a man in his 90’s still able to make music on the electric guitar. It’s one of my deepest wishes that I will be able to play guitar until the day I die. There are so many physical things that can stop a guitarists ability to play that it’s simply wonderful that Les Paul was able to play as long as he did.
Les Paul’s influence on music will be remembered forever and his musical legacy will live on and on. The legions of guitarists that play the instrument that bears his name owe Les Paul a nod of gratitude for everything the man has done. Thank you Les and my you Jam with the angels forever!