In this, the concluding part of our series on the genius Les Paul, we are going to be looking at his contribution to the world of effects. For a modern guitarist, effects pedals are an integral part of their sound. There are a dizzying array of boxes available to feed the contemporary guitar slinger’s G.A.S. (“Gear Aquisition Syndrome”), but in Les Paul’s day an amplifier was a pretty far out concept, let alone tone-bending stomp boxes! As usual Les broke out his tool kit and did some inventing…
We’re going to see how Les moved from capturing sounds to creating new ones, with Delay Effects, Vari-Speed, Special Vocal Effects – and a distinctive playing style to boot.
Les Paul’s Delay Effects
In the previous part we talked about Les’ involvement in the development of tape recording. Tape recorders have:
- a record head, which copies the sound onto the tape, and
- a play head which plays the sound back again
Les realised that if you position the play head after the record head and feed the signal coming from the play head back into the record head it creates a repeat or echo on the tape.
At first it might be confusing to understand why this works, but it’s much easier to get your head around it if you consider an example:
(For more on tape delay, see Hearing Effects: Echo… (echo… echo…))
The most common type of delay you will hear on Les’ records is a short delay often referred to as a “slapback”. This slapback delay has become synonymous with the rockabilly guitar sound.
Soon guitarists wanted to produce these amazing sounds when playing live, and with devices like the Echoplex (which put a loop of tape and play and record heads in a convenient box) the door was opened for all manner of sonic experimentation.
Guitarists like Brian May of Queen took this to its logical conclusion using delays to allow him to play harmonies with himself, demonstrated here in one of his classic “Brighton Rock” solos (from 2:15 on):
In modern music, The Edge of U2 is considered the master of using delay effects to produce rhythmic soundscapes. Our old pal Lester got there first though! Just listen to the cascading tape delay rhythms in this track: