Architect of rock and roll Les Paul dies at age of 94

By Calvin Palmer

Les Paul, famed for inventing the solid-body electric guitar and multi-track recording, died today at the age of 94 of complications from pneumonia.

Gibson Guitars said Paul died at White Plains Hospital, New York, with family and friends at his bedside.

“Without Les Paul, we would not have rock and roll as we know it,” said Terry Stewart, president of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum. “His inventions created the infrastructure for the music and his playing style will ripple through generations. He was truly an architect of rock and roll.”

He invented the solid-body electric guitar in 1941, a piece of four-by-four strung with steel strings and called The Log.

In 1952, Gibson Guitars began production on the Les Paul guitar, which became much favored by the likes of Pete Townshend of the Who, Steve Howe of Yes, jazz great Al DiMeola, Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page and Guns N’ Roses’ Slash.

Guitarist Joe Satriani called Paul “the original guitar hero,” saying: “Les Paul set a standard for musicianship and innovation that remains unsurpassed.”

In recent years, even after his illness in early 2006, Paul played Monday nights at New York night spots. Such stars as Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page, Dire Straits’ Mark Knopfler, Bruce Springsteen and Eddie Van Halen came to pay tribute and sit in with him.

Stephen Lawson, editor of Total Guitar magazine, said: “Everyone really respected his guitar playing. Quite often we forget that he was a really great guitarist because he invented the Les Paul guitar and multi-track recording.”

Lawson said that guitar music would have been very different without Paul.

“The Les Paul does have a very recognizable sound and it’s often played because of the way it looks.,” said Lawson.

“One of the most obvious classic Les Paul Guitar solos is Sweet Child of Mine by Guns N’ Roses — that intro has such a distinctive Les Paul sound to it.

“It can go all the way from a mellow beautiful sound that really hits you in your soul all the way to a shredding searing led guitar tone.”

Paul was born Lester William Polfus, in Waukseha, Wis., on June 9, 1915. He began his career as a musician, billing himself as Red Hot Red or Rhubarb Red. He toured with the popular Chicago band Rube Tronson and His Texas Cowboys and led the house band on WJJD radio in Chicago.

In the mid-1930s he joined Fred Waring’s Pennsylvanians and soon moved to New York to form the Les Paul Trio, with Jim Atkins and bassist Ernie Newton.

Meanwhile, he had made his first attempt at audio amplification at age 13 and was playing a working prototype of the electric guitar in 1929.

His work on taping techniques began in the years after World War Two, when Bing Crosby gave him a tape recorder. Drawing on his earlier experimentation with his homemade record-cutting machines, Paul added an additional playback head to the recorder. The result was a delayed effect that became known as tape echo.

Tape echo gave the recording a more “live” feel and enabled the user to simulate different playing environments.

Paul’s next “crazy idea” was to stack together eight mono tape machines and send their outputs to one piece of tape, stacking the recording heads on top of each other. The resulting machine served as the forerunner to today’s multitrack recorders.

In 1954, Paul commissioned Ampex to build the first eight-track tape recorder, later known as “Sel-Sync,” in which a recording head could simultaneously record a new track and play back previous ones.

With Mary Ford, his wife from 1949 to 1962, he earned 36 gold records for hits including Vaya Con Dios and How High the Moon,which both hit No. 1. Many of their songs used overdubbing techniques that Paul had helped develop.

He had met Ford, then known as Colleen Summers, in the 1940s while working as a studio musician in Los Angeles. For seven years in the 1950s, Paul and Ford broadcast a TV show from their home in Mahwah, New Jersey. Ford died in 1977, 15 years after they divorced.

[Based on reports by the Associated Press and BBC News.]

And here’s that intro by Slash, well eventually after about two minutes, and the Gibson Les Paul guitar showing its capabilities.

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2 responses to “Architect of rock and roll Les Paul dies at age of 94

  1. AndyP

    RIP Mr Paul, the world of music owes you a huge debt of gratitude.

    My first guitar was a cheap Les Paul copy from (I think) a Japanese company called Kay. I got it for 65 quid after my NZ cousin spotted it in Leeds. The store owner said “It’s not a brilliant guitar but if you don’t take up playing in the long term at least it will burn well”. Meanwhile my friend had a white 1600 quid Gibson Les Paul. It was a bit Port Vale in appearance for my liking but it sounded beautiful and I was most envious. It was too good for some of the tiny venues it was used in around Leeds. Pearls before swine.

    As for Guns & Roses, my favourite moment involving them came on an edition of Top of The Pops presented by comedians Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer. Their introduction went like this…

    Vic: “Do you like Guns and Roses Bob?
    Bob: “I love ’em Vic”
    Vic: “What about the band?”
    Bob: “Not so keen Vic, not so keen”
    Cue Guns & Roses on stage.

  2. Les Paul has definitely left his mark. Lived a long life, if you ask me…

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