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August 18, 09

NEWS / Les Paul: The Man Behind the Rock n Roll Icon

By Stephen Kaufman
Staff Writer

Washington — With the death of Les Paul on August 13, the music world is mourning the loss of not only one of the world’s most celebrated guitar players, but also one of its greatest innovators. To trace the evolution of guitar-centered bands that framed rock ’n’ roll, multitrack recording and solid-body electric guitars, the musical journey would need to pass through Les Paul’s long career in both performance and technological experimentation.

Born Lester Polsfuss in Waukesha, Wisconsin, in 1915, Les Paul is most popularly recognized because of the famed Gibson guitar model that is named after him.

Paul Reed Smith, a guitar maker who owns and founded PRS Guitars, told America.gov Paul is practically a household name.

“You say a Les Paul, people know what that is,” Smith said. “They may be referring to the guitar, but there was a man behind it, right?” It is similar to how Leo Fender and Michael Dell have lent their names to the music and computer worlds, respectively.

But Smith said Paul was “an inventor and, first and foremost, a musician. A very good musician,” on top of being an industry icon. “I hope he’s remembered well.”

Jim Henke, the chief curator at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, told America.gov that Paul began publicly performing on the guitar at age 13. His career took him from country to big band jazz in the 1930s and 1940s and pop hits in the 1950s, and he performed with artists such as Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters before launching his own radio show with his wife, Mary Ford.

“I think he was the one who really took the guitar to the forefront and really made it the central instrument instead of just sort of playing rhythm in the background,” Henke said. Paul was one of the key people “to make it front and center, which I think is really responsible for a lot of what happened in rock ’n’ roll.”

It was during the big band era, playing on hollow-body acoustic guitars and competing with loud instruments such as trumpets and percussion, that Paul saw the benefits of a solid-body guitar that could be turned up without being prone to feedback.

At home, he constructed a prototype that became known as “the Log,” which was, essentially, a four-inch by four-inch piece of wood with guitar strings, and telephone microphones for pickups. Henke said Paul also did a similar experiment with a piece of railroad track.

“He told me that he actually liked the way the railroad track sounded better than the wooden one … but his mother said, ‘Now, Lester, can you imagine cowboys riding around with a piece of railroad track over their shoulders? I don’t think that would work,’ so he went back to the Log,” Henke recalled.

Howard Bass, who put together an exhibit on early solid-body guitars for the Smithsonian Institution in Washington remembered Paul was unsuccessful in his early efforts to sell the Gibson Guitar Corporation on his idea. But when Leo Fender’s musical instruments company began producing a solid body in 1950, Gibson’s president, Ted McCarty, became keenly aware of the need to offer a competitive model and paid Paul a visit with a prototype, seeking the performer’s endorsement.

Bass told America.gov that Paul was delighted with the new model and agreed to perform exclusively with Gibson guitars. From then on, “every time a Les Paul model was sold by Gibson, a little cash register went off and Les got a part of the sales money and a royalty for the use of his name,” he said.

Les Paul the innovator made an ever bigger impact on the world of recording through his discovery of multitrack recording. By adding an additional head to a reel tape recorder, Paul discovered he could add more recording tracks on top of what was already on the tape.

“Prior to multitracking, a band or orchestra would have to come in and basically perform the song and if they made a mistake they would have to start over again,” Henke explained.

“When Les came up with the multitrack it meant that you could lay down the rhythm track with the guitar bass and drums or whatever on one track and then you could go back and play another guitar solo over that, and you could put the vocals on another track.”

In other words, what Paul discovered has been the basic concept of studio recording ever since.

Paul’s 1947 home recording of the song “Lover” stands out as an example of what early multitrack recording enabled. With layers of rhythm and lead guitar tracks, some sped up and others having had their tone altered by different placements of the recording microphone, his experiments were prophetic of the studio practices employed on groundbreaking albums 30 years later, such as Pet Sounds by the Beach Boys and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band by the Beatles.


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