Think of the name Les Paul and images and sounds of an electric guitar that bears his name comes to mind.
One of the foremost influences on 20th century rock and roll sound, and responsible for the world's most famous guitar, the Les Paul model, Les Paul's prestigious career in music and invention spans seventy years. Though he's indisputably one of America's most popular, influential, and accomplished electric guitarists, Les Paul is best known as an early innovator in the development of the solid body guitar. His groundbreaking design would become the template for Gibson's best-selling electric, the Les Paul model, introduced in 1952.
Today, countless musical legends still consider Paul's iconic guitar unmatched in sound and prowess. Were it not for his invention, guitarists like Jimmy Page, Pete Townshend, Slash, Billy Gibbons, to name a few, would never be who they are now. Their unique sound and their approach to making music was determined by the guitar and sound technologies crafted by Paul. He developed the technology that would become hallmarks of rock and pop recordings, from multitrack recording that allowed for layers and layers of "overdubs" to guitar reverb and other sound effects. His playing style, including licks, trills, chording sequences, fretting techniques and timing, which set him apart from his contemporaries and inspired many of the guitarists of the present day. Among Paul's most enduring contributions are those in the technological realm, including ingenious developments in multi-track recording, guitar effects, and the mechanics of sound in general.
Born Lester William Polsfuss, the man who would ultimately be known as Les Paul was both a musician and an inventor. This unique combination led him not only to become an innovator in the music industry in terms of performances but also creating new technologies and sounds. By age 13, Paul was performing semi-professionally as a country-music guitarist. Four years later, Paul played with Rube Tronson's Texas Cowboys, and soon after he dropped out of high school to join a traveling radio band. The year was 1931 and the sound of music would never be the same.
Paul was dissatisfied with the acoustic guitars that were sold in the mid 1930s and began experimenting at home with a few designs for an electric model on his own. Famously, he created "The Log," which was nothing more than a length of common lumber with a bridge, guitar neck, and pickup attached. He solved two main problems: feedback, as the acoustic body no longer resonated with the amplified sound, and sustain, as the energy of the strings was not dissipated in generating sound through the guitar body.
In the mid 1940s, Paul moved to Hollywood and played music with legends such as Nat King Cole and Bing Crosby. The latter would ultimately fund Paul’s experiments and the two also produced chart topping music together at the same time.
Paul initially approached the Gibson Guitar Corporation with his idea of a solid body electric guitar. The company showed no interest until their rival Fender produced a solid body guitar of their own. Gibson then immediately took Paul's suggestions and designed a guitar in the early fifties and presented it to him to try. He was sold on the guitar instantly, so much so that the model bore his name – the Les Paul – and Paul himself signed a contracted stating that he would never to be seen playing in public, or be photographed, with anything other than a Gibson guitar. The rest, as they say is history.
All over the world, musicians, guitarists, are paying their tributes to the father of the electric guitar. Keith Richards, the guitarist from the Rolling Stones and a friend, lead the tributes. “We must all own up that without Les Paul, generations of flash little punks like us would be in jail or cleaning toilets,” he said.
“All of us owe an unimaginable debt to his work and his talent.” Richie Sambora, Bon Jovi's guitarist and also a friend, said Paul was “revolutionary in the music business”.
"A legend of the guitar and a true renaissance man, Les Paul disproves the cliche that you can only be famous for one thing," said U2 guitarist The Edge. "His legacy as a musician and inventor will live on and his influence on rock and roll will never be forgotten."
Former Guns and Roses guitarist Slash said Paul was a vibrant person who was full of positive energy.
“Les Paul was a shining example of how full one's life can be,” he said. “I'm honoured and humbled to have known and played with him over the years, he was an exceptionally brilliant man.”
Paul’s influence was not limited to the international scene, even local guitarists acknowledged the influence of his invention in their music. Aunty Disco Project frontman Omar Bilal Akhtar said, "I think Les Paul was the first person to truly raise the electric guitar to the iconic status it enjoys today. Before it was a mere instrument, and after Les Paul, it became a work of art, much like a Stradivarius violin.”
Maaz Maudood, guitarist for Kaavish added, “Without him, rock and roll would have probably never sounded the way it does. Despite the fact that he went through a horrible accident, he never stopped believing in himself, and just because of that faith music is what it is today.”
Fuzon guitarist Shallum Xavier said, “I’ve never owned a Les Paul myself, but all of the musicians that I looked up to were Les Paul players; guitarists like Zakk Wylde and Randy Rhodes, were a particular influence for me as far as Rock and Roll. If they wouldn’t have played a Les Paul, they’re sounds would’ve been totally different and I don’t know if I would’ve listened to them.”
Perhaps it is Joe Satriani’s comment that best describes Paul’s contribution and musical achievements: “He was the original Guitar Hero.”
Les Paul passed away on August 13, 2009, due to complications arising from Pneumonia.