Listen to Les

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…

Les Paul and Mary Ford (Image: shannonpatrick17@Flickr)

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

The effects most commonly associated with Les Paul are ‘delay’ or ‘echo’ effects. Many Les Paul recordings feature some kind of echo on the main guitar.

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:

Imagine a tape machine where the tape runs at a speed of 5 inches per second and the play head is placed 5 inches in front of the record head. Les sets the machine running and plays a note, which is recorded to tape. One second later the bit of tape containing the note reaches the play head and is played back and recorded onto the tape again creating an echo. As you can imagine, moving the play head or changing the tape speed will change the length of the delay.

(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.

Les Paul & Mary Ford – How High The MoonYouTubeSpotifyLast.FMiTunesAmazon

How High The Moon (in 26 parts!)

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.

An EchoPlex delay effect machine (Image: pheezy@Flickr)

An EchoPlex Delay Effect Machine (Image: pheezy@Flickr)

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):

Brian May using delay effects in his solo (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: