June 9, 2023
LES PAUL: LESSONS OF A LEGEND Guitarist Releases Rock CD at Age 90 Page 1

LES PAUL: LESSONS OF A LEGEND Guitarist Releases Rock CD at Age 90 Page 1

Guitarist Releases Rock CD at Age 90

The first thing to establish about Les Paul is that there really is one. Young people think he’s a sociology report. Riddled middle schoolers think he’s a guitar.

Older folks—aware that he was revolutionising guitar playing before Eric Clapton had his first pair of long pants—think he’s a legend. All of them probably think he has guitar strings for arteries.

Nowadays, to further confuse matters, the 90-year-old guitar picker has stepped into the stratospheric category known as rock star.” On his recent CD release, American Made/World Played, his sidemen include the likes of Jeff Beck, Joe Perry, and Buddy Guy.

The CD puts a big, bold exclamation mark on Mr. Paul becoming what was called a “permanent installation” exhibit at the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame last year. He had been inducted into the hall in 1988.

What does Les Paul, as a person, think about all the fame fuss that has surrounded his life? “I don’t think I’m very successful,” he drools. “I just constantly try to improve, knowing that I’ve improved very little since I was fifteen or sixteen years old. You don’t improve much after that.”

The utter absence of hauteur is genuine and, in an age of megahype, downright unnerving. The fact is, besides his million-selling records, Grammy Awards, and permanently installed Rock Hall of Fame status, Les Paul is truly in a class by himself.

When Jimi Hendrix was planning his Electric Lady studios in the late 1960s, he went to Les Paul for advice.
When asked some years ago to review a Les Paul album for the English newspaper Melody Maker, former Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page put it this way: “He’s the man who started everything. He’s just a genius.”

It’s a genius that has delivered to pop music a mad scientist’s bag of tricks like phase shifting, overdubbing, reverb effects, sound-on-sound, close-miking, and echo delay.

The Les Paul guitar, in and of itself, is a fine-fragranced, long-stemmed rose in the garden of modern musical instruments. Guitarist Eddie Van Halen once stood on a stage with Les Paul and said to him: “Without the things you have done, I wouldn’t be able to do half the things I do.”

A rock guitarist who built his instrument entirely from scratch is Brian May, formerly of Queen. When I asked Queen Guitar Brian about King Guitar Les, he said, “It’s incredible how far into the technology he got all at once.”

Mr. Paul also happens to be the guy who invented multi-track recording and the solid-body electric guitar. For those two contributions alone, one could venture to say that the history of popular music without Les Paul would be as diminished as the history of the Beatles without Paul.

If he were Mrs. Paul, his onions would be fried, and he’d be the mother of all electric guitar wars, since so many rock guitarists choose his instrument as their weapon of choice.

Instead, he’s the father because in 1941, in New York City, Mr. Paul came up with the first solidbody guitar. Since the instrument fundamentally transformed how pop music was played and heard, its development was the most important achievement in a lifetime of important achievements.

In the lifetime of 1941 America, people’s minds were on two growing wars: one in Europe and one in Asia. The Yankees found themselves playing the Dodgers in an all-New York World Series; something called “automatic transmission” found its way into automobiles; and in Duluth, Minnesota, a baby boy named Robert Allen Zimmerman (later to go by the name of Bob Dylan) found himself in the world.

A quarter got you into the movies, or six tunes on a kaleidoscopic Wurlitzer jukebox. It was the height of the Big Band Era and ballroom dancing. Top tunes of the day were Glenn Miller’s “Chattanooga Choo-Choo.”
Sammy Kaye’s “Daddy” and the Inkspots’ “I Don’t Want to Set the World on Fire”

Setting the world of 1941-U.S.A. on fire was an early-stage communications metamorphosis in the cocoon of the electric wire. Across the increasingly wired-up nation, natural sound was beginning to be sublimated by amplified sound. That is to say, there were people beginning to think more in terms of sound waves than sound.

One of those who sensed in electricity the earmarks of a new artistic medium was Lester William Polsfuss, born in Waukesha, Wisconsin, on June 9, 1915, five years after the death of Mark Twain. Although born near the beginning of the twentieth century, Mr. Paul’s instincts belonged to the end of it—to a far more voltaic, medium-is-the-message era.

A natural musician, he was as fascinated by the flow of electricity as by the flow of music. He would prove to be an American innovator who had an artistic feel for electric current that was as ingrained as Twain’s artistic feel for the Mississippi’s current. 

In the early 30s, the up-and-coming professional guitarist began burning his energies on this central vision: a guitar that would produce undistorted electronic sounds. 

“What I wanted to do,” Mr. Paul told me, “is not have two things vibrating. I wanted the string to vibrate and nothing else. I wanted the guitar to sustain longer than an acoustical box and have different sounds than an acoustical box.” 

The concept, of course, fired a cannon shot across the bow of the aesthetic canon that guitars resonate. But it was Mr. Paul’s precocious perception to see that the presence of electric current changed the entire context of the source. 

The requirements were different. The acoustic guitar used its hollowness to get vibrations. With electricity, the vibrations hurt more than they helped. The sound would be purer if the body were non-vibrating, stable, and solid. The guitar was not to be the sound producer, after all, but the conveyer. 

With the vitality of the pioneer and the certitude of the visionary, Mr. Paul hunkered down for years, fashioning a guitar geared for a galvanic generation. 

He handled electricity as if it were a new vernacular and, like Dante writing in his native Italian, dared to create in the language of his day. 

He determinedly sliced through one problem after another, the first being how the instrument would pick up the electric impulse so the strings would make a sound. 

Explains Mr. Paul: “I picked it up first with the other half of a telephone—a magnet and a coil—and put it under the strings. Then I used the phonograph—jabbed the needle in the top of the guitar.” 

Observing that the hollowness of the instrument was interfering with the electronic sound, he realised that a solid surface would serve better. 

“I knew that what I needed was a guitar with no holes,” says Mr. Paul. “I chucked rags in it. I poured it full of plaster of Paris. I tried everything with the guitar to try to get it to not feed back and not sound like an acoustical box.” 

He finally made his breakthrough in 1941. While F.D.R. was warming up the country with his fireside chats, 26-year-old Les Paul was leaving his fireside for a factory every Sunday. 

Epiphone Guitars, above a Woolworth’s on 14th Street in New York City, was letting him use their factory once a week to work on his guitar-designing.

He spent most of every Sunday in the factory while Big Band’s big names serenaded New York hotels: Eddy Duchin at the Waldorf, Guy Lombardo at the Roosevelt, and Benny Goodman at the New Yorker. 

On his Sundays at the factory, he took a four-inch-by-four-inch piece of wood and attached the sides of a cut-up guitar to it. There it was: a solid, non-vibrating guitar. The inventor-guitarist had redesigned some old tools—wood and string—into a new instrument. He dubbed it “The Log.” 

More than three-score years later, the solidbody electric guitar has become the biggest American wooden symbol since the baseball bat or the log cabin. And like the log cabin, the instrument embodies a pioneering spirit that is enduring. 

Over the years, he has pointed to the formation of that piece in 1941 as the most essential step in the development of the solid-body prototype. 

With the hope that his solid guitar would be his solid gangplank to other worlds, the guitar journeyman tried to sell the idea of manufacturing. But when he brought “The Log” to guitar companies, they eyed him like Cagney eyeing the FBI.

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