guitar that bears his name – the Gibson Les Paul – is his crowning
achievement. It grew out of his desire, as a musician and inventor,
to create a stringed instrument that could make electronic sound
without distorting. What he came up with, after almost a decade
of work, was a solid bodied instrument – that is, one that didn’t
have the deep, resonant chamber of an acoustic guitar.
he told writer Jim O’Donnell, “What I wanted to do is not have two
things vibrating. I wanted the string to vibrate and nothing else.
I wanted the guitar to sustain longer than an acoustical box and
have different sounds than an acoustical box.” The fact that the
guitar’s body was solid allowed for the sound of a plucked string
sustain, as its vibrating energy was not dissipated in a reverberant
experimented with different designs until he had his non-vibrating
guitar body, which he called “The Log.” Gibson Guitars initially
turned him down, calling his invention “a broomstick with pickups”
and pointing out that this meant guitarists would now have to carry
around two instruments – one electric and one acoustic – which they
viewed as prohibitively inconvenient. As a result, Paul was beaten
to the marketplace by Leo Fender, whose Fender Broadcaster – the
first mass-produced solidbody electric guitar – was introduced in
1948. That same year, however, Paul unveiled overdubbing, a breakthrough
recording technique that would forever change music. Capitol Records
released Paul’s experimental eight-track recordings of “Lover (When
You’re Near Me)” and “Brazil,” which he’d made in his Los Angeles
career as a musician nearly came to an end in 1948, when he suffered
a near-fatal car accident in Oklahoma, skidding off a bridge into
a river during a snowstorm. The guitarist shattered his right arm
and elbow, and he also broke his back, ribs, nose and collarbone.
He managed to salvage his career as a musician by instructing surgeons
to set his arm at an angle that would allow him to cradle and pick
the guitar. It took him a year and a half to recover.
subsequently made his mark as a jazz-pop musician extraordinaire,
recording as a duo with his wife, singer Mary Ford (who was born
Iris Colleen Summers). Their biggest hits included “How High the
Moon” (1951) and “Vaya Con Dios” (1953), both reaching #1. The recordings
of Les Paul and Mary Ford are noteworthy for Paul’s pioneering use
of overdubbing - i.e., layering guitar parts one atop another, a
technique also referred to as multitracking or “sound on sound”
recording. He also speeded up the sound of his guitar. The results
were bright, bubbly and a little otherworldly - just the sort of
music you might expect from an inventor with an ear for the future.
Les Paul introduced the first eight-track tape recorder (designed
by Paul and marketed by Ampex) and, more significantly for the future
of rock and roll, finally saw the release of the gold-top solid
body electric guitar that bears his name. Gibson’s Les Paul Standard
went on to become one of the most popular of all models of electric
guitar. Built and marketed by Gibson, with continuous advances and
refinements from Paul in such areas as low-impedance pickup technology,
the Les Paul is a staple instrument among many of rock’s greatest
guitarists. He introduced the latest model in 2008. According to
Gibson U.S.A., its design amendments include “a new asymmetrical
neck profile that makes it one of the most comfortable and playable
necks ever offered on any guitar.”
list of musicians associated with the Gibson Les Paul is extensive
and includes guitarists who play rock, blues, country and jazz.
Included in that list are Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton, Duane Allman,
Mike Bloomfield, Eddie Van Halen and Jimmy Page. Paul is guitarist
Steve Miller’s godfather. Jimi Hendrix consulted him about the construction
of Electric Lady Studios. In a British periodical, Led Zeppelin’s
Page once wrote of Paul, “He’s the man who started everything. He’s
just a genius.” While sharing a stage with Paul, Eddie Van Halen
once told him, “Without the things you’ve done, I wouldn’t be able
to do half the things I do.”
the ensuing decades Les Paul has remained active on all fronts.
He recorded a Grammy-winning album of instrumental duets with Chet
Atkins, Chester and Lester, in 1977. From the mid-Eighties through
the mid-Nineties, he performed weekly at Fat Tuesday’s, a New York
City jazz club. In 2005, at the age of 90, he released American
Made/World Played, which featured guest spots from several of his
most illustrious rock and roll disciples and won him a pair of Grammys.
performed weekly – at New York’s Iridium Jazz Club – and indulged
his inventor’s curiosity in a basement workshop at home in Mahwah,
New Jersey up until his death on August 12, 2009.
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