The History Of: Gibson Les Paul

author: Deejay2sxc date: 03/30/2009 category: the history of

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After reading the countless articles posted by UG users, I thought about posting one about the late Les Paul. I have searched many factual sites to make this as crisp and correct as possible. Hope you enjoy.

Where Did It All Start?

We all know him as Les Paul but do we all know the real man behind todays popular Guitar? Lester William Polsfuss, born June 9, 1915, grew up in the state of Wisconsin, US. The family name was first simplified by his mother (Evelyn Polsfuss) to Polsfuss before he took up the stage name 'Les Paul', he also used the nickname 'Red Hot Red'. Paul was first inspired by music at the ripe ol' age of eight, where he learnt to play the harmonica. His earliest attempts at playing a stringed instrument started as a banjo, he then moved onto play the guitar. At 13, Paul was performing semi-professionally as a country-music guitarist. At 17, Paul played with Rube Tronson's Cowboys, soon after, he dropped out of high school to join Wolverton's Radio Band, St Louis, Missouri on KMOX. In the 1930's, Paul worked on a Chicago radio, where he performed jazz music. Paul's first two records were released in 1936. One of which was credited to Rhubarb Red, Pauls hillbilly alter ego, the other was an accompanist for blues artist Georgia White. In 1948, Paul was part of a near-fatal automobile accident in Oklahoma, which shattered his right arm and elbow. Doctors told Paul that there was no way for them to rebuild his elbow in a way that would let him regain movement, this meant Pauls arm would permanently stay in the position doctors placed it in. Paul then instructed the surgeons to set his arm at an angle that would allow him to cradle and pick the guitar. It took him a whopping, year and a half to recover!

Pauls Inspiration

The electric guitars that were sold in the mid 1930s were not up to Pauls expectations, so he began experimenting with a few designs of his own. Famously, he created The Log, which was nothing more than a length of a common 4" by 4" fence post with a bridge, guitar neck, and pickup attached. To make The Log look more appealing he attached the body of an Epiphone hollow-body guitar, sawn lengthwise with The Log in the middle. This solved his 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.

Moving On

In 1938, Paul moved to New York as part of a trio that included Jim Atkins (older half-brother of guitarist Chet Atkins) and bassist/percussionist Ernie Newton. They landed a spot with Fred Waring's Pennsylvanians radio show. Paul moved to Hollywood in 1943, where he formed a new trio. As a last-minute replacement for Oscar Moore, Paul played with Nat King Cole and other artists in the inaugural Jazz at the Philharmonic concert in Los Angeles on July 2, 1944. Also that year, the trio appeared on Bing Crosby's radio show. Crosby went on to sponsor Paul's recording experiments. The two also recorded together several times, including a 1945 number one hit, It's Been A Long, Long Time. In addition to backing Crosby and artists like The Andrews Sisters, Paul's trio also recorded a few albums of their own on the Decca label in the late 1940s.

The Connection

Paul's innovative guitar, The Log, built in 1941, was one of the first solid-body electric guitars. Gibson Guitar Corporation designed a guitar incorporating Paul's suggestions in the early fifties, and presented it to him to try. He was impressed enough to sign a contract for what became the Les Paul model (originally only in a gold top version), and agreed never to be seen playing in public, or be photographed, with anything other than a Gibson guitar. The arrangement persisted until 1961, when declining sales prompted Gibson to change the design without Paul's knowledge, creating a much thinner, lighter, and more aggressive-looking instrument with two cutaway horns instead of one. Paul said he first saw the new Gibson Les Paul in a music store window, and disliked it. Though his contract required him to pose with the guitar, he said it was not his instrument, and asked Gibson to remove his name from the headstock. Gibson renamed the guitar SG (which stands for Solid Guitar), and it also became one of the company's best sellers. The original Gibson Les Paul guitar design regained popularity when Eric Clapton began playing the instrument a few years later. Paul resumed his relationship with Gibson, and has endorsed the original Les Paul guitar design ever since. To this day, various models of Gibson Les Paul guitar are used all over the world, by both novice and professional guitarists. A less expensive version of the Les Paul guitar is also manufactured for Gibson's lower-priced Epiphone brand.

Later On

In the late 1960s, Paul went into semi-retirement, although he did return to the studio occasionally. He and Mary Ford had divorced in December 1964, as she could no longer tolerate the itinerant lifestyle their act required of them. Paul's most recognisable recordings from then through the mid-1970s was an album for London Records, Les Paul Now (1967), on which he updated some of his earlier hits; and, backed by some of Nashville's celebrated studio musicians, a meld of jazz and country improvisation with fellow guitar virtuoso Chet Atkins, Chester and Lester (1977), for RCA Victor. By the late 1980s, Paul had returned to active live performance. In 2006, at the age of 90, he won two Grammys at the 48th Annual Grammy Awards for his album Les Paul & Friends: American Made World Played. He also performs every Monday night, accompanied by a trio which includes pianist John Colianni, at the Iridium Jazz Club on Broadway in New York City, despite the arthritis that has stilled all but two of the fingers on his left hand.

The Honour

In 1978, Les Paul and Mary Ford were inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame. Paul received a Grammy Trustees Award for his lifetime achievements in 1983. In 1988, Paul was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame by Jeff Beck, who said, 'I've copied more licks from Les Paul than I'd like to admit.' In 1991, the Mix Foundation established an annual award in his name; the Les Paul Award which honors individuals or institutions that have set the highest standards of excellence in the creative application of audio technology. Les Paul was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in May 2005 for his development of the solid-body electric guitar. In 2006, Paul was inducted into the National Broadcasters Hall of Fame. He was named an honorary member of the Audio Engineering Society.

In the media

A biographical, feature length documentary, titled Chasing Sound: Les Paul at 90, made it's world premiere on May 9, 2007 at the Downer Theater in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Paul appeared at the event and spoke briefly to the enthusiastic crowd. The film is being distributed by Koch Entertainment and was broadcast on PBS on July 11, 2007 as part of it's American Masters series and was broadcast on October 17, 2008 on BBC Four as part of it's Guitar Night. The premiere coincided with the final part of a three part documentary by the BBC broadcast on BBC ONE entitled The Story Of The Guitar. In June 2008, an exhibit showcasing his legacy and featuring items from his personal collection opened at Discovery World in Milwaukee. The exhibit was facilitated by a group of local musicians under the name Partnership for the Arts and Creative Excellence (PACE). Paul played a concert in Milwaukee to coincide with the opening of the exhibit. Paul's hometown, Waukesha, Wisconsin is planning a permanent exhibit to be called The Les Paul experience.


In July 2005, a 90th-birthday tribute concert was held at Carnegie Hall in New York City. After performances by Steve Miller, Peter Frampton, Jose Feliciano and a number of other contemporary guitarists and vocalists, Les was presented with a commemorative guitar from the Gibson Guitar Corporation. On November 15, 2008, Les Paul received the American Music Masters award through the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame at a tribute concert in the State Theater in Cleveland. Among more than a dozen guest performers were Duane Eddy, The Ventures, Eric Carmen, Lonnie Mack, and Slash.

Playing Style

His innovative talents extended into his unique playing style, including licks, trills, chording sequences, fretting techniques and timing which set him apart from his contemporaries and inspired most of the guitarists of the present day. Compositions: Les Paul's compositions include Johnny is the Boy for Me, Walkin' and Whistlin' Blues, Danger, Men at Work, Waitin' So Long, Golden Sands, Dance Hall Blues, Big Eyed Gal, Deep in the Blues, Mammy's Boogie, Hip-Billy Boogie, Don'cha Hear Them Bells, Come Back to Me, Cowpokin', Les's Country Blues, Ham 'N' Grits, Song in Blue, Magic Melody, Pacific Breeze, All I Need is You, Hawaiian Charms, Take a Warning, Mountain Railroad, Move Along, Baby (Don't Waste My Time), and Suspicion, a song he composed in 1948, which was recorded by Tex Williams, Jo Stafford, and the Ray Noble Orchestra.
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