I have been asked this question more than once: “Les Paul invented the Les Paul guitar, didn’t he?” Well…no, he did not. In 1952 Gibson created the Les Paul with his assistance and endorsement. Lester William Polsfuss was an exceptional guitarist who, in his early career, focused mainly on jazz, having been inspired by French guitarist Django Reinhardt and American pianist Art Tatum.
Never legally changing his name, he adopted the stage name Les Paul and went on to become one of the founding fathers of rock and roll. His taste in music was extremely varied, however, and he was quite at home playing country and blues music. In 1949 he married Mary Ford and together they had dozens of hits and sold millions of records. The duo featured Les’s stellar, fast and jazzy guitar work together with Mary’s clear singing, often layered in multi-track recordings to provide self-harmonization.
Les Paul Creative Genius
Les was much more than a guitarist, however. He was an inventor and experimenter who brought the use of delay, phasing, multi-track recording and over-dubbing into common use. His innovative playing still inspires guitarists of all stripes to study and emulate his fretting and phrasing techniques.
One of only a handful of artists to have been given a permanent exhibit in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Les Paul remains the only person inducted into both that institution and the National Inventors Hall of Fame. Perhaps his biggest gift to rock and roll was the “Log”, his first, hand-built, solid-body electric guitar. Starting with a simple piece of 4×4 lumber, Paul attached a sawn-apart Epiphone acoustic guitar body to the sides.
The solid piece of lumber down the middle became the neck and also supported a pickup and bridge and gave Les what he was looking for: added sustain and reduced acoustic feedback. This was by no means the first electric guitar nor was it the first solid-body guitar, but it was the best one yet and he continued to modify and use it in the studio long after the creation of the Gibson Les Paul and other solid-body electrics from manufacturers like Fender.
Long Lived and Well Remembered
Les Paul passed away on August 12th, 2009, at the age of 94. He had been performing brilliantly and vibrantly until just months before succumbing to pneumonia. Les has been award so many honors and inducted into so many “halls of fame” that they cannot be listed here. His accolades have been sung by everyone from Chet Atkins to Slash to Jeff Beck and, as of 2011, he was ranked at number 18 on Rolling Stone magazine’s “100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time”.
Any guitarist who hasn’t listen to Les Paul’s amazing and innovative guitar playing, or who is unaware of his many contributions to music and to recording, would be well advised to do some research and listening. This short but informative YouTube video featuring Les and Mary is a good starting place: