Les Paul (born Lester Williams Polsfuss on June 9, 1915 in Waukesha, WI) is one of the most important names in electric guitars. Not only was he an accomplished musician and guitarist, his namesake, the Gibson Les Paul, has been widely adopted as a must-have solid-body electric guitar – especially for rockers.
Well-known guitarists like Jimmy Page, Ace Frehley and Slash made the guitar iconic, with its bold, warm and high gain tone. Most studios at the very least have a Les Paul style guitar – if not a genuine Gibson Les Paul – on hand, because sometimes you just need that trademark tone.
On June 9, 2015, if he were still alive, Paul would have made it to his 100th birthday. Unfortunately, on August 12, 2009, due to complications from pneumonia, he passed away at White Plains Hospital in White Plains, New York.
Paul was an innovator, both as a musician and an inventor. Modern recording techniques might not be what they are today without his sizable contribution. Let’s take a moment to remember his many accomplishments.
What Did Les Paul Invent?
Watch any of his performances on YouTube and you can see for yourself – Paul was an incredible guitar player. But it’s a rare individual who is blessed with many talents. Paul was clearly one of them and he wasn’t shy in applying them in every area of life.
Curious from birth, Paul considered his childhood living room his laboratory. He disassembled a variety of things – most famously, his family’s piano – just to see how they worked.
The staircase leading up to his bedroom was dubbed his “wooden xylophone” he’d play every night as each step would produce a sound. Noticing it was “out of tune”, he cut the bottom of the plank that wasn’t in tune to ensure a more pleasant sound.
One of Paul’s first inventions was a rudimentary harmonica holder that allowed the player to play guitar and both sides of the harmonica simultaneously. It was fashioned out of a coat hanger. Many musicians, like Bob Dylan, John Lennon and Bruce Springsteen copied his design.
In junior high, he created his own crystal radio. In his teens, he would also create a recording machine – something he continued to be fascinated by and continuously improve upon. This would eventually lead to some historic discoveries with recording, including a multi-level sound device called the Les Paulverizer, which he used to record layers of sounds in live settings.
This became the catalyst for multi-track recording, which is what the Paulverizer essentially evolved into. Recorded music today would not be the same without multi-track recording, which is used on virtually every release. Thanks to Digital Audio Workstations, you can now layer an infinite number of tracks, or as much as your hardware will handle.
The development of the solid-body electric guitar may be what he’ll be remembered most for, but Paul’s obsession with sound led him to invent a great many important recording techniques and devices.
When it comes to Les Paul, it’s also hard to forget the 1988 tribute concert, where luminaries like Eddie Van Halen, Jan Hammer, Brian Setzer, David Gilmour, B.B. King, Steve Miller and others performed and payed homage to the accomplished musician and inventor.