Smokestack Lightnin' Home Page -- The Blues Profile Page - More Profiles

Click on CD cover to purchase CD from Marvin's Record Shop

Les Paul (born Lester William Polsfuss on June 9, 1915) is an American jazz guitarist and inventor. He is a pioneer in the development of the solid-body electric guitar which "made the sound of rock and roll possible." His many recording innovations include overdubbing, delay effects such as "sound on sound" and tape delay, phasing effects, and multitrack recording.

Biography
He was born in Waukesha, Wisconsin to George and Evelyn Polsfuss. The family name was first simplified by his mother to Polfuss before he took his stage name of Les Paul. He also used the nickname "Red Hot Red".

Paul first became interested in music at the age of eight, when he began playing the harmonica. After an attempt at learning to play the banjo, he began to play the guitar. By 13, Paul was performing semi-professionally as a country-music guitarist. At the age of 17, Paul played with Rube Tronson's Texas Cowboys, and soon after he dropped out of high school to join Wolverton's Radio Band in St. Louis, Missouri on KMOX.

In the 1930s, Paul worked in Chicago in radio, where he performed jazz music. Paul's first two records were released in 1936. One was credited to Rhubarb Red, Paul's hillbilly alter ego, and the other was as an accompanist for blues artist Georgia White.

In January 1948, Paul was injured in 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, and that his arm would remain in whatever position they placed it in permanently. 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 year and a half to recover.

"The Log"
Paul was dissatisfied with the acoustic guitars that were sold in the mid 1930s and began experimenting with a few designs for an electric model on his own. Famously, he created "The Log," which was nothing more than a length of common 4" by 4" lumber with bridge, guitar neck, and pickup attached. For the sake of appearance, 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.

The Les Paul Trio
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 featured 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, Paul's 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.

Les Paul and "the Les Paul"
Paul's innovative guitar, "The Log", built in 1939, was one of the first solid-body electric guitars. (Leo Fender also independently created his own solid-body electric guitar around the same time and Adolph Rickenbacher had marketed a solid-body guitar in the 30s). 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. (Others claimed that Paul ended his endorsement contract with Gibson during his divorce, to avoid having his wife to get his endorsement money.) 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 (although he also played an SG and an ES-335). Paul resumed his relationship with Gibson, and has endorsed the original Les Paul guitar design ever since (though his personal Gibson Les Pauls are much modified by him Paul always uses his own self-wound pickups and customized switching on his guitars). 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.

Multitrack recording innovations
In 1947, Capitol Records released a recording that had begun as an experiment in Paul's garage, entitled "Lover (When You're Near Me)", which featured Paul playing eight different parts on electric guitar, some of them recorded at half-speed, hence "double-fast" when played back at normal speed for the master. ("Brazil", similarly recorded, was the B-side.) This was the first time that multi-tracking had been used in a recording. These recordings were made not with magnetic tape, but with shellac disks. Paul would record a track onto a disk, then record himself playing another part with the first. He built the multi-track recording with overlaid tracks, rather than parallel ones as he did later. There is no record of how many "takes" were needed before he was satisfied with one layer and moved onto the next.

Paul even built his own disc-cutter assembly, based on auto parts. He favored the flywheel from a Cadillac for its weight and flatness. Even in these early days, he used the shellac disk setup to record parts at different speeds and with delay, resulting in his signature sound with echoes and birdsong-like guitar riffs. When he later began using magnetic tape, the major change was that he could take his recording rig on tour with him, even making episodes for his 15-minute radio show in his hotel room.