The History Of: Les Paul

author: Unregistered date: 08/17/2004 category: the history of
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Les Paul may have had more influence upon the sound of modern rock and roll music than any other person in history. It was he who released the solid-body electric guitar that bears his name in 1952. It was built and marketed by Gibson, and, along with constant refinements and innovations from Les Paul himself, it has gone on to become one of the most widely used and respected electric guitars in history. Such noteworthy artists as Eric Clapton, Slash, and Jimmy Page are all associated with the Gibson Les Paul, but this is not Les Pauls sole contribution to the world of music. Lester William Polfus was born 1916 in Waukesha, that's 20 miles from Milwaukee, Wiscoin. His lifelong interest in electronic innovation began as far back as the age of nine when he built his first crystal radio. He began playing guitar at the same age and was playing semi-professionally by the age of 13. Les Paul's lifelong search for the "perfect sound" began in 1936, in the noisy Chicago jazz clubs where he performed with the newly formed Les Paul Trio. Paul was always out jamming, and it was during these sessions, in the company of loud bar patrons and brass instruments, that he began toying with the idea of a solid-body electric guitar. He began by modifying his own Epiphone semi-hollow electric guitar. The production of a solid-body electric guitar had been a long time dream of Pauls. One day he was playing the guitar beside a hamburger-stand. Some people complained about the guitar sounding too low. So he took the pick-up of a record-player and put it into the guitar. He pushed a mouthpiece from a telephone under the strings and wired both of them up with the radio of his parents. The idea was born. During the thirties he worked on a prototype of an electric guitar with a solid body. The idea was to amplify only the strings and to ignore top vibration. In his spare time, he kept tinkering with the tools of his musical trade. At home, he began cutting records of his radio performances, and he taught himself how to add parts to his music by overdubbing. Down on 14th Street, meanwhile, Paul talked his way into the Epiphone factory, where he worked on a prototype solid-body electric guitar after hours. He ultimately assembled what came to be known as "the Log," a four-inch-thick chunk of lumber that served as a guitar. "You could go out and eat and come back and the note would still be sounding," Paul has said of the Log's sustain. In 1938, at age 22, Paul moved to New York City with his wife, Virginia Webb Paul. His trio played on a popular national radio variety show, where he developed showmanship and style to go along with the sizzling licks he was perfecting at night, jamming uptown in Harlem with jazz greats like Art Tatum and Roy Eldridge. Paul moved his family to Hollywood in 1943 and continued to push his guitar into the forefront. On songs like the Les Paul Trio's 1944 recordings of "Begin The Beguine" and "Dark Eyes," Paul's dazzling glissandos are the main event; many of the spilling runs are played with harmony notes. By 1945, he was playing with Bing Crosby, and their version of "It's Been A Long, Long Time" became a No. 1 hit. On the trio's 1947 cover of "Steel Guitar Rag," the boogie-woogie bass lines on Paul's low E string offer an early glimpse of rock 'n' roll. Occasionally relegated to the rhythm sections of acts like Dinah Shore and the Andrews Sisters, Paul grew more determined to electronically amplify his guitar and make it a real lead instrument. He began working in early 1941 on his design by putting guitar strings on railroad ties in order to test his ideas. He approached Gibson for the first time in the 40s with his ideas. He was met with reluctance because Gibson did not often align with artists, Les had approached Gibson in the '40s with his ideas for a solidbody electric guitar, but Gibson was already leading the industry with archtop electric guitars. Furthermore, Gibson had always been very conservative when it came to aligning with artists. In 50 years, only two players had their names on Gibson models: Nick Lucas, an early guitar star and crooner whose "Tip Toe Through The Tulips" was the biggest record of 1929, and Roy Smeck, a multi-instrumentalist so talented he was nicknamed "The Wizard Of The Strings." By 1946, on Crosby's advice, Paul had built a home studio and was recording his own masters for record companies. He took his Log to Gibson around the same time, and was politely shown the door. "They called it a broomstick with a pickup on it," he later told Guitar Player magazine, They only agreed to market the product in 1952 when the idea became a viable option commercially. Les Paul was approached to help with the design and production because of his familiarity with the characteristics of solid-body electric guitars and his popularity as a musician. The result was a beautifully streamlined and attractive version of the plank of wood that Paul had worked with. Les Paul went to California where he met some other guitarists and musicians who were interested in the idea of a solid body. Among them there were the country-musician Merle Travis and the mechanic Paul A. Bigsby who made in 1948 the 'Bigsby/Travis-Guitar' with a solid body and of course with the first 'Bigsby Tremolo'. There was also Leo Fender, a radio-mechanic who later built with George Fullerton the first commercial successful electric guitar with a solid body which came into mass production, the Fender 'Broadcaster', later renamed into Fender 'Telecaster'. Leo Fender died in 1991. Today 'Fender' is still one of the leading manufacturer for guitars and guitar-amps. In 1951 Orville H. Gibson contacted Les Paul because he had to recover lost ground. With the new model almost ready for market, he was at the top of his career. One year later they presented the Gibson 'Les Paul Gold Top'. The Les Paul Model, as it was originally called, has changed little since its debut in 1952. Except for an updated bridge and humbucking pickups, the Les Paul Standard of today is still the same guitar. The Les Paul has been the driving force behind many changes in popular music. It powered the blues rock sound of the late '60s and the southern rock of the late '70s. By the '90s the Les Paul was providing signature sounds for every genre of rock, from alternative to metal. By that time, Les Paul was already known as an accomplished country and jazz musician, between 1947 and 1959 he made his most important records. He recorded two number one hits combining his talents with the vocals of his wife Mary Ford (who married him in 1949). Sadly, Les Pauls musical career almost came to a startling halt when his right arm and elbow was shattered in a near fatal car collision,in 1948, their convertible slipped on ice on Route 66 outside Oklahoma City, crashing through a guardrail and dropping 20 feet into a frozen creek bed. Ford, who had been driving, broke her pelvis; Paul's right arm was shattered in three places. One doctor suggested amputation, and there was a consensus that Paul would never play guitar again. But being the dedicated musician that he was, Paul insisted that his arm be set in such a way that he could still cradle and pick a guitar. Doctors grafted bone from his leg into his arm and rebuilt his elbow with a steel plate, which had to be locked into place. Paul had them set it at a 90 degree position, thumb pointed in, so to revolutionize he could play his instrument. The arm would be in one cast after another for the next 18 months During Paul's convalescence, Crosby had dropped by with a gift: one of the first reel-to-reel tape recorders made by Ampex. While Paul was on the road with Ford, he realized that if he added a recording head, he could record multiple parts, anywhere. The pair began recording on tape. Their first multi-track hit, a cover of "How High The Moon," was released in early 1951, reached No. 1 and went on to sell 1.5 million copies. Paul made a chorus of Ford's voice and filled every pause with his refined country-jazz licks. Ford's silky vocals put flesh on Paul's studio wizardry, which included 12 overdubs. No one had ever heard anything like this before; it was the sound of the future. "Les Paul was the first person to turn me on to the guitar," Rolling Stones bassist Bill Wyman once said. "'How High The Moon' had terrific verve, proof at last that pop could provide stylish, instrumental inventiveness." In addition to his work on the solid-body electric guitar By 1954 Paul had moved on. He was struck with the idea of recording on separate tracks and blending them together. He commissioned Ampex to build the first eight-track tape recorder, at his cost. His prodding resulted in a new technology, later known as "Sel-Sync," in which a recording head could simultaneously record a new track and play back previous ones. The concept allowed for extensive multi-tracking, and without it, the world may have never known "Pet Sounds," or "Sgt. Pepper," or just about anything else recorded in the last 40 years and has contributed greatly to the field of recording. He is credited with the pioneering uses of close miking, echo delay, and overdubbing. Paul has remained active throughout the decades, releasing a Grammy winning collection of instrumental collaborations in 1977 and playing in clubs throughout New York and elsewhere, but he will always be known for his help on releasing the guitar that went on modern music. The Gibson Les Paul has not changed much since its first release in 1952. Besides an updated bridge and humbucking pickups, the standard Les Paul is still the same guitar that both Gibson and Paul had envisioned nearly fifty years before. Les Paul and Mary Ford moved to a big house in New Jersey. To hear how his recordings sounded to most people, he played his self-pressed discs on a jukebox or aimed his transmitter at his car radio. The duo churned out more hits, recorded a radio show each week and also kept up a busy touring schedule, earning $500,000 in 1951. They had 13 consecutive hits that to date have sold more than 10 million copies. "What he was doing on those hits couldn't have failed to influence any guitarist," Jimmy Page told Paul biographer Mary Alice Shaughnessy. In 1953, when "Vaya Con Dios" was No. 1 for 11 weeks, "The Les Paul and Mary Ford Show" appeared on television, with Paul playing his new gold-top Les Paul solid-body. He had come a long way from the Log and continues his musical innovation and work in his basement workshop. He is a member of the rock and roll Hall of Fame. Paul had made his art his life, but it was taking a toll on his family. The grind of recording and touring was exhausting Ford, and the recording duo was headed for divorce, but there was a cultural force looming that would spell the end of their career even sooner: rock 'n' roll. Les Paul's relationship with rock is soaked with irony. The airwaves in the late '50s belonged to Little Richard and Elvis; by 1961, the Les Paul guitar was out of production. But as rock matured in the '60s, it owed much of its studio sophistication to advances Paul pioneered. Ultimately, rock placed Paul in its pantheon, making an uncomfortable god of him. In 1966, he tried re-recording "How High The Moon" and a cover of Paul Simon's "Sounds Of Silence," but neither made much of an impact. His music, like his guitar, was out of fashion. With sales in continued decline, Gibson was threatening to phase out the electric guitar, telling him it would be "extinct." But Paul had unwittingly made his mark on the next generation of musicians, and they would not forget him. "We used to start our gigs with the opening riffs from 'How High The Moon'," Paul McCartney told Shaughnessy, Paul's biographer. "Everybody was trying to be a Les Paul clone in those days." Then, in 1966, a young English blues guitarist named Eric Clapton plugged his sunburst Les Paul into a Marshall amplifier - the first time anyone had done so for a recording. With a little help from Paul, Clapton had paved the way to the next new sound. Perpetuated by guitarists from Jimmy Page to Slash, the Les Paul and the Marshall remain rock's signature combination. As a measure of how musicians feel about Paul's guitars, Clapton in 1988 was still mourning the loss of his prized sunburst two decades earlier: "It was stolen during rehearsals for Cream's first gig," he told Guitar Player. "It was almost brand new - in the original case with that lovely purple velvet lining. Just magnificent. I never really found one as good as that again. I do miss it." Les Paul got a new trio together in the '70s and played a few scattered gigs, including Carnegie Hall. He recorded a country album with Chet Atkins, whose fame had eclipsed that of his brother Jimmy, Paul's early bandmate. "Chester & Lester" won a Grammy for best country instrumental album in 1976. The next year Les Paul and Mary Ford were named to the Grammy Hall Of Fame. In 1983 Paul got a Grammy Achievement Award for his contributions to the recording industry, and he was inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame in 1988 by Jeff Beck, who said, "I've copied more licks from Les Paul than I'd like to admit." Everyone wanted to be on hand when Gibson and the New York Hard Rock Cafe threw him a 72nd birthday party in 1987. The Smithsonian dedicated a wing of its American Music Exhibit to him and borrowed the Log from its permanent home, the Country Music Hall Of Fame in Nashville. "I spent my whole early life trying to figure out how to get those holes in the piano roll," he said. In his youth, Paul mastered nearly everything he touched - the harmonica, saxophone, banjo, guitar. But he conquered neither the piano's mechanics nor the instrument itself, and it still gnawed at him. "At that time, the piano was the No. 1 instrument in the world, and the guitar was way down at the bottom of the list." Watching him lean lovingly over his guitar as he performs, you realize everything Paul has achieved springs from his love of his instrument and his desire to entertain. Like every great guitarist, Paul just wants to play - and he still cooks, in spite of the fact that most of his right hand and all but two fingers on his left are arthritic. And he is still experimenting, still searching for something he has called "the perfect sound," an electrified but pure string tone. "You hear that in your head," he said: a sound unimpeded by resonating wood, amplification, filtering and harmonics. "Oh, it's so complicated," Paul said of this lifelong pursuit. "Especially a guitar." As you could have read, Les Paul, was a great musician, and we owe him, a lot of things, like the multitrack recording and the eight track, but I think evrything will thank him for only one thing, for creating the first Solid Body Electric, and specially for the form of the guitar, the classic les paul, what guitarist would not like to buy a Les Paul, if you had the money to do it, and if not, i bet you'll work very hard to get one. Thanks to Salon.com, PageWise.
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