Les Paul

Posted on November 22, 2016

An obituary for Les Paul. Written for Guitar Aficionado, 2009.  

LES PAUL INVENTED THE SOUND of the modern pop record. He didn’t invent the electric guitar and he didn’t even invent the Gibson Les Paul. His great contribution was to turn pop records into self-contained pieces of constructed art at a time when most people thought of them as simply capturing a performance in a room. But he wasn’t a sound engineer first; he was a musician who thought like a sound engineer, a guitarist so steeped in jazz, pop, and country styles that he could easily turn his ideas into musical reality.

Les died of complications from pneumonia on August 12 2009 at White Plains Hospital, NY, at the age of 94. The last time I spoke to him, not long before his death, he was bubbling with ideas, as ever. “I can’t wait to get up and get out of bed,” he said, “and I can’t wait to get to my guitar and play it. I love it so much. It’s so personal. And yet it defies explanation. It makes the fella who’s playing the guitar work like hell, because you can get better – but it’s not easy. There are so many ways of expressing your feeling. It’s an awesome instrument.”

Back when the second world war ended, Les expressed himself by playing guitar on Bing Crosby’s 1945 Number 1 hit ‘It’s Been A Long Long Time.’ The label credit – Bing Crosby With The Les Paul Trio – brought Les to a wide audience for the first time. Bing, who took a keen interest in new audio developments, was an early adopter of tape recorders, using the avant-garde machines to ease production of his radio show. With Bing’s encouragement, Les built a studio into his garage in Hollywood.

In that small room, Les came up with techniques closer to our own ideas of how to craft a modern pop record than anything that had gone before. At first he recorded direct to disc, then he moved to tape. His special discovery was that he could build up multiple layers of instruments by using two recording machines, adding new material to an existing recording at each pass. Sometimes he would vary the tape-speed, too, to produce impossibly high and fast guitar passages.

With this homegrown technology – and later with a single, modified recorder – Les constructed his “multiples” and created a magical orchestra of massed guitars playing catchy instrumental tunes. It was the start of the idea that records could exist apart from live music as unique creations in their own right. Capitol Records signed Les Paul and accurately named his music the New Sound. His first multiple-guitar single, ‘Lover’, became a Top 30 hit in 1948. Then he added vocals into the mix and big hits followed for Les Paul & Mary Ford, with ‘How High The Moon’ striking gold for the duo when it hit Number 1 in April 1951.

For many of us today it’s an unexceptional task to build up recordings at home using multiple parallel tracks. Back in the early 50s, however, it all seemed like witchcraft. A reviewer for Melody Maker, typically mystified by ‘How High The Moon,’ said: “Beyond revealing that there are twelve guitar parts and nine vocal parts on it, and that Les works out his trick formula with the aid of a tape-recorder at home, Capitol refuses to divulge information it obviously regards as top secret.”

Then Gibson took action. They saw that Fender was making a newfangled solidbody electric guitar and that players were noticing, and they saw that Les Paul had become famous. Gibson boss Ted McCarty and his team detected potential synergy. They thought of Les Paul not as someone who had lashed together his own experimental semi-solid electric guitars some years earlier, but as the famous guitarist who’d just scored a massive pop hit with ‘How High The Moon.’ So they designed their own solidbody electric, and then they had Les Paul endorse it. The Gibson Les Paul Model, which we know as the Goldtop, was born. Les was given some samples, in line with his endorsement contract, which he hacked about to suit his own requirements. He played one in public for the first time in June 1952, on-stage at the Paramount Theater in New York.

It’s the records where Les Paul’s ingenuity shines. Here’s a guitar player who makes you smile as his character comes shining through, whether it’s that first bend that eases you into the solo section of ‘How High The Moon’ or the sudden leap to double-time as the guitars cascade over one another in the middle of ‘Lover.’ I interviewed Les several times and he was a fine story-teller, a man who loved to place himself close to almost any musical development you cared to name. He came across as a natural improviser, and he interviewed like he played guitar: humorous, engaging, and unquestionably the centre of attention.

I’d recommend you find some of his music. The first place you ought to go – and shame on you if you don’t already own some of these – are the Les Paul & Mary Ford hits. If you can find it, the 1991 four-CD boxed set The Legend And The Legacy is the completist’s choice, showing exactly how he changed the face of recorded guitar-pop at Capitol from 1948 to 1958. The 1997 two-CD set The Trio’s Complete Decca Recordings Plus covers the period before that and reveals more about Les’s roots. That’s a further gem you ought to possess, and you might also enjoy one or other of the knockabout records he made with Chet Atkins in the 70s.

When I last spoke to Les, he was as enthusiastic for his beloved instrument as I’d ever heard him. “The guitar has become something that we cherish,” he told me. “It’s beyond belief how many people that are so important can’t wait to get home, put some old clothes on, sit in the kitchen, and play and enjoy guitar. It makes so many people happy. What other thing can do what music does?”