Remembering Les Paul on the 100th Anniversary of His Birth

June 10th, 2015

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This is an excerpt from the all-new JULY/AUGUST 2015 issue of Guitar Aficionado magazine. For this story, plus features on actor David Duchovny and his new album, Warrant guitarist and now winemaker Erik Turner, traveling through Maui by motorcycle, chef Troy Knapp of Austin’s The Driskill, and more, pick up the new issue of Guitar Aficionado at your newsstand, or online by clicking anywhere in this text.

THE ROAD LES TRAVELED: In celebration of Les Paul’s 100th birthday, GA remembers his revolutionary achievements as an inventor and musician.

By Alan di Perna

Many in the guitar community thought that Les Paul would live to celebrate his 100th birthday on June 9 of this year. After all, his mother, Evelyn Polfus, made it to 101, and Les seemed poised to emulate his mother’s longevity. Les was still going strong in his nineties, holding down a weekly gig at the Iridium Jazz Club in New York and always up for another photo op, event, or award. To do so, he overcame formidable challenges, including Meniere’s disease, chronic arthritis, major heart surgery, and an automobile accident that nearly left him without the use of his right arm.

“If it was all a gravy train,” Les said in a 1999 interview at his home in Mahwah, New Jersey, “you wouldn’t fight as hard and you’d probably never accomplish anything.”

Indeed, Les Paul accomplished an enormous amount by the time he passed away on August 12, 2009, at age 94. Any musician who records tracks in a home studio or guitarist who customizes his ax in the quest for ultimate tone owes a debt to Les Paul. His legacy is one of relentless innovation.

To celebrate the 100th anniversary of the guitarist’s birth, the Les Paul Foundation is planning a yearlong series of star-studded events, tributes, and public programs. The festivities began in New York on June 9 with a concert in Times Square at the Hard Rock Cafe, featuring Steve Miller, Joan Jett, Neal Schon, and Joe Satriani, among others, as well as the debut of “Les Paul’s Big Sound Experience,” an interactive mobile museum experience dedicated to the guitarist’s life and achievements.

Les Paul became a key player in the development of the electric guitar in the first half of the 20th century. From an early age, he embraced musicality and mechanical inventiveness in equal measures. There are stories of him disassembling and reassembling the family piano as a boy, altering piano rolls to add extra notes, and fashioning a homemade harmonica rack out of a wire coat hanger. In the Twenties, while still in his teens, he was one of several people who experimented with amplifying a guitar using a phonograph pickup and parts from the family radio. Around this time he is also believed to have attempted to create an electric guitar using a segment of train track rail for a body, an experiment that anticipated his later pioneering work in the development of the solidbody electric Spanish guitar.

Les first found notoriety as a performing musician on radio and record, singing and playing old-time hillbilly music under the stage name Rhubarb Red. By the mid Thirties, he switched to playing jazz and streamlined his birth name to Les Paul. In 1937, he formed the first of many Les Paul Trios in Chicago.

While advancing his musical career at a steady pace, Les also delved increasingly deeper into guitar design. In the mid Thirties, he teamed up with sibling luthiers August and Carl Larson—notable for their handmade guitars built for or marketed under the Maurer, Prairie State, Euphonon, Stahl, and Dyer brand names—to create a custom electric guitar with a solid, inch-thick maple top, no sound holes, and two pickups.

At a time when solidbodies were largely the provenance of lap steels, this was a significant step toward the development of the solidbody electric Spanish guitar. His longtime quest was to isolate string vibration from body resonance in order to obtain more effective amplification, minimize feedback, increase sustain, and make the instrument more tonally versatile than hollowbody electrics of the day.

“What if we could hear the string all by itself?” he asked. “We know that a hollowbody guitar has an acoustic chamber that resonates at different frequencies. But what if we could isolate the string from that? If you could take the string all by its lonesome, with nothing sustaining it but the nut and the bridge, what would this honest-to-God string sound like? Is it something we would want to hear? Could the sound be manipulated electronically in some way? That was the challenge: to take a string that was completely divorced from the box and make it sound better or at least just as good.”

Between 1939 and 1941—while in New York playing a high visibility weekly gig on bandleader Fred Waring’s NBC radio program, The Chesterfield Hour—Les took his solidbody obsession a step further, creating the now legendary Log guitar based around a solid four-by-four block of pine. To this Les attached two pickups of his own design, a crudely fashioned vibrato tailpiece that he also made himself, and a bridge. Affixed to the top of this central log, via brackets, was a conventional Spanish guitar neck. The crowning touch was a pair of body wings fashioned by cutting an Epiphone archtop body in half and attaching the pieces to either side of the central pine log.

It wasn’t much to look at, but it was a fully functional solidbody electric guitar that Les would go on to use on several of his biggest hit records. However, not everyone shared Les’s same enthusiasm for his creation. He did some of the Log’s assembly work at the Epiphone factory on 14th Street in Manhattan, and he remembers Epiphone chief Epi Stathopoulo asking him, “What in the hell are you doing?”

The response at Gibson was equally lackluster when Les approached them, circa 1941, with the idea of putting together an endorsement deal on a Gibson solidbody electric. Gibson chief Maurice Berlin reportedly dismissed him as “that kid with the broomstick.” Of course Gibson and Berlin would change their tune a decade later.

Also in the early Forties, Les acquired another one of his legendary instruments, a 1941 Epiphone Zephyr that he’d modify heavily over the years, nicknaming it the Clunker. He was in Chicago doing some radio work when a stranger who’d damaged his hand in an industrial accident gifted the guitar to him. As with many guitars he owned, Les saw it as an opportunity to experiment with electronics as much as a musical instrument to play.

Les put the Log and the Clunker to good use when he and his trio relocated to Hollywood in 1942. He was soon recording and touring with top artists of the day, such as Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters, working as a staff musician at NBC radio, and recording instrumental discs with the Les Paul Trio. He also set up a recording studio/laboratory in the garage of his house at 1514 N. Curson Avenue in West Hollywood, just around the corner from a stretch of Sunset Boulevard that was once known as “guitar row” and where stores like Guitar Center and Mesa/Boogie remain.

In those pre-tape days, the studio’s recording device was a disc-cutting lathe that Les built from a Cadillac flywheel and outfitted with multiple cutting heads. He used this setup to do pioneering multitrack recording work, painstakingly piling up tracks and discovering how to manipulate his recording equipment to produce effects like slap echo and varispeeding.

All of this experimentation culminated in Les’s game-changing 1948 instrumental single, “Lover.” Using just the Log and the Clunker as his instruments, he pulled out all the stops to create a giddy arrangement of the old Rodgers and Hart standard, replete with glycerin sped-up guitar runs and echoey atmosphere. This innovative music was marketed as “Les Paul’s New Sound” and was the first in a series of recordings that established the groundwork for the idea of guitarist as studio auteur, working on his own to create a world of sound and needing no instrumentation other than a electric guitar to do so…

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This is an excerpt from the all-new JULY/AUGUST 2015 issue of Guitar Aficionado magazine. For this story, plus features on actor David Duchovny and his new album, Warrant guitarist and now winemaker Erik Turner, traveling through Maui by motorcycle, chef Troy Knapp of Austin’s The Driskill, and more, pick up the new issue of Guitar Aficionado at your newsstand, or online by clicking anywhere in this text.

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