In the beginning of 1957, the Ampex Corporation delivered the world’s very first 8-track tape recorder to guitarist Les Paul’s home in Mahwah, New Jersey. Comedian W.C. Fields called it ‘The Octopus,’ because it made Les Paul sound like, well, eight musicians.
Les Paul himself could also be called ‘The Octopus,’ not only for his work with the 8-track, but because he had his hands in countless projects and innovations, many of which changed the worlds of music and of recording technology.
Les Paul gave his name to and helped with the development of the iconic Gibson Les Paul guitar, and also constructed one of the very first solid-body guitars, nicknamed The Log. He also was a successful recording artist, who enjoyed a string of hit singles in the forties and fifties, and became a house-hold-name radio and television personality in the fifties.
Les Paul was a virtuoso and pioneering electric guitar player, and arguably the first shredder, and he did not only contribute to the early development of the electric guitar, he also developed the first headless guitar, and the first on-stage playback device.
Les Paul also was the first to build a home studio, and he pioneered several new recording techniques. In so doing, Les Paul gave birth to the concept of the artist as a record producer.
As a result of his many ground-breaking activities, Les Paul has been called ‘the quintessential American Creative Genius,’ ‘the most important person in the American music industry,’ and the ‘Father of Modern Music.’
Les Paul was born Lester William Polsfuss in Waukesha, Wisconsin on June 9th, 1915. In his early teens, Lester was given a Troubadour guitar from a Sears Roebuck and Co mail order catalogue, and he quickly became good enough on it to perform in local bars and clubs, playing country music. He adopted the stage name Red Hot Red, because of his red hair.
In addition to his considerable musical talents, the young Polsfuss’s penchant for invention became apparent very early on. He designed a harmonica holder using a coat hanger that allowed him to play guitar and harmonica at the same time. A harmonica holder based on his design is still manufactured today.
Frustrated with the low volume of his guitar when performing at Beekman’s Bar-B-Q, he fitted a phonograph needle to his guitar and connected that to a radio speaker in an effort to amplify his guitar.
And in his father’s garage, Lester built his own disc-cutting recording machine using a flywheel from a Cadillac, dental belts used by dentists to drive their equipment, and utensils lying around the house.
Clearly, Lester Polsfuss was already ahead of his time by his late teens, and working with inventions and concepts that would eventually change the world of music. When he was nineteen, Polsfuss moved to Chicago, where he continued to perform country and hillbilly music. He adopted the artist name Rhubarb Red.
Around this time, Polsfuss began participating in jam sessions with well-known jazz artists, using the moniker Les Paul. He also started playing the electric guitar. Several jazz players had a considerable impact on him, including pianist Art Tatum, and guitarist Django Reinhardt.
By 1939, Les Paul’s star had risen to the point that was invited to join the well-known dance band Waring’s Pennsylvanians, with whom he was the first electric guitarist to perform on a national radio show.
Les Paul’s profile was by now so high that he appeared in a Gibson catalogue showcasing the Super 400 jazz guitar. By the early 1940s Paul was also recording with stars like Nat King Cole, Rudy Vallee and Kate Smith.
By this time, the lack of volume of the guitar had been bothering
guitarists for a couple of decades. Several guitar companies and players, began fitting piezo pickups to their acoustic instruments, but feedback remained a problem. It did not take long for people to realize that there was an obvious solution, and three solid body electric guitars were brought on the market in the 1930s.
In addition, various private inventors were designing and building solid body electric guitars. Les Paul was one of them. In 1941 he designed and built a solid body guitar using a 4 by 4 four foot long piece of wood. He bolted a guitar neck and a pick-up on it, and nicknamed his prototype ‘The Log.’
Les Paul went over to Gibson to try to convince them to build a guitar based on his design, but they simply laughed at him, and for nearly 10 years he was referred to at Gibson as ‘the character with the broomstick with the pickups on it.’
However, Les Paul was to have the last laugh, because in 1950 Gibson approached him about a new solid-body electric guitar that the company was designing, in response to the commercial success of Fender’s Esquire and Broadcaster guitars, the forerunners of the famous Telecaster.
Gibson’s new model was designed by factory manager John Huis and company president Ted McCarthy. It seems likely that they were influenced by three prototype guitars, in the shape of Les Paul’s The Log, the solid-body guitar that Paul Bigsby made in 1948 for Merle Travis, and the APP by O.W. Appleton. The Gibson Les Paul certainly bears a remarkable resemblance to the APP. The Gibson Les Paul came on the market in 1952, and, as we know, changed the world of music forever.
Winding back a few years again, Les Paul moved to Los Angeles in 1943, and was subsequently drafted into the US Army. He performed with Bing Crosby and The Andrew Sisters during this time, two house-hold name artists who would have a profound influence on his career.
Les Paul’s first hits were a number one with Crosby and the song “It’s Been A Long, Long Time,” in 1945, and a number four with The Andrew Sisters with “Rumors Are Flying,” in 1946.
Crosby encouraged Les Paul to start his own studio, which he did in his LA garage. He spent two years there creating his own sound, which he called ‘The New Sound.’ Les Paul worked with a very early version of sound-on-sound, using two recording lathes with acetate discs, and bouncing back and forth between them as he added a new part with each bounce.
Les Paul also doubled and halved the speed of the disc recorders, thereby creating sounds that had never been heard before. Les Paul called each new overdubbed recording a ‘multiple,’ and he reportedly went through 500 acetate discs before he was satisfied with the results.
Les Paul pitched the one-man-band instrumentals that he came up with in his studio to Capitol Records, and in 1948, the company released “Lover,” “Brazil,” and ‘What Is This Thing Called Love?’, all under The New Sound banner.
Les Paul had met country singer Iris Colleen Summers in 1946, and the two hit it off musically and romantically. In 1949 they performed together, with Summers taking on the artist name Mary Ford.
Also in 1949, Bing Crosby gave Les Paul one of the first Ampex tape recorders, the Model 200A. The Ampex tape recorders quicky revolutionized the radio and recording industries because they sounded far superior and were much easier to use than the disk cutting lathes. The 200A also changed Paul’s approach in his LA garage studio.
Les Paul quickly realized that the Ampex tape machine was ideal for his sound-on-sound process, by adding an additional record head, allowing him to play back and record at the same time. When working with Ford, he used the sound-on-sound process extensively, overdubbing his guitars as well as his wife’s singing. When creating multiple layers of Ford’s voice, they were inspired by the sound of The Andrew Sisters.
Ford and Paul had 16 top ten hits from 1950 to 1954, including “How High The Moon,” which was a number one for nine weeks and sold six million copies, and “Vaya Con Dios,” which spent 11 weeks on number one. The duo’s immense popularity was further enhanced by the radio show ‘The Les Paul Show,’ which later moved to television, where it was called ‘The Les Paul & Mary Ford Show’ and also ‘Les Paul and Mary Ford At Home.’
The early fifties recordings by Les Paul and Ford would have stunned audiences, as they featured an entirely new sound unlike anything heard until then. It’d be hard to overstate the novelty and impact of their sound. Ford’s massed vocal overdubs sounded otherworldly, and were a tour the force in themselves, and they laid the foundations for similar vocal overdubbing efforts by The Beach Boys and The Beatles many years later.
Les Paul’s high-energy guitar playing and guitar overdubs sounded arguably even more spectacular. His guitar style had by now advanced to an astonishing degree of virtuosity. In modern terms, he was the first shredder, and he had developed several guitar techniques to make this possible, including extensive open-string hammer-ons and pull-offs, new chord shapes that allowed for quick movement across the fretboard, and even sweep picking.
As if this was not enough, Les Paul enhanced everything with equally spectacular-sounding guitar overdubs, that in the fifties must have sounded like coming from outer space.
During the early fifties Les Paul experimented with more innovations that have since become mainstream. He used close miking, creating a more intimate sound with extra low-end emphasis, which allowed Ford to sing in a different way than during public performances.
Because the sound-on-sound process with the mono Ampex 200A recorder was destructive, Les Paul ordered two Ampex 300 tape recorders, so he could bounce between them, adding a new part each time, in a process that was similar to that of the two lathe disc recorders and that allowed him to redo the last take if anything went wrong.
Having two tape recorders led Les Paul to discovering flanging and phasing when he was messing with the varispeed on the tape recorders, and also to discovering the delay effect. He pioneered the use of these effects in music. Other artists started coming to his LA garage studio to work with him, enhancing his artist/producer reputation.
On top, in 1955 Les Paul was involved in the design of the famous eight concrete, underground echo chambers at Capitol Records recording studios in Hollywood.
And in 1956, Les Paul for the first time publicly used his Les Paulveriser. It was named after a fictional device that he joked about during his TV shows, that supposedly could multiply the sounds of his wife’s voice and his guitar.
Paul decided to make the idea work in practice, and devised a remote control for off-stage equipment. The black box and was fitted to his guitar, and allowed him to trigger pre-recorded tracks so he could re-create the sound of their recordings during live performances.
The most talked-about of all new technical studio inventions at the time the famous Ampex 8-track tape recorder that was delivered to Les Paul’s house in the beginning of 1957. The 8-track was conceived of by the manager of the Special Products Section at Ampex, engineer Ross Snyder, who had hit on a technical idea that he called Selective Synchronisation, or Sel-Sync, that made independent recording and playback on 8 tracks possible.
After the 8-track was installed in Les Paul’s studio, he also had an 8-channel desk custom made for him by a young electronics engineer called Rein Narma. The desk was nicknamed The Monster, and Les Paul’s fifties home studio ended up looking very much like a prototype studios from the mid-sixties. He was again way ahead his time.
Les Paul’s 8-track machine is today considered “a landmark in recording history.” However, Les Paul never had a top ten hit again after the 8-track recorder and desk were installed in his studio. This is often put down to the fact that by the late 1950s, rock ‘n roll was coming in, and in stark contrast to his visionary efforts on the studio front, Les Paul’s music was by now regarded as distinctly old-fashioned and uncool.
The great man himself mused, dryly and aptly, “technology doesn’t make music.” Les Paul’s limited commercial success with the 8-track may have been a contributory reason why the format would not become commonplace in commercial recording studios for another ten years.
Ford and Paul received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame for Recording in the early sixties, but the two separated in 1964. The guitarist and inventor semi-retired soon afterwards. Les Paul did produce one album in 1968 called Les Paul Now!, on which he re-recorded many of his greatest hits with the help of the guitarist George Barnes and extensive overdubbing.
In 1976, Les Paul made a comeback when he recorded an album with Chet Atkins called Chester and Lester. The album was recorded mostly live in the studio, with few overdubs. It was commercially successful and earned the two guitarists a Grammy Award for Best Country Instrumental Performance. They repeated the exercise in 1978 with Guitar Monsters, which was nominated for the same Grammy Award.
These were the last new recordings of importance that Les Paul released, apart from the 2005 album credited to Les Paul & Friends, American Made World Played, which features an amazing amount of guest guitar players, all influenced by him: Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton, Rick Derringer, Peter Frampton, Billy Gibbons, Buddy Guy, Steve Miller, Joe Perry, Keith Richards, Richie Sambora, Neal Schon, Kenny Wayne Shepherd, and Steve Lukather.
Sting, Mick Hucknall of Simply Red, Joss Stone and Edgar Winter are present on vocals. The album won Les Paul, who was 90 years old at the time, another two Grammy Awards, for Rock Instrumental Performance for the track “Caravan,” and Pop Instrumental Performance for the track “69 Freedom Special.”
The last three decades of Les Paul’s life were very much a prolonged lap of honor, during which he was feted all over the world, not least with dozens of awards. Mary Ford and Les Paul were inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1978. In 1983, Les Paul received a Grammy Award for Lifetime Achievement, and in 1988 he was inducted in the Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame by Jeff Beck, who admitted, “I’ve copied more licks from Les Paul than I’d like to admit.”
Noteworthy other awards are the Technical Grammy in 2001, and his induction in the Inventors Hall Of Fame and the Songwriters Hall of Fame, both in 2005.
Countless musicians appeared on stage with him during his last decades, including Steve Vai, Steve Howe, Brain May, Eddie van Halen, Steve Miller, B.B. King, David Gilmour, Eric Johnson, Joe Walsh, Larry Carlton, Jeff Healey, ZZ Top, Dicky Betts, Joe Satriani, Paul McCartney, Slash, Zakk Wylde, Tommy Emmanuel, Jimmy Page, Danny Gatton, and many many more.
Les Paul passed away on August 12th in 2009. His achievements as a guitarist were recognized after his passing in by Time magazine, which called him ‘one of the top ten electric guitarists of all time,’ and Rolling Stone listed him as number eighteen in their ‘greatest guitarists of all-time list’ in 2011.
© Paul Tingen
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