Who Is Les Paul?
“Is my amp flat”? He asks. “It’s flat, Les.” Comes the reply from his soundman.
“On the dot?” “On the dot, Les.”
“It should be 4 decibels clean”, Paul replies. “In other words, when I hit this note” — Paul bangs the high E-string of his signature guitar — “it should be minus-four on the meter. On the tape machine, it should be zero. But I know this guitar is like a minesweeper, sometimes!”
Hard to believe this slight looking, but authoritative man is about to celebrate his 87th birthday next week. And even harder for me, as a part-time guitarist myself, to believe I was about to be interviewing him.
To baby boomers, he's the name on their or their favorite guitarist’s instrument (as his recent commercial for Coors Beer made light of). To the previous generation, he’s a musician with a string of pop hits in the 1950s. And there are lots of older folks around who still remember his days from the 1930s, playing in Fred Waring’s Orchestra, and backing up Bing Crosby.
Clearly, while most people would be happy with one successful career, Les Paul is a man who can look back on several simultaneous lives.
Born Lester William Polfus on June 9, 1915 in Waukesha, Wisconsin, he began to teach himself not only the guitar, but electronic engineering when he was just a child. He later shortened his name to Les Paul (after a brief spell known as Rhubarb Red!) and played with big bands in the 1930s, such as Fred Waring’s outfit in the 1930s and with Bing Crosby in the 1940s.
Simultaneously, he also did much developmental work on the concept of the electric guitar. His electrical engineering skills led him to finally develop the electric solidbody guitar, designed initially to reduce feedback and increase the sustain of notes and chords.
Later in that same decade, he began developing the concept of sound-on-sound recording, first painstakingly overdubbing part after part on a 78 rpm record-cutting machine, and then later on magnetic tape. The Beatles’ complex and masterful recordings of the late 1960s, as well as virtually all popular music recorded since, use the very methods he developed. Led Zeppelin’s albums, with layer upon layer of overdubbed, multitracked guitars, and often recorded in large country homes instead of professional recording studios, would be unthinkable without Paul’s first efforts away from a studio.
Rock and Roll’s Most Popular Instrument
In 1948, Paul was critically injured in a car crash and almost lost the use of his right arm. Rather than having it amputated, he pleaded with his doctors to set it in such a fashion that he could still pick a guitar.
Thankfully, they did — and this renewed lease on not only life but also his career was the springboard for Paul’s most important decade as a musician.
In the 1950s, he began to write, record and play guitar on numerous gold records with his then-wife, Mary Ford. He also helped to design what would go on to be one of the most important instruments in rock and roll: the Gibson Les Paul electric guitar, played at various times in their careers by such notable musicians as B.B. King, John Lee Hooker, Jimmy Page, Eric Clapton, Keith Richards, Jeff Beck, Pete Townshend, Bob Marley, John McLaughlin (the jazz star, not the fellow with the talk show on PBS), and Slash of Guns and Roses. And when they’re in New York, many of these musicians often stop by to watch the man whose name is on their guitar, in action.
That’s a pretty impressive pedigree for an instrument that was designed in 1952 and today still sells in massive numbers. Paul’s personal stage guitar, while still a Gibson Les Paul electric, is not one of the highly desired 1950s versions. So how old is she? “I don’t know — I didn’t ask her!” is his response, proving that ultimately, it’s the musician, and not his instrument, that counts the most.
Perhaps the appeal of the guitar he helped to design is its duality: its often beautiful finishes belie the fact that it’s essentially a solid plank of wood with strings. It was designed to be the cleanest, warmest sounding guitar possible for jazz and country musicians, but it only achieved its true popularity when it began to be played loudly and with mammoth distortion by rockers and bluesmen.
Another duality: the genre that Paul’s guitar would come to dominate rock and roll which also exploited the potential of his mulitrack recording theories the most and bought his guitar by the thousands, significantly damaged Paul’s recording career, putting it into a slump for much of the 1960s, until the mid-1970s. During this period, he and Mary Ford would divorce in 1964, and she later died in 1976.
The Elder Statesman of Popular Music
But by the late 70s and early 80s, his current career as an elder statesman of popular music in general, and the electric guitar specifically, began to blossom.
In 1975, he officially came out of retirement with a concert at New York’s Carnegie Hall. In 1977, he released a Grammy Award-winning record with Chet Atkins, called Chester and Lester. And in 1984, Paul began his regular gig playing every Monday night in New York, first at a club called Fat Tuesday’s and since 1996 at the Iridium Jazz Club, originally across from Lincoln Center, and now located at Broadway and 51st Street.
It was at the Iridium where we interviewed Paul, a week before his 87th birthday. Looking at least 15 years younger than his actual age, he’s also one sharp interviewee, as befits the godfather of popular music and its most popular instrument.
Between his soundcheck and our interview, a Gibson representative asked Paul to sign a Les Paul guitar that would be given to a leukemia fund. And after a 1998 concert at the Iridium, Paul spent a good ten minutes talking to a guitar-playing child who was attending via the Make a Wish Foundation. Paul asked him what kind of guitar he plays. When informed that it was a cheap imitation of a Les Paul, Paul asked the parents for the child’s address. It’s a safe bet a real Gibson Les Paul guitar arrived shortly thereafter.
The Quotable Les Paul
Once Paul finished signing, we began our interview. Because I play one of his guitars, and use it to record my own music (when I’m not writing articles for magazines and the Internet), I was thrilled to be about to talk to the man who literally made it all possible. After a lengthy discussion about the history of the guitar that bears his name, I asked him what he thinks of today’s home recording boom, which allows virtually anyone to record their music on equipment ranging from four-track cassette recorders to computers equipped with special music recording software? “Well, that’s how I started, so I thought it was a very good idea! I’m sure the studios didn’t like it, but then they’ve never liked the idea.”
Paul says that in the 1950s, recording studios (perhaps via record labels or the various musicians’ unions) had created a rule that stated that if a musician was within 35 miles of a legitimate recording studio, he couldn’t make a record without a professional recording engineer from a studio there. “I lived 33 miles from New York, and they made me have an engineer. I said ‘unless he wants to sleep over, and wake up at five o’clock in the morning and go to bed at six pm….holy Cripes!’”
Despite that rule, Paul recorded virtually all of his 1950s hits either at his New Jersey home, or on the road, pioneering the location recording that would eventually become popular with rock bands ranging from The Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin to Tears for Fears.
He’s reluctant to name a favorite guitarist, citing the uniqueness of each musician. “A fellow that plays finger-style, he may be awesome, but he can’t do things a fellow can do with a pick, and vice versa. So each guy has his bag, and it has a limit.”
To prove his point, he recounts a time he was standing on the corner outside of a Count Basie concert with Wes Montgomery, Pat Martino, and George Benson, when he began to laugh at his fellow superstar jazz guitarists. “What are you laughing about?”, they asked.
“I told them, ‘here’s four of the greatest guitar players in the world standing on the corner all wishing they could play it like the other guy! Isn’t that nice?”
I asked Les if he still invents, or if he’s content to merely concentrate on his playing these days. Replying that he still is very much the tinkerer and inventor, we asked what he’s working on next.
“Same thing I was working on in the ‘20s: I’m trying to make it better. There’s a million ways of improving, there’s a million different directions to go in, and I try to do all of them.”
Just as he does with his music, every Monday night in New York. Not a bad way to round out the many lives he’s led.
Edward B. Driscoll, Jr. is a San Jose-based journalist who writes on a variety of topics, especially technology, design, and home electronics for numerous magazines, including recent contributions to National Review Online's Financial Section during its startup phase. Visit his website at www.eddriscoll.com.