Hyperbole rules our lives more often than not. Even without the bombardment of advertisers, people fill their lives with superlatives. It seems more satisfying or comforting when one is separated from the normal, everyday run of the mill of life. We listen to the hottest music, our favorite bands are not “sell outs” and are usually unknown outside a small circle of the coolest of cool people, we shop for bargains that no one else in the world has managed to get and we play the instruments of legends, like the Stratocaster, the Telecaster and the Les Paul.
Consider how many people own a Les Paul guitar, or one of the many clones of a Les Paul guitar, or how many people simply want to play one. And then consider how many of these people have actually listened to Les Paul play. If I were to guess that we’re talking about less than five percent, would that be hyperbole? I’m betting not.
Lester Polfuss was born over ninety-four years ago, on June 9, 1915, in Waukesha, Wisconsin. World War I was waging across the globe (there would be two million casualties in Russia alone) and the United States House of Representatives, in January of that year, had rejected a proposal giving women the right to vote.
We like to think about how much has changed so rapidly in our lifetimes, but can’t everyone say the same? It was less than forty years before Les Paul’s birth (1877) that the phonograph was invented and that music reproduction but Edison had only very recently (and reluctantly) in 1912 started recording on discs instead of cylinders. Even the giants succumbed to popular trends.
The commercialization of radio was also in its infancy, growing by leaps and bounds while Les Paul took up the banjo and then the guitar, playing semi-professionally by the age of thirteen. Quitting high school at seventeen, he got a job with Wolverton’s Radio Band, playing on station KMOX in Saint Louis, Missouri.
Les Paul would move to Chicago, New York and then Hollywood in the 1930’s and 1940’s. His trio in New York included Jim Atkins (Chet Atkins older half-brother) and Paul played back up for the likes of Nat King Cole, the Andrews Sisters and Bing Crosby. Crosby would, in fact, go on to finance many of Les Paul’s early recording experiments.
Unhappy with acoustic guitars, he worked on his own designs for an electric guitar, creating a guitar which would later be called “the Log,” which was simply a two-by-four with a guitar neck and bridge and an electronic pickup. Gibson Guitars presented Les Paul with a solid body electric guitar based on his designs and he liked it enough to sign a contract and put his name on it. He would usually “personalize” these guitars, using his own customized switches and self-wound pickups in place of the factory models.
Les Paul was in a bad car crash in January 1948, shattering his right arm and elbow to the extent that doctors informed him they could not rebuild it. However they ended up setting would be pretty much how it stayed. So he had them reset it in a position and angle that would allow him to continue playing guitar.
During the late 1940’s, he experimented with creating multi-track recordings. He would first record himself playing on an acetate disc and then play both the disc and a second guitar part, recording both to a new acetate disc. By experimenting with his recordings – playing at different speeds – he was able to create echo and delay effects, giving his playing its unique signature sound. The process was slow and painstaking, but in 1948 he released “Lover (When You’re Near Me)” on Capitol Records, a song that had eight overdubbed electric guitar parts.
When Bing Crosby gave Les Paul one of the first Ampex commercially produced reel-to-reel tape machines (Crosby having invested a huge sum with Ampex to produce it), the guitarist immediately saw the potential the tape machine had as a multi-track recording device as well as its ability to produce delay effects in recording. By adding an additional playback head to the tape machine, he could play along with a previously created track, putting both the guitar parts onto the new track at the expense of the original guitar track.
Les Paul worked with Ampex to create two and three-track recorders, which would allow the artist to get the original guitar track and not erase it in re-recording. In the last half of the 1950’s they produced the first eight track tape recorder, which would be the staple of recording equipment throughout the next decade.
The new technology allowed Les Paul to record incredibly layered and textured music, using his overdubs not only for his guitar, but for the vocals of Mary Ford, his wife, as evident in this installment of “The Les Paul and Mary Ford Show:”
It’s easy to think of many techniques of the “guitar shredder,” whether sweep picking or tapping or lightning fast guitar runs, as being new and modern. Watch these old clips, though, and see just how “new” they are:
Far more important than the speed and flash, though, are the way Les Paul uses these techniques to make the music shine. The song is the spotlight, not the performer. He said of the electric guitar, “Suddenly, it was recognized that power was a very important part of music. To have the dynamics, to have the way of expressing yourself beyond the normal limits of an un-amplified instrument, was incredible.”
Before you next pick up a guitar, you owe it to yourself to seek out and listen to the music of someone who spent his entire life playing. Not only making music as a guitarist, but also creating music through innovation and experimentation. A wonderful feature-length documentary, Chasing Sound: Les Paul at 90, can give you even more insight into this true legend of the musical world.
Les Paul continued to perform, right up until the very end, playing Monday night shows at the Iridium Jazz Club in New York City. We should all be so lucky.