For many, Les Paul is “the man of guitars”. But what we don’t know is that, really, he is “the one of the greatest electric guitar makers in history”. For example those used by Rolling Stones,The Beatles, Jimmy Page, Pete Townshend, Eric Clapton or Italian Franco Mussida from PFM: they are all Gibson’s Les Paul guitars.
If these guitars bear the name of Les Paul, it is because in the 1940s this man visited the headquarters of the Gibson company to offer them a prototype of a “solid body” guitar, that is an instrument without an acoustic box to avoid feedback effects and reverb.
The company laughed at him, but when Fender released the Telecaster solid body guitar in 1951, they bit his fingers. But let’s go from the beginning, also because between Zoa Studio and the guitars there has always been a feeling … remember the guitar of Leonardo?
Who is Les Paul?
Born Lester William Polfuss on June 9, 1915 in Waukesha (Wisconsin), Les Paul played the piano for a while, learned the harmonica and then became interested in the guitar while listening to Eddie Lang and Nick Lucas.
At the age of 9, Lester William Polfus electrified his parents’ piano to amplify its sound. A few years later, at the age of 13, he disassembled a phonograph and used its parts to make a rudimentary model of an electric guitar.
At 17, he dropped out of school and joined the KMOX Radio Wolverton Orchestra in St. Louis, Mississippi. Based in Chicago, he played jazz under the name of Rhubarb Red and rockabilly with that of the Les Paul Trio and recorded his first songs in 1936 (“It’s Been a Long Time”).
In 1941, Les Paul moved to Hollywood, where he was increasingly associated with recording studios. The instrumental pieces of him Lover, Brazil, Nola, Josephine or Tiger Rag attracted attention with their technical innovations, surprising for the time.
But disappointed with his record sales, Les Paul turned to variety, especially after 1952 and his marriage to singer and guitarist Colleen Summers, who became, for the stage, Mary Ford. The duo then embarked on a fruitful career, recording dozens of songs that always feature at least one dazzling guitar solo (a selection of which appears on the album Les & Mary. The Very Best of Les Paul & Mary Ford).
What are the inventions by Les Paul?
Les Paul’s first invention was the flip-up harmonica stand. When he was in fact about 13, Les played both guitar and harmonica in public. He wanted to be able to play them both without having to put the guitar down. Et voila, he invented a folding harmonica stand, from a metal hanger and a piece of wood.
As we said at the beginning, Les Paul is synonymous with the solid body electric guitar that bears his name. The evolution of design began when Lester was a teenage performer in Waukesha, Wisconsin.
In the early 1930s, Lester created his first electric guitar when he took his mother’s phonograph arm, jammed the needle into the top of his acoustic guitar, tied the arm to his guitar, and plugged it in through his father’s radio.
Around the same time he invented the Rail, proving that he could vibrate the guitar string to create a clear sound that had tremendous sustain. A few years later, while working in New York City, Les got access to the Epiphone factory on Sundays so that he could use their machines while he kept inventing.
The wonderful sound he had created with his Rail haunted him. Although carrying a piece of train track was impractical, Les was determined to find a way to recreate the sound he had found with the Railroad.
This is how the “Log” arrived. The “Log”, a full body electric guitar, without rosette, developed in 1940 and which completely changed the use of this instrument; derivative models (including the “Les Paul”, in 1952) would be produced by the companies Gibson, Fender or Bigsby.
In 1952, the Gibson company reconsidered its decision and offered Les Paul the opportunity to develop a solid body type electric guitar, with a huge contract at stake. The inventor created a famous model in his name that was used by the first rock’n’roll guitar players. In 1961, the company marketed the Gibson SG which would become the favorite guitar of Pete Townshend, Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton, Neil Young, Slash and a lot of others.
Les Paul was also a pioneer of multitrack recording. Without him, rock and blues would not have been the same.
One of his first projects was to create an engraving lathe so that his mother could record his performances on the radio. The lathe, as already happened for the harmonica support, made use of commonly used materials.
Although crude in design, it worked. In the mid-1940s, 30-year-old Les and his friends began developing the idea of ”sound on sound” for commercial-quality multitrack recording.
Les recorded his first track of a song on a disc. So he played a second track while playing the first track. He recorded both levels together on a second machine. If he was not satisfied with the recording, he would discard the record and start over. When he got the recording he wanted, Les would move the two-layered record to the playback machine and repeat the process with a third record and so on.
In 1948, Les Paul even recorded songs of which he was the only instrumentalist. Don’t forget that Les Paul used an equalizer to “extend” the range of each recording. People couldn’t believe how good his records sounded compared to other recordings of yesteryear.
Les Paul realized that although the tape recording gave him the sound he was looking for, it was not possible to go back one step, as he had done with the two-disc system. After creating many hit songs using the “sound on sound” method, Les decided to record each layer separately and thus have the flexibility to change one layer without affecting the others. Les then entered into a contract with Ampex to build the idea of him.
It took many years to perfect, but the invention gave artists enormous flexibility in recording. There are many other inventions about sound, to discover them all just read Les Paul himself in the book In His Own Words.
O also clicking on this link: https://www.les-paul.com/timeline/les-the-inventor
Other experiments and inventions
But the creativity and genius of Les Paul do not stop at what we have told above. Here are some other examples of his inventions:
Headless Guitar – Les always modified his guitars. His “Klunker” guitars had tuning gears under the bridge instead of on the headstock. There was no headstock on this guitar, just the nut at the end of the neck where the strings were anchored.
The Mini Guitars – To show that he could really play very high notes, Les Paul had Gibson make two small guitars so that when he was on stage he could pull one out and play with a unique sound.
Guitar Stand – After the infamous 1948 car accident, Les asked a friend to remodel a guitar stand to hold him even when he was wearing his torso cast.
Although Les Paul continually invented, he rarely bothered to patent his own inventions. When he was asked, he replied that he was not interested in going through all the paperwork to get the patents.
In his generosity he claimed that he created things that served others. And if the others were happy, so was he.
A great irony in Les Paul’s life is that the man who spent his life chasing sound had to wear two hearing aids and was not satisfied with their quality. Until his last days, Les was working on improving hearing aid technology.
Death and legacy Les Paul
In the 1980s, Les Paul retired to his property in Mahwah, New Jersey, which had a recording studio. In 1992, the guitarist made a brief appearance during a concert at the Universal Exposition in Seville (Spain).
On August 12, 2009, Les Paul died of complications from pneumonia at White Plains Hospital (New York) at the age of 94. That’s why we celebrate him today.
As we said at the beginning, many know the name of Les Paul only from the famous guitar models he created. For the Inductee of the National Inventors Hall of Fame® (NIHF) the invention of the solid-body electric guitar was just one of many everlasting contributions to the music industry.
But his inventive genius must not make us forget his talent as an innovative and adventurous guitarist, which also earned him an induction in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. He is the only man in the world to be in two different Hall of Fame.
In conclusion, however, it is difficult to lock Les Paul into one category. Indeed, with his musical career as well as his career as an inventor, the man was an enthusiastic can-do-all.
And you know, the interesting part of the invention is that it is essentially limitless, multifaceted and a necessary part of any industry.