14 August, 2009

Les Paul - 1915-2009

There is absolutely nothing I can say about this giant of music that hasn’t been said a hundred times better and a thousand times over. Even more so than the Beatles, if anyone thinks they haven’t been influenced by Les Paul, then they just don’t know anything about music.

In the rush to oversimplify things, reports will undoubtedly refer to him as the inventor of the solid-body electric guitar. Leo Fender would take umbrage at such a title, surely as much as Les Paul would if it were given to Leo. I have no interest in Fender vs. Gibson or Les vs. Leo. The truth is that solid-body electrics were pioneered in parallel by several innovators at the same time, not unlike television or the automobile, with no single inventor.

What’s undeniable is that Les Paul was the first guitarist to play a solid-body guitar. His prototype “log” was a Gibson neck bolted to a solid piece of timber. He added guitar bouts for comfort and aesthetics but they contributed nothing to the tone.

The Les Paul “Log”

Although Gibson laughed at him, the Les Paul log would form the basis of the design of the ES 335 which looks like it has a hollow sound chamber but is in fact solid up the middle.

The Gibson ES355

Insane as it may seem now, the Gibson Les Paul Standard was actually discontinued in 1960. It wasn’t until Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page started playing them late in that decade that interest increased enough for Gibson to consider making them again. Still, many guitarists believe that there is something special about the ones made between 1958 and 1960, which is why those models attract valuations that look more like ’phone numbers and many are locked in bank vaults as investments.

While Les Paul himself played a Gibson Les Paul, the instruments he played were vastly different to the production models. The body was familiar but the electronics were all his own design and never available on production models. The production model he played the most was the Les Paul Recording.

Les Paul's Les Paul

However, guitars were only half the story. The multi-layer recording techniques that we have taken for granted since the mid ’60s were pioneered by Les Paul – only he did it the hard way. His early techniques of disabling the erase head and bouncing between tape machines meant that he and Mary Ford had to get every part right first time, otherwise the whole recording would be ruined. There was no multitrack or mixing. The record was mixed as it was being made.

For the 40th Anniversary of Sgt Pepper, the BBC invited a bunch of current bands to try and record Beatles songs using only equipment that was available to the Beatles at the time. Several had to pull out because they just couldn’t do it. But by Les Paul’s standards, the Beatles had it piss easy. Far from being the cheat’s way, Les Paul’s recordings required him to be a master musician. That brilliant musicianship is often overshadowed by his technical innovations.

I expect a majority of those eulogising him don’t even own a Les Paul record. I must confess that I don’t. But that’s not really the point. You don’t have to have ever read or seen Shakespeare’s work to use words and expressions that he created, whether you realise it or not. Similarly, anyone who has had so much as a passing interest in music in the last sixty years, owes something to Les Paul.


  1. i love you bill, you are awesome! (not in a gay way way or anything, not that there's anything wrong with that)

  2. Thank you, fellow guitar nerd.