Les Paul obituary

Legendary guitarist Les Paul has died in New York, aged 94, from complications arising from pneumonia, it was announced yesterday.

Credited with inventing the electric guitar as it is known today, the eight-track tape recorder and numerous recording techniques and effects, Les Paul – it could be argued – is the man responsible for almost all modern music. His signature range of guitars, manufactured and sold by the Nashville-based Gibson Guitar Corporation, is one of the most iconic and popular on the market.

Announcing Paul’s death, Gibson chairman and CEO Henry Juszkiewicz said: “The world has lost a truly innovative and exceptional human being today. I cannot imagine life without Les Paul. He would walk into a room and put a smile on anyone’s face. His musical charm was extraordinary and his techniques unmatched anywhere in the world. We will dedicate ourselves to preserving Les’ legacy to insure that it lives on forever. He touched so many lives throughout his remarkable life and his influence extends around the globe and across every boundary. I have lost a dear, personal friend and mentor, a man who has changed so many of our lives for the better”.

Born Lester William Polsfuss in Waukesha, Wisconsin on 9 Jun 1915, Les Paul began performing publicly at the age of 13, and dropped out of school at 17 to join Sunny Joe Wolverton’s Radio Band in St Louis. His first recordings were made under the name Rhubarb Red, a name given to him by Wolverton, on an acoustic guitar in 1936.

Keen to find a way to play louder, Paul had experimented with electronics and guitar amplification since his youth. But disappointed by the first generation of hollow-bodied electric guitars, which became commercially available in the mid-1930s, he was inspired to build his own solid instrument. Although Rickenbacker had made solid instruments from Bakelite since 1935, he recognised that wood was the material needed for a good tone. With the permission of Epiphone president Epi Stathopoulo, he used the company’s factory in 1941 to build it, affectionately referring to the result as ‘The Log’.

During World War II he was drafted into the army, but permitted to stay in California and play guitar for the Armed Forces Radio Service. During this time he honed his distinctive jazz and swing-inspired style, influenced by Django Reinhardt, and by the end of the war had, with the Les Paul Trio, become quite well known. In 1945, the trio scored their first million-selling record with ‘It’s Been A Long, Long Time’ and were regular performers on Bing Crosby’s popular radio show.

In 1948, Paul was nearly killed in a car crash, which shattered his right arm and elbow. This, of course, also threatened his career as a guitar player, until he convinced doctors to set his badly broken arm in the playing position. While recovering from the accident, Bing Crosby gave him a first generation Ampex tape recorder. Always keen to experiment, he added a fourth head to the recorder to allow multi-track recording, and at the same time also invented tape delay. Using these inventions, along with another recent innovation, close mic-ed vocals, he recorded another hit, ‘How High The Moon’, with his future wife Mary Ford, in 1950.

However, Paul still hadn’t found his perfect guitar. Though The Log did a good job, it was lacking something. Rickenbacher and Fender had also both produced their own solid-body guitars. However, it was Gibson who brought Paul what he had been looking for. Literally. Keen to have him on board, the company’s then president Ted McCarty personally delivered the first of its own solid-body guitars to the guitarist in 1950.

McCarty remembered: “Les played it, and his eyes lighted up”. He signed up to have his name attached to the guitar and the first Gibson Les Paul Gold Top went on sale in 1952, with the Les Paul Custom and Les Paul Junior following in 1954, the Les Paul Special in 1955 and finally, the Les Paul Standard in 1958. The design of the guitars has changed little since then.

Last year, Paul told the Guardian about the effect his efforts had on music, saying: “The electric guitar was laughed at [in 1941]! They called me the character with the broomstick with pick-ups on it. It was terrible. Before we came along the guitar was an apologetic wimp – the weakest, most unimportant guy in the band. As soon as we put a pick-up on him, and a volume control, he became the king”.

Les Paul continued to perform at New York’s Iridium Club every Monday night up until his death, despite crippling arthritis, and still devoted to advancing the possibilities of sound, had been attempting to build the perfect hearing aid.

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