Editorial note: this article was written in 2008. A news article on Les Paul's death can be found here.
When: early 1980s
What: I had first spoken to Les back in 1977 sometime. I was writing a book on Jeff Beck (The Beck Book, mentioned elsewhere on these pages), and I wanted the inventor to write an introduction. I knew that he was one of Beck's biggest influences and I thought that it would add a lot of credibility and artistic value to the book if I could get him to agree. I don't really remember how I tracked him down, but I did secure his phone. I think I just called him one afternoon, told him who I was and what I was doing, and made my request. Without a second's hesitation, he agreed.
I'm including that brief into he wrote for The Beck Book. It simply reveals how much he loves the world of guitar and the people who play them. Here it is:
I think the guy plays great, I really do. From the time I first heard Jeff, I liked his playing very much. One of the things that attracted me to him was his consistency and the second thing was his phrasing. And the heart that he played with.
"And this is very important because when I first heard some of the rock players, they were just playing notes and not saying much. And this is where Jeff doesn't have to necessarily play a fast run to prove a point.
"My estimation of him on record is that he does very, very well and when I saw him in person, I was more than pleased because again, he didn't get carried away by overplaying. And that makes me extremely happy.
"People often come up to me and say, Do you really like Jeff Beck?' and I say, I love him, I think he's great.' And they say, We do, too!' Jeff has a very large following and deservedly so.
"Jeff is excellent; he's one of my very favorites. Among all the guitar players that I know of in the rock field, Jeff Beck has more taste and more going for him than any of them.
"I've never played with him but the kids would go crazy, they'd go completely out of their minds if we ever got on that stage together. Again, because I have such great respect for the man, I think it should be something we do one day before I hang it up.
"I can hear a lot of my influence in his playing but not enough to hurt him. I always believed in making the guitar cry and say something and Jeff does.
"Speed is the least important of all. Anybody can sit down and practice until they get to play fast. But it's what you're saying that's so important.
"Jeff can be whatever he wants to be. There is no reason in the world why Jeff can't become a super, super, superstar! He's got all the makings of it. And tell him I told you so."
"I encountered Les several more times following this first talk. We spoke with one another in the early 80s (that is what you're reading here). Then in 1986, Guitar Center opened the RockWalk, their version of Mann's Chinese Theater, where musicians would press their handprints into cement. Les Paul was one of the first inductees. I met him there (though we'd run into one another at some other function a little earlier). He was amazing and remembered me and the Jeff Beck book and everything. Edward Van Halen was there that evening for the unveiling of the RockWalk. I had the rare opportunity to introduce the guitarist to the guitar maker. They knew about each other, of course. Seizing this one-in-a-million chance, I escorted the legendary pair to an upstairs office (Guitar Center honcho Dave Weiderman was instrumental in putting this meeting together), pulled out a cassette player, and started asking them questions. I'm also including that conversation here (which did appear originally in Guitar World Magazine). Here is that one (questions in bold are mine):
This installment of The Authorized Biography Of Edwardvan Halen (at the time, I was working on Edward's biography and that is why the headline reads this way) has the genius of the modern age knocking heads with the patron saint of the electrified guitar. By Steven Rosen
It was a rare meeting, a unique sharing of ideas and ideals, a baring of emotions. Edward Van Halen and Les Paul were communicating for the first time on the occasion of the opening of the new Guitar Center, a mammoth music store located on Sunset Boulevard in the center of Hollywood. Van Halen and Paul were being honored along with other notables like Stevie Wonder, Jim Marshall and Remo Belli, as part of the RockWalk, a celebration where the participants placed their hands in cement a Ia Graumans Chinese.
Edward was agreeable to the meeting if, he said, Les was amenable (he was), and so I sequestered the two along with Donn Landee, Van Halens engineer, in one of the vacant rooms in the complex. From the moment the pair sat down there was an immediate rapport and a flow of information. In fact, Edward virtually conducted the questioning. Following the talk, he chirped, "I ask better questions than you, don't I?" No argument there.
Donn Landee, an integral part of the Van Halen sound and a rare face when it comes to interviews, had talked to Edward about the contributions Les had made.
"Slowly but surely I've told Ed just a little bit about him," explained Landee. "But I don't even know the half of it. It was not just guitars, not just a musician, not just a producerbut a real visionary in all facets. I was pleased that Ed knew and was aware of him. Their respect for one another came across after just 10 seconds. Edward knows something a lot more important now. He knows how he thinks and how he feels."
Certainly, that feeling was mutual and by the end of the talk the pair acted like old friends. Unfortunately, the conversation could not have lasted longerLes had other plansand I only hope those reading these words derive just a part of the breathlessness which came over me when I recorded them.
Have you two ever met before?
Les Paul: Never
Les, do you know about this guy sitting across from you?
Paul: I know all about him.
Do you listen to his music?
Paul: Of course. How can you not? And enjoy it.
Edward Van Halen: Is that good or bad?
Paul: It's good. We had a mutual friend and he used to bring Eddie's records over to the house, so I kind of heard Eddie. And then my daughter used to live a short distance from where Eddie used to practice with his band out in Arcadia...
Van Halen: Pasadena.
Paul: Pasadena, yeah. Well, anyway my daughter used to live right near there and I said, Who's the guitar player over there? And so I heard Eddie before Eddie knew I was listening to him.
Van Halen: Can I ask you a question?
Van Halen: Did you design all the Les Pauls?
Paul: Yeah, all of them.
Van Halen: Wow. Incredible! That's amazing.
Paul: Thank you.
Van Halen: It's really funny that the people being honored here this evening I don't know one person who's a drummer that hasn't used Ludwig drums; I don't know one person who hasn't owned or played a Les Paul whether it be a Junior or a SG-type or whatever; I don't know one person who hasn't played a Stratocaster or some type of Fender; or one person who hasn't played through a Marshall amp. To me it's just a goddamned honor to be associated with this thing.
Is it really?
Van Halen: Yeah. c'mon, that's what I use. Right, Donn [poses question to Donn Landee his engineer sitting in on the interview).
Landee: All of the above.
Van Halen: I use Les Pauls, Stratocasters, I use Marshall, Al uses Ludwig... this is a hell of a thing for me.
Paul: Well, that's very nice, thank you. And you use them very well.
Van Halen: Thank you. And Donn Landee has filled me in on your pioneering of overdubbing.
Landee: I just scratched the surface.
Paul: It all started just a couple of blocks from here [the Guitar Center store is located in the heart of Hollywood). A couple of blocks from here is where my home was and it's now a parking lot for Chevrolet. That's where my house was until they moved it. And that's where I invented the eight-track, that's where I invented the reverb, the delay, the echo.
Landee: with the disk?
Paul: Using the lathe arid the disk, yeah. And sound-on-sound and the electric guitar and all that. The headless guitar among others. Steinberger.
Van Halen: Steinberger.
Paul: Steinberger. They just copied it. They came down and asked if there would be any friction or any ill feelings if they copied what I had done. I got the guitar out and showed it to em. But I had showed it to Gibson prior to that and Gibson wasn't interested in building one. So I said [to Steinberger] I wish you luck.''
Van Halen: The three-piece suiters can't live without head-I mean heads.
Paul: That's true.
Could you sense when you were developing all these ideas that something major was taking place?
Paul: Oh, yeah, you know when you've got something good. It's like a hit record...
Van Halen: I like that.
Paul: You know when you've got something good.
Van Halen: If it feels good, it is good.
Paul: It is good and in spite of all the opposition, you just go in and you battle because you know you're right and it's a great feeling to know you're right. And that determination.
Van Halen: Or at least be able to prove you're right.
Paul: That's right. And it's so gratifying when it does come true because I know so many people say to me, Les, would you ever believe for a minute that this was going to happen?' I say Sure.
Van Halen: Goddamn right.
Is being here tonight with these people special for you?
Paul: Oh, it's special tome, yeah. To meet Eddie and a lot of my friends. And a lot of my friends here were a part of my reason for inventing and doing these things. They contributed, sure. They were all in my home and in my friendship. One fellow here tonight, Zeke Manors, came over and tried his accordion out in my garage and when he got done playing it, Mary (Ford] and l went to bed and cut off for the night. I got up and made Nola the way it should have been made. Because Zeke had come over to play it and he was playing it like a buzzsaw and I slowed that motor down and took it down to Capitol and in two weeks it was Number One.
A couple of weeks ago I got a call from a guy at the Voice Of America who is now their president but was president of Capitol and he said to me, Are you sitting down, Les?' And I said, Okay, whadd'ya got? And he says, You know who's Number One in China? And I say, I have no idea. And he says, You are. And I said, What in the hell are they playing in China of mine that's Number One? And he says, Nola.' Now of all the things that can happen in this world, there are surprises around the corner all the time. And about the rime you think it's over it's just beginning. You don't dare lay down or smell flowersya just gotta keep moving.
Van Halen: Too much flowers ain't no good.
Paul: No, it ain't no good. If you can't smell em you know it's no good.
Van Halen: I've always kind of had a term: Ya gotta eat shit before you know what a steak tastes like.
Paul: I guess ya gotta.
Van Halen: A strange question? I mean I'm not supposed to be doing the interview but.. . when Leo Fender was doing his thing and you were doing yours, was there ever any kind of competition?
Paul: Not at all, no.
Van Halen: Did you ever collaborate or talk together about things?
Paul: Oh, absolutely. Leo Fender would come right over here two blocks away on Curson Street and so would his engineers. And they saw the Log, they saw the guitars that I had built, they saw me pounding them out on the pavement, they saw me making the Headless Wonder. They saw all this happening.
Van Halen: It's very funny because what I actually use is a combination of what you built and what Leo Fender built. You had the humbucking pickup which was great.
Paul: But not in 52.
Van Halen: Right, but still those soapbar things were still less hum or signal-to-noise ratio than the actual Strat pickups. And then what year was it, 56 or 57, when you came up with the humbucking? I use that in a Strat-style body and to me it's a perfect combination. That's why I was curious if there was any friction between you guys.
Paul: Oh, never any friction. In fact, from 1941 when I designed the guitar that came out as the Les Paul guitar, what happened between 1941 and 1951 was, Gibson kind of tacked the name on me, that broomstick with the pickups on it. And from 1941 until 1951, couldn't convince Gibson to do a damn thing about putting out a Les Paul guitar. And it took Leo Fender to pick up on that idea from the garage in the backyard and perhaps many others. Leo decided to come out with the Fender line and immediately Gibson says, find the character with the broomstick with the pickups on it and so they asked me to design a guitar. And I thank Leo for coming out with his because it woke Gibson up. Because Gibson was asleep and Fender was not asleep. And of course that's the way it goes.
So Fender was actually marketed first?
Paul: Fender was out first but I was way, way, way out front.
Van Halen: It's kind of like the car business Toyota woke up GM...
"Everybody has a certain thing in their head of what they want to do and how to do it and their technique."
Paul: Sure. Sometimes you gotta wake somebody up and sometimes I need some help from my friends. And I consider Leo Fender a very dear friend. There was never any friction. And in fact it was only a few years ago that I introduced the president of Gibson to Leo Fender. They had never met in all the years that they had been competitors. And here I've been a very good friend of both sides. To me I am a Gibson man but that doesn't make any difference because I also know exactly what the Fender is all about.
Van Halen: I'm kind of twice removed because I'm a Kramer man now. I guess I'm trying to bring together what you and Leo have done and make it...
Paul:.. for the kids.
Van Halen: Well, for the kids but who knows? Twenty years from now the guitar that I use, old faithful, may be a dassic type of thing. And there are things I've always liked about Gibsons and things I've always liked about Fender. But neither one kind of did everything that I wanted. It's a combination of the two.
Paul: Today I make my own.
Van Halen: I do, too.
Paul: It has a Gibson name on it, but actually I get in there, but when my brother-in-law was alive he did all the work for me. I would teach him to do that. And then there are two other guys out there who built guitars and electronics for me.
Then the guitars you built for yourself are really not Gibson instruments?
Paul: No, not at all. In fact, when I made my deal with Gibson they got everything but the electronics. And the electronics weren't of interest to the people out there anywaythey wanted high impedance, I wanted low impedance; I wanted a different sound and so forth. And what we did was we made the guitars that the guitar player wanted. And the only problem I ever hadwell not the only one but the only one that sticks out in my mind was to convince the fellows up in the ivory tower that this is what the kid wants. So I have to get to the emperor somehow and convince this turkey that he ought to get his act together. And it's very difficult to tell the president of any outfit or anybody that has any stature that what he should do is go to a music store and for a month wait on the customers. And find out just what the hell it's all about. They don't do that; they sit in that ivory tower and tell you what it's all about.
Van Halen: It's not just me with Kramer, it's me with everything.
Paul: Sure, everybody has that problem. There are so many times that I'll go in battling to win a point and come out with a compromise. I say, Look, you should make your pickup like this.
Van Halen: Don't you get sick of goddamn compromising?
Paul: The world is a compromise and so this is what you have to do.
Van Halen: Excuse me for interrupting but...
Paul: You can do this with your own guitar but I'm talking about out there for everybody else.
Van Halen: Oh, gotcha, gotcha.
Paul: See, they're tooled and they're thinking of millions of dollars to move something a quarter of an inch. That would cost a fortune. And another thing comes into the picture that I can think of which is ridiculous but true. And that is why in God's world would you do it that way and he says, My wife thinks it looks better that way. They're not thinking what it sounds like, they're thinking what it looks like.
Van Halen: Or this kid down the street who's actually a drummer picked it up and didn't like it.
Paul: It could be his son happens to like it or he heard some comment by someone.
Van Halen: And he doesn't even play guitar; he's a drummer or something.
Paul: It's the same problem with a recording company when a guy says, I hate to disagree with you but here's the record you should put out. It took me one year to get How High The Moon to come out because I had so much opposition against it coming out.
Edward, when you became involved with Kramer and went down to their factories, did you suggest changes you thought would help the masses or were these changes things that worked for just you?
Van Halen: Exactly what he was saying. The majority of the world: amplifiers, drums, building cars, everything, the whole ball of wax, all the bullshit, revolved around sound to noise ratio. Meaning how much money you gonna make as opposed to how much you're putting out. Right? And I'd be telling Kramer, Do this, do thatit works for me. I'm part of you and I'm saying I want it this way. And they've had difficulty getting it the way I want because they claim that other people want it a different way.
Paul: Which may be right and may not be right.
Van Halen: Yeah, yeah, but if they want my opinion then I'm giving it to them. And I'm saying, I don't want my name on it if it ain't the way I want it. And that's what I wanted to ask you.
Paul: I had a case where they put out a guitar without my blessings and I made em stop it.
Van Halen: That was my next question.
Paul: And they didn't stop it and it's still the Number One seller [much laughter]. So you can be wrong. They put out an SG, a Les Paul guitar, and it wasn't with my blessings at all. They put the pickup in the wrong place, they made the body too thin, you could pull on the neck and change keys, and a lot of things wrong with it. So I said, Clean that one up a little bit, will ya, before you put my name on it? So they took my name off it and continued to make it and it's their Number One selling solid-body. Sure, it's a cheap guitar and it's not as good sounding as the others and it's a double-cutaway, it's a different thing, and it turned out that I shouldn't have said what I said.
Van Halen: You know what I did once with one of those? It was a Les Paul Junior, a white one, double-cutaway SG body, and I had to do this slide overdub on a song called Dirty Movies on our fourth album. And still, even though it had a double-cutaway, I couldn't get up high enough. So I had to take a saw to it.
Paul: I love it, I love it.
Van Halen: I'm not one to really I'm not very much into cosmetics.
Paul: You don't hold any guitar sacred?
Van Halen: Well, soundwise, yes. See that's what I was going to ask you was when you designed these guitars you designed them for sound or for cosmetics?
Paul: Sound. Design is important to make it hookable but actually I'm concerned.
Van Halen: It's got to look cool, but it better sound good.
Paul: Exactly. That's why we put that finish on it and made it with an oval top so you could have that clean, violin look to the guitar. Which is so distinctive with the Les Paul guitar and makes it look like a Stradivarius and you associate it that way.
Van Halen: Another question? I own about five Les Pauls but two of them are nice ones: a 59 flametop and a 58 which is not really a flametop but it sounds great. And I have a couple of Les Paul Juniors and this and that. Which body design and pickup configuration are you the happiest with?
Paul: For me personally, none of them. And so I don't use any of those.
Van Halen: So you play a Fender [laughs].
Paul: No [amidst much laughter in the room]. I happen to have Leo's third Fender and he gave that to me as a gift. It's not called a Telecaster and it's before the Broadcaster. He had no name on it at the time. Just the name Fender. It's one of his gifts to me when I was on Curson Street here in Hollywood in 47 and 48. As far as I'm concerned what I do is I have Gibson make a Custom for me, the way I want the neck, the way I want the frets, the way I want the pickups slanted and whatever. And exactly how many turns and what magnets to use and on and on and on and on. And then check the guitar and if it isn't right, we make more changes. Why was it that the 59 Les Paul.. .?
Van Halen: Wait a minute. I still wanted to ask something. When you pick up a guitar, which guitar do you pick up?
Paul: The 1975 Deluxe is the one I like the feel of the most. But that just happens to be a bunch of rejects.
Van Halen: Those are the ones I love. Got any extras laying around? I'm serious.
Paul: You really like Deluxes?
Paul: Yeah, sure.
Van Halen: I'm serious. I'm saying, if it's a reject and he [Les Paul] likes it, I know I'll like it.
Paul: Well, not necessarily because everybody has their own feel.
Van Halen: I can guarantee you.
Paul: Everybody has a certain thing in their head of what they want to do and how to do it and their technique. Everything about them calls for certain requirements.
Van Halen: I'm gettin' a feeling from you that you go for the same goddamned fucking thing that I go for. It's not the appearance of the goddamned thingI don't care if it's a flametop or I don't care if it's whatever. The feeling of it and the way it sounds.
Here ends this installment of The Authorized Biography Of Edward Van Halen, by Steven Rosen. Stay tuned for the next installment in Guitar World.
Note: There never was another installment because the book I was working on would never go any further than this initial serialization. And a lot of interviewing on my part. But that's another story
Lester William Polfuss, more popularly known by his mini-moniker Les Paul, is a man apart. Conceivably, he is one of the most important people responsible for the development of the electric guitar, pickups, multi-tracking, echo/delay effects, and so much more. He was the Edison of electric guitar, the DaVinci of overdub, the Michaelangelo of multi-track What makes his contributions so perfectly essential is the fact that he was, himself, a monster of a player, having carved out a musical career in his work with wife/vocalist Mary Ford.
For years he worked as a guitarist, a sideman, banging out tunes for artists providing a paycheck at the end of the night. In the late 1940s, following World War II, his attentions turned to the tools themselves and the world of invention was opened. Even at this early date, forward-looking players were already attaching pickups to their acoustic guitars. But Les had an epiphany: what about creating a solidbody instrument that would result in greater resonance and thus giving the pickup more sound with which to work.
And thus, The Log was born. A rather crude name for what was actually a rather crude instrument: wood and wire. The instrument sported a carved neck and a pickup. Les, in stages, changed the Log's look to include two halves of a hollowbody guitar laid on top and bottom to simulate the appearance of an actual acoustic. Les couldn't give the idea away. In the meantime, another designer named Leo Fender was toying with the same types of configurations.
Les was doing this crucial woodshedding in the heart of Hollywood, in a small stucco bungalow on North Curson Avenue, just a stone's throw away from the famed Sunset Strip. Though hollowbody electrics were made available to the public by the mid-1940s, Les continued to chop and chisel in creating his own characteristic hybrids. The main instrument emerging at this time was a customized Epiphone with f-hole to which the designer added hot rodded hand wound pickups. These were mounted on a 3/8 steel plate bolted to the body and meant to remain isolated from vibrations running through the neck and bridge. This Frankenstein was probably the first guitar to incorporate the sustain qualities ultimately displayed by solidbody instruments.
Les Paul, nee Lester Polfuss, born on June 9, 1923, in Waukesha, Wisconsin, has just about done it all. He designed and built the electric guitar bearing his moniker in 1941, developed the first multi-track machine, conceived and made viable such concepts as echo, phase shifting, and slap back delay, and created a style of guitar playing which has been emulated and stolen by everyone from Jimmy Page to Jeff Beck to Edward Van Halen. You wouldn't be stretching the accolade should you describe him as a modern day Thomas Edison or Leonardo Da Vinci. And at 75, when most people have been retired for years, he is just now venturing back into the recording studio to work on a series of albums for CBS.
The recording studio is one he built at his home in Mahwah, New Jersey; one of the rooms is analog and the other is digital, a step into the future and a direction the musician/composer/engineer has been steering for since he and sidekick Mary Ford first set sound on vinyl back in 1951. These rooms were built to accommodate the likes of Paul McCartney, Jimmy Page, Eddie Van Halen, and other musicians who have been approached to work with Les on this series of four albums CBS has contracted.
Is it surprising Paul is able to attract the likes of these? Not really. They all play his guitars (or have at one time or another), and have certainly used versions, highly updated versions, of his multi-track machine. What is a little surprising is the attitude it's so positive and uplifting. Les has not recorded for over a decade when he did a series of albums with Chet Atkins in 1977 and 1978 (the former, Chester And Lester, earned the pair a Grammy and Guitar Monsters a year later was greeted with accolades as well). He feels the same now as he did then, in fact the same as he did in '51 when he and Mary sold a million copies of "Mockin' Bird Hill."
Quite simply, he loves what he does. Though he left home at age 13 and has walked arm in arm with tragedy he and Mary Ford divorced in 1963 and Paul did suffer a major heart attack some years ago music remains his first love. That adoration of the art comes through in every note he plays and in every word he utters. Nobody can talk about Les Paul better than Les Paul
"To me I am a Gibson man but that doesn't make any difference because I also know exactly what the Fender is all about."
You've never been one to stay idle for too long so tell me what you've been working on recently?
Les Paul: On, my God, I won't even begin to tell you but I will tell you a little bit. I've been putting a recording studio together at my house; one is analog and one is digital. One is the present and one is tomorrow. The digital is a (Rupert) Neve 48-track with Flying Faders and all the latest goodies. The analog studio is 24-track with Studer machines. A lot of people can hear the difference between the analog and the digital, so we give you whatever you want.
It's now almost like the old days when we were in mono; we were just about ready to go out on a good drunk because we'd arrived at he point where we were beating the game so to speak. We were able to make an analog phonograph record in mono that was practically noise-free for that primitive way of gouging something out of a piece of acetate.
I remember giving a lecture on that for the Audio Engineering Society way back when they formed. I was very surprised because there were a lot of bald heads in the audience, nothing but the smartest people in the world, and here they asked a broken down guitar player to get up there. I told them I visualized a phonograph record as an ox with a plow and this farmer is going down row after row gouging out this record. I told them it was a way of storage but it still wasn't right.
This was in 1948 and I started talking about tape. Tape goes scratching along heads and we thought we had a problem with the farmer and the ox. I said both methods were wrong and I said the answer would be to work with light. And lo and behold if it isn't going that way. Today if I were going to give that speech I'd say digital is only here for a short time and fiber optics are going to take over. Things are going so fast today that when somebody dashes down to the store to buy a new piece of gear, they're doing so out of fear. He knows he's got terminal cancer and that piece of gear he bought is going right into the trashcan. They're not even going to fix it.
I understand you're making a series of records with Columbia and that was a reason why you built and up-dated the studio at your home?
Yeah, we've got a plan with the CBS people and this is what we're doing. We're gonna make four albums, all Les Paul albums, and the first one is going to be me playing with my top favorite artists in the rock field. We just now are sending out letters to all the top performers and we'll make our first album. We don't even have a title yet but we do know I'll be playing with Paul McCartney, Billy Joel, Eddie Van Halen, and this guy, and that guy. The public's favorite, top performers. We've sent out a lot of letters and we have spoken to a lot of them already. The same type of album will happen in the country world and that will be the second album. These albums won't necessarily come out one at a time; if we can finish them we'll put out all four at once. Each person will do two songs; so if Paul writes a song, rest assured he's going to write the best song he can write. It's a great, great chance for all of us to walk up on that stage and walk off with a Grammy. So, if Paul writes a song it's up to Les Paul to put his best foot forward and do an excellent job. And of course, we want all the greatest musicians backing us. We're very excited about it and so are the artists we've written the letters to.
This must be a pretty special letter you've written to attract musicians like these?
Yeah, it's cute. It says it gives us a chance to work together and you can write whatever you want or you can pick a tune and we'll do that. And it says drop me a line and if I don't hear from you I'll know you're dead. And then Phil Ramone (producer) comes in on his half of the letter and says, seriously, here's what we're planning to do: we're going to do it at Les' house and he's the godfather of the whole ballgame, the inventor, the creator, the this and that, and so I explain the details. We've faxed some of these out and it's been 100%; they're all more than willing to do it.
I know you haven't recorded for some time or even played live. But you've been playing weekly gigs at Fat Tuesdays (club in New York) and now you're making these records; what's been the impetus behind all this?
Well, I had a heart attack some time ago and the doctor said, I want you to promise me you'll work harder.' I thought the reason I was in there because I worked too hard, too much stress, but he said, Nobody ever died from hard work.' So I took a piece of paper, drew a line down the center, and wrote down what I liked and didn't like about my life. I looked at this sheet and it turned out the things I liked wasn't playing for the Queen of England or floating around Europe on the Queen Elizabeth or playing for Roosevelt or playing for 50,000 or any of these enormous things I had done. I had given up the guitar at that point for about 20 years, I had retired, and when I looked at the paper it turned out the two things I enjoyed was playing the guitar and inventing.
So I went to New York to look at some clubs and everyone turned me down. They asked what I had been doing and I said, I'm gonna go back and play the guitar.' And they asked me what kind of music I played and I said, Damned if I know.' I did get hired for one week but I said I only wanted to play on Mondays and they said they weren't open on Mondays, they weren't interested. I said I'm willing to work for nothing and he said We're interested and we're open on Monday nights.'
What did it feel like playing after so many years?
I had to learn to play all over again. I had arthritis so I could only play with two fingers. And an interesting thing happened; I not only saw the dome heads that were at the AES show (older patrons), but I saw Jimmy Page, Jimmy Smith, Herb Ellis, Eddie Van Halen, Steve Miller, George Benson, and B.B. King. It was a tearjerker to see all these people down there.
Didn't you talk with the Gibson guitar people at he club about working on a new instrument?
Yeah, while I was down there we came up with this idea of a Gibson Light guitar, an extra light guitar. I suggested to them they get hold of the Budweiser people because they make Light beer and they might be interested in doing something with the guitar. Evidently nothing happened with Budweiser so I called Miller. Miller married Marion and me (his current wife), they sponsored the wedding, and so I went to Milwaukee. I ended up doing these little talks promoting Miller and the guitar, going to ballparks and that kind of thing. I didn't even have to play. I don't think Miller really knew how much influence I'd had on guitar players who, like it or not, are beer drinkers.
You mentioned earlier that Paul McCartney is one of the first people you contacted to work on your record; do you think you had any influence on the Beatles?
Well, I'll tell you about that. Obviously they used my multi-track machine idea and they did play the Les Paul. He told me the story that the first night the Beatles ever played in London, they played a couple of songs they'd written for the owner of this club they were going to play at. The owner said, You're going to die with that act.' So Paul and John said, Let's try this one' and they played How High The Moon' and World's Waiting For The Sunrise' and it was a dead copy of Les Paul and Mary Ford. And they got the job.
I was shocked, not only by the Beatles but everyone who was using a multi-track and all the echo and the phase shifting and the solid body guitar and the things the rock guy lives on today. And Paul then told me they didn't want to be clones and so they really started working on their own writing.
"People think I'm crazy for building the studio at the house and playing with all these young bucks."
How do you explain the success of you and Mary Ford? What was it you had to offer that was so special?
We never got caught following ourselves; in other words, if we made Vaya Con Dios' it didn't sound like Goofus' or Caravan.' We didn't do what Guy Lombardo did because he played every song the same. We maintained the sound so in one bar you'd know it was Les Paul and Mary Ford but we used different tempos and different arrangements. The reason I did that was I learned from people like Fred Waring and Bing Crosby.
I was in the Army with Bing Crosby for four years and on his show for five years and I really analyzed things. What I learned from Bing was he never changed the picture, he changed the frame around the picture. Bing always did his ba ba ba boo' (imitates a Crosby vocal line) but what he did do was put the Mills Brothers around him and the next day it was the Les Paul Trio and then Ella Fitzgerald and then Louis Armstrong. I knew this was what Mary and I had to do but with just a guitar and a voice.
Have you learned anything from listening to modern rock and roll?
Well, a little but most of it is like eating a United Airlines dinner when you get off the plane and someone asks what you had for dinner you can't tell them. When you get out in the parking lot after a concert you hear all the kids saying how great it was, but if you ask one of them to sing a song they can't even hum a bar. Because it's loud, you've got a million dBs flying around, and the guys playing it can't even stand it. There is some music out there which is not good and then there is some great music. What's missing out there is the melody and the stronger the beat, the better it is.
Because you hung up the guitar for so long, how would you assess your playing these days?
It's changed tremendously and for the better. Music had an influence on me. If someone asks for How High The Moon,' I play it entirely different from the way I used to play it. But I can play it exactly like I played it then; I'll play it exactly like the record for one chorus and then I'll go into tomorrow.
Are you excited about being part of modern music here in 1990? Do you still get the thrill like you used to?
Absolutely. And I think that's what keeps you young. If you don't go with the flow, you're dead. People think I'm crazy for building the studio at the house and playing with all these young bucks. I'm never going to retire because what would I do? I do what I want to do. I'm happy at the end of the day.
Let's get technical for a minute what is the main guitar you'll be using on that first rock album?
A 1980 Les Paul Heritage and I love it dearly. The pickup I use are my own but that's the only thing different than a standard guitar. These pickups were on the guitar years ago but Gibson discontinued them because they were something people weren't ready for. Now Gibson wants to put them out but I still don't think the public is ready for them. These pickups have a very clean, clear sound, and that's how I would describe my sound. Pure.
Sort of on the trebly, high end side?
You got it; very sterile, very meticulously clean. And with the least amount of distortion possible. What the rock generation, the heavy metal kids, are going for is raunchy, dirty, angry sounds a lot of balls to it. They want power and this massive wall-to-wall sound. So we make those instruments at Gibson; I sit and design them although it's not my goal is life. I don't put them down for that, I say Go for it, fella.' Because he has something to say too. But it's no longer a guitar per se, it's rrrrrhhhhh (imitates distorted sound). But Led Zeppelin did leave their mark. When Jimmy (Page) comes down to Fat Tuesday, he sits in the front row and just shakes his head. He's floored. When I talk to Jimmy, I'll say, You know Robert (Plant) is right down there at the end of the bar. You're going home together on the same plane and why don't you talk about getting your act back together?'
At the same time I say I'm a purist and all that, I do understand rock and where it's going and it works. The same with country. You no longer have Gene Autrey singing Silver Haired Daddy Of Mine.' They call it rockabilly but it is making these changes. I'm for the changes.
I know that Jeff Beck is another guitarist who has been a follower of yours for a long time. Is he someone you might work with on the album?
Sure. Jeff is one of my favorite people. In fact, there are so many out there who are great. Al DiMeola lives near me and we're very close. I rub elbows with everyone. Hank Williams, Jr. is a friend of mine. Everyone is the same to me.
Getting back to guitars for a moment, what is the condition of the market currently? Are there good instruments being built?
It's fantastic; it's way ahead of the piano and everything else. Piano was Number One but now there are synthesizers. Synthesizers are make-believe, heartless. When you really want to get down to the honest to God truth and you want to make someone laugh or cry, it's still the guitar. The guitar is a phenomenal instrument because you can make it talk. With a saxophone, you have something in your mouth so you can't talk and you can only play one note at a time; the piano player has his back turned to the audience; and the drummer is anything but musical. And it goes on and on and on. The guitar is something you can take on the beach, put on the plane, take it to the bedroomand if you have a fight with your wife, it's the first thing you reach for. It's a psychiatrist, a maid, a prostitute, it's everything.
When people look back on your career, what is it you most want to be remembered for?
I'll let them decide that like they decide everything else. Capital asked me what we were going to call our records and I said let the public decide. Even Ampex me what I was going to call the multi-track machine; I was calling it the Octopus' but I said let the people decide. What do I want to be remembered for? Whatever they feel.
Do you look at yourself as a sort of contemporary Thomas Edison?
Oh, I don't know. I know I would have freaked out had we lived during the same time period. I only wish that I had met him. I played on his front lawn and I even met his son Theodor who is 91. I found a very rare piece Edison designed; he rigged up a violin with a horn on it and all it was was the neck of a violin with a chin rest and the strings and bridge and a diaphragm with a horn. It was a phonograph- type setup. Theodor sold it to me and I called up the Historic Society and they said I had a rare piece. So I bought it for $200.
But Edison was a phenomenal man; he was a bird dog. He'd buy a book for one line, underline it, and forget the rest. Perseverance is the most important part of it if you're on the right track.
When you look back at the things you've done, is it kind of daunting to think about all of that? Does it feel like it didn't even come from you?
All the time and you're one of the first ones to know that. Very few people that I've ever been interviewed by have ever asked me that question. And even told me the answer, you said the answer. You asked the question and told the answer. Yes, I look at that kid playing that guitar, that rotten son of a bitch, and I look at him as a total stranger. Some guy that I've never met. I look at films and I see that wise guy up there doing that stuff and I say (lightheartedly), rotten kid.' And then I say, He had his shit together, that guy was cool.' I laugh about it but I never think of myself as the guy who did it. Someone else did it, another guy did it. I'm sort of on another frequency. And yet I can remember every detail of how it happened and at times I want to cry because it was so historical and exciting and creative. But you did hit it because I always think of it as somebody else.
I even look at Mary as someone else and I never look at the bad times, only the good times.
"Things are going so fast today that when somebody dashes down to the store to buy a new piece of gear, they're doing so out of fear."
How would you describe your philosophy of life?
Well, I guess it might be If you can't buy it at Sam Ash, I better build one.' And you just have to be strong to be in this business. I mean, I look at someone like Jimmy Page and he knows he's talented but somehow there's a weakness there. I don't know why someone that talented only looks at his weak points. Mary was that way; Mary never thought she was any good. She was probably the most talented person I ever met. Mary was afraid, and I can see that even with all that talent, Eddie (Van Halen) is afraid. Why do they drink? Why do they take drugs? It's because they're insecure.
I'll never forget, I was at the London Palladium to see bob Hope and after his show we went backstage to say hell-o. I asked him how he was and he said, Here, let me know you.' He pulled up his pants and he had hives. I said, You still get those?' and he said, Yeah, I'm a wreck when I go out on stage.' You can't believe a guy his age could be a wreck over anything. Billie Holliday was one.
And then you get some guy who can't play, can't do anything, and he's got more balls than anybody you've ever seen. He's got no talent and you just hate him. Right?
It must be something in the character of the artist; you never see bank tellers or gas station attendants with ulcers.
Yeah, that's right. You don't see plumbers down or butchers (laughs). They're not up in the middle of the night chopping up pork chops on a jam session. Doctors don't jam, they just play lousy trumpet on their lunch hour. I went to my ear doctor and he had a whole waiting room full of people, everybody bandaged up, and he was playing trumpet bad (much laughter). Bad trumpet, right? A brain surgeon, oh God. Is that okay?
Interview by Steven Rosen
"I'm never going to retire because what would I do? I do what I want to do. I'm happy at the end of the day."