Les Paul, the virtuoso guitarist and technical innovator, died today at the age of 94. The cause was complications from pneumonia. Paul may have developed the first solid body, electric guitar (independently Leo Fender was working on his own solid body, electric guitar at the time).
Les Paul was born Lester William Polsfuss on June 9, 1915 in Waukesha, Wisconsin. As a child his piano teacher wrote to his mother that young Lester would never learn music. Defying his piano teacher's prediction, Paul had learned harmonica, guitar, and banjo by the time he was in his teens. In fact, Paul built his first electrically amplified guitar when he was only ten years old, by opening the back of an acoustic guitar and putting the pickup from a cannibalised Victrola inside.
He began his career playing professionally and semi-professionally as a country music guitarist at age 13. When he was 17 he was playing with Rube Tronson's Texas Cowboys. It was not long afterwards that he dropped out of school to pursue music as a career. He joined Wolverton's Radio Band on KMOX in St. Louis, before moving onto WLS and later WJJD, where he led the house band, in Chicago. It was in 1936 that Les Paul's first records released, one under his stage name of Rhubarb Red, the other as an accompanist for blues singer Georgia White. It was also in 1936 that he formed the Les Paul Trio and moved to New York City. He became a regular on Fred Waring’s radio show from 1938 to 1941.
It was around 1940 or 1941 that Les Paul invented his electric guitar. It was that year that he created "The Log," a wooden board with a guitar neck, with strings and two pickups attached. It is believed to be the first solid body electric guitar, or at least one of the first solid body electric guitars. Because of its unusual appearance, Paul hid The Log within the body of a standard looking guitar.
Les Paul was draughted in 1941. He served in the Armed Forces Radio Service, where he played with such singers as Kate Smith and Rudy Vallee, among others. After leaving the service, Paul took a job at NBC Radio in Los Angeles as a staff musician. The Les Paul Trio toured with the Andrews Sisters, Nat King Cole, and Bing Crosby. It was Crosby who told Paul that he should build his own recording studio. Paul then built his own studio in his garage. It was there that Paul made some of his biggest innovations to recording. He learned that in changing the speed of a recording, he could alter the very nature of that recording. He also invented the recording technique of multi-tracking, through recording a track, then recording himself playing along with that track. He used his multi-tracking technique on the song "Lover (When You're Near Me)," on which Les Paul played every single instrument. It was the first time multi-tracking was used on a song. By the late Fifties, Paul would invent the first eight track, multitrack recorder. Les Paul also developed the technique of reverb, used to great effect by many rock artists over the years.
It was in 1947 that Les Paul partnered with Colleen Summers, a former singer with Gene Autry's band, re-naming her "Mary Ford (a name he simply got out of a phone book). The two would marry in 1949. It was in 1950 that Les Paul and Mary Ford would have their first hits, the biggest of which may have been "How High the Moon." "How High the Moon" took full advantage of Paul's multitracking techniques, with Ford's vocal double tracked so that she was essentially singing harmony with herself. It was also in 1950 that the radio show The Les Paul Show, debuted. It featured Les Paul himself, Mary Ford, and rhythm guitarist Eddie Stapleton. The radio show was recorded in the home of Les Paul and Mary Ford. A syndicated version of the show, Les Paul and Mary Ford at Home, which ran for seven years in the Fifties. It was also recorded in the home of Les Paul and Mary Ford. The two divorced in 1964.
It was in the early Fifties that Gibson Guitar Corporation asked Les Paul to design the Les Paul guitar. The first Les Paul guitars went on sale in 1952, and variants have been sold ever since. According to Gibson, the Les Paul Standard has not changed since 1958. Over the years the Les Paul guitar has been used by such artists as Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, Joe Perry, and many others.
Les Paul continued to record albums throughout the years, including two albums with Chet Atkins and his final album, American Made, World Played (which included appearances by Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton, Billy Gibbons, Joe Perry, Keith Richards, and Sting). He performed regularly at jazz festivals throughout the Eighties. In 1983 he started playing weekly at Fat Tuesday's, a jazz club in New York City. When Fat Tuesday's closed in 1995, he started playing weekly at Iridium. He made his last performance there in June.
An argument could be made that Les Paul was the most influential guitarist of all time. It is not simply that he was a guitar virtuoso, but that he perhaps innovated more recording techniques than any other human being in history. Besides the solid body, electric guitar, he also developed multitracking, overdubbing, multitrack tape recorders, and reverb. Because of this there is no recording artist alive who does not owe a debt of gratitude to Les Paul. That he was also an incredible guitar player made him that much more great.