Ask a guitarist to name five famous Les Paul players and you’ll probably get Slash, Jimmy Page, Pete Townsend and Joe Perry… and maybe Ace Frehley, or the late great Gary Moore. There’s plenty of players to choose from: a quick look at the Gibson website reveals that just amongst the models currently on sale there are 23 signature edition Les Pauls!
With so many legends making their name using Gibson’s most famous axe it’s easy to overlook the fact that every one ever made is a signature model of the “Wizard of Waukesha” Les Paul himself.
If, at this point, you’re wondering who Les Paul is you’re in good company. When I was a kid I had heard that he was the man who invented the electric guitar, and so I naturally assumed that he must be an engineer who worked for Gibson.
In this series I’m going to explore the life of Les Paul: the only man to be in both the Inventors and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and hopefully demonstrate why I believe he is the greatest example in history of musicianship and innovation acting in perfect (multitracked!) harmony.
First, let’s get a few things straight: Les Paul didn’t invent the electric guitar, the solid body guitar – or even the Gibson “Les Paul”! He did however have a key role in the development of all three. He was also responsible for innovations arguably even more important, which changed the way music would be made forever and paved the way for the jazz and country music of the 40’s to mutate into Sgt. Pepper and Dark Side of the Moon in the 60’s and 70’s.
We’ll start with a look at the classic Gibson “Les Paul” guitar, and Les’ role in its creation. In subsequent parts we’ll be learning about his vast contributions to the art and technology of recording, and audio effects.
Les Paul and the Birth of the Electric Guitar
As a youngster, Les Paul played acoustic guitar and harmonica in a hillbilly act under the name Rhubarb “Red” (where he invented the neck-mounted harmonica holder; but that’s another story).
After a show he was handed a note by an audience member saying “Your act is great, but no one can hear your guitar”. From that day forward he knew he needed to get amplified if he wanted to make the big time.
Before the invention of the amplifier guitars had a tough time in popular music. In the era of big band jazz a guitar just couldn’t compete with a big brass section and a hard hitting drummer. Even smaller combos favoured the banjo which can cut through the noise with percussive chord work. If you did manage to get a gig in a combo with a drummer it was strictly rhythm playing, as a single-note lead line would be drowned out.
The introduction of the magnetic pickup and amplifier revolutionised the roles available to guitar players in much the same way that the electric microphone made it possible for singers like Frank Sinatra to develop new, more intimate vocal techniques.
With the advent of the amplifier came feedback. The first electric guitars were nothing more than traditional acoustic jazz guitars that had been retrofitted with magnetic pickups. Acoustic guitars are designed to resonate. When played without amplification an acoustic guitar vibrates in sympathy with the strings focusing and shaping the sound, but when plugged into an amp the guitar will resonate in sympathy with the sound coming out of the amplifier which will then be transmitted back to the amplifier through the pickups, creating a never ending loop that results in that horrible shrieking sound of feedback.
Les realised that a guitar made of solid wood wouldn’t feed back like a hollow body and furthermore that the notes would sustain better, allowing for more fluid runs like brass instruments are capable of. The Rickenbacker company had been making electric guitars since the 30’s, but these were slide guitars made of metal and shaped like a frying pan.
Les was a great engineer, but knew very little about guitar building so after a few failed attempts (filling his guitar with socks and plaster of Paris!) and a bit of help from the Epiphone factory in 1940, he built a guitar called “The Log” which was made out of a railway sleeper. Les realised that the world wasn’t ready for something that looked so radical and so he attached the wings of a jazz guitar to make it look like something people would recognise.
If you want to know more about the differences between acoustic and electric guitar tone check out Matthew Abdallah’s great article here:
The Gibson “Les Paul”
Les finally had the tone he wanted, but as you can see the log looks like some kind of crazy Frankenstein and not something you would want to play at Carnegie Hall or on TV.
Les approached the Gibson company who, conservative by nature, dismissed the electronics geek clutching this weird mongrel. The local paper even reported that his crazy ideas created “the combined pandemonium of a four alarm fire, dog fight, curfew chorus and mouse frightened female!”
Ten years down the line, and Gibson were ready to talk. Fender had stolen a march with the launch of the Strat and Tele guitars and Les was now a big name, playing with Bing Crosby and Nat King Cole.
Contrary to popular myth, the Gibson Les Paul guitar was actually designed by the legendary luthier Ted McCarty, with Les acting as a consultant (there is a guitar called the “McCarty” in his honour – but it was designed by Paul Read Smith!) The “Les Paul” reflects both the conservatism of Gibson and its namesake’s statu