Les Paul — Musician, inventor, legend

The final interview

Published in PM October 2009
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People + Opinion : Artists / Engineers / Producers / Programmers
The late Les Paul may be best known for the iconic electric guitar he gave his name to, but he also found time to pioneer multitrack recording and other modern recording techniques, whilst maintaining a career as one of the most revered guitarists of all time.
Jonathan Wingate
Photo: Press Association Images
Until a few weeks before his recent death at the age of 94, Les Paul was still playing every Monday night in New York’s Iridium Jazz Club, where prominent musicians such as Paul McCartney, Jeff Beck and Keith Richards regularly came to pay homage to the great man, and people queued along Broadway to hear this true legend at work. “I think Monday night is the greatest therapy for me. It gives me a reason to get out of bed. Between going to the bathroom and playing on Mondays at the Iridium, at my age, those are the two greatest things that you can look forward to.”
A couple of months before his final public appearance, Les Paul spent four hours talking to PM in what would prove to be his last major interview. From playing with Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra and Django Reinhardt to his long list of inventions and discoveries that changed the music world forever, there’s a lot to talk about, and he seemed only too happy to do just that.
There can’t be many guitar-playing nonagenarians who have been inducted into both the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame and the National Inventors Hall Of Fame, but if you look Les Paul up in their list of 390 inductees, there you’ll see him, between Louis Pasteur, one of the founders of microbiology, and Gerald Pearson, who invented the solar cell. His significance in the history of music itself is incalculable. When you look through his exhaustive list of achievements and discoveries, it’s pretty difficult to dispute the fact that Les Paul is the greatest musical pioneer of the 20th century. Keith Richards perhaps summed up his importance when he said: “We must all own up that without Les Paul, generations of flash little punks like us would be in jail or cleaning toilets.”
Invention
Les Paul in the studio, with his then-wife, Mary Ford.
Les Paul in the studio, with his then-wife, Mary Ford.
Lester Polsfuss (later simplified to Polfuss) had a lifelong love affair with music that began when he took up the harmonica as a young boy, inspired by a ditch digger in his hometown, Waukesha, Wisconsin. After one early performance, a complete stranger handed him a note advising him that people couldn’t hear him properly.
He was soon taking telephones and radios apart so that he could build something to amplify his guitar. He first wedged a Victrola record-player needle under the guitar strings and then tried a telephone handset, and subsequently a coil and magnet to make experimental pickups, plugging the output into a radio receiver for amplification. Paul’s guitar could now be heard loud, if not clear, as he hadn’t quite figured out how to contain the feedback caused by the guitar’s resonant hollow body.
He tried stuffing everything from dirty socks to dishcloths into the body of the guitar, before taking the logical step of abandoning the conventional guitar body altogether. He experimented with attaching a guitar string to a piece of railroad track and found that to be a far more satisfactory platform for an electronically amplified instrument. The concept was developed further over the years, becoming a block of 4 x 4-inch pinewood fixed to the neck of an Epiphone guitar, and eventually two guitar-body ‘wings’ were added to make it look more like a conventional guitar.
As a prominent performer by now, Les Paul had commercial ties with the Gibson guitar company, but he couldn’t get them to take his solid-body idea seriously. New rival Fender brought the first commercially produced solid-body electric guitar to the market in 1948, and it wasn’t until the early ‘50s that Gibson realised that the electric guitar wasn’t just a passing fad that would go away in a couple of years. Playing to their strengths as traditional guitar makers, in contrast to Fender’s simplified industrial manufacturing approach, Gibson took Les Paul’s concept and developed it into a beautiful, but quite conventional-looking instrument with a carved top, like the archtop guitars of that era. Opinions differ greatly as to how much input Les Paul had into the rest of the design, but in 1952, the guitar bearing his signature went into production. Although not a conspicuous commercial success at the time, the Gibson Les Paul would eventually go on to revolutionise rock & roll and become one of the most iconic instruments in modern music, not to mention one of the world’s best-selling electric guitar models. Apart from a significantly updated bridge and the addition of humbucking pickups in 1957, the Les Paul Model, as it was originally named, hasn’t actually changed that much since its launch.
By the mid 1930s, he had taken on a dual persona, doing a country act as Rhubarb Red and playing jazz as Les Paul. He relocated to New York, formed his own jazz trio and began working with bandleader, Fred Waring. In 1944 Paul played alongside Nat ‘King’ Cole in the inaugural Jazz At The Philharmonic concert in Los Angeles, appearing as a last-minute replacement for Cole’s guitarist. He also cut several records with the Les Paul Trio for Decca and backed household names such as the Andrews Sisters and Judy Garland. He soon came to the attention of Bing Crosby, who featured the Les Paul Trio on his NBC radio show and cut a clutch of timeless records with him, most notably ‘It’s Been A Long, Long Time’, which reached number one in 1945.
In between his hectic working schedule, Les Paul somehow found the time to immerse himself in the experiments that would revolutionise recording technology. Singer Bing Crosby had commissioned the American electronics company Ampex to produce the first US-built tape recorder — the Ampex Model 200, which was based on a captured German Wartime prototype. When Crosby gave one of the first machines to Les Paul, he promptly ordered an additional recording head, fitted some extra circuitry and invented sound-on-sound tape multitracking. Paul’s invention was soon developed into the two-track and three-track recorders that became the backbone of the professional recording studio in the 1950s and early 1960s.
In 1947, he signed a deal with Capitol Records and produced a groundbreaking version of ‘Lover (When You’re Near Me)’, recording eight electric guitar parts in the same song in his state-of-the-art home studio. Ever the perfectionist, Paul scrapped more than 500 test discs before he had something he was happy with.
His career was put on hold in 1948 as he recuperated from a major car accident in Oklahoma that left his right arm badly injured — Les Paul, naturally, had his arm set at the right angle to enable him to carry on playing the guitar while his arm was in plaster! In 1949, he married a country singer called Colleen Summers, and together as Les Paul and Mary Ford, the duo released a run of multi-layered, effects-laden pop records including ‘Tiger Rag’ and ‘How High The Moon’, which topped the Billboard singles chart for nine weeks in 1951 and also reached pole position on the R&B chart, something no white act had done before. After a somewhat acrimonious divorce in 1964, the duo split and Paul went into semi-retirement.
In the late ‘70s, he returned to the studio and recorded a couple of country-jazz albums with guitarist Chet Atkins, but by the end of the decade, he had retired from the studio again. In 2005 he became the oldest living artist to release a hit album when he recorded his star-studded, Grammy award-winning comeback, Les Paul & Friends: American Made World Played.
Performing Musician: What do you remember about your first guitar?
Les Paul: “I had to deliver papers to save up the $4 to get it from Sears-Roebuck. It was anything but a proper instrument to learn on, because it was basically a hunk of junk, but it wasn’t junk to me... It meant the world to me. Even if it wasn’t the finest instrument in the land, it was a guitar.
“Before I even had a guitar, I had a harmonica and a player-piano. I tried the saxophone, drums — all kinds of different instruments — but none of them would fit what I was doing. It was a process of elimination.”
PM: Do you come from a musical family?
LP: “My mother was a pianist, and she had very good ears. She had faith in what I did as a youngster, so if I decided to do something that was a little bit experimental, she would be positive about it rather than negative. My father wasn’t musical, he was an alcoholic. He ran a garage, so he never paid much attention to the fact that I was drawn to music. When I dropped into the garage to see my dad, it was mechanics standing around talking about cars, but that interested me too. Every kid likes to sit in a car.”
Inspiration
Modifying or repairing one of the mixing consoles at his Oakland, New Jersey home in 1953.
Modifying or repairing one of the mixing consoles at his Oakland, New Jersey home in 1953.
Photo: Press Association Images
PM: A few years later, you were playing a local show when someone handed you a note suggesting your guitar wasn’t loud enough...
LP: “That was the critical moment. I wish I’d kept that note. I never found out who he was, but it was so important that he observed that and told me. In fact, he told me everything I needed to know. I had my antennae up that day, because not only did I agree with him, but I knew I had to do something about it. As soon as I returned home, I fetched my father’s radio from the garage and made the guitar louder. It left a lot to be desired at first, so it needed a lot of investigation. I had to figure out a way to get rid of the echo and the feedback. Before I decided to use plaster of Paris, I tried just about everything to make the guitar more solid — dishcloths, dirty socks, you name it. It didn’t take me too long to figure it out.”
PM: How would you describe your first prototype solid-body electric guitar?
LP: “I slung a single string on a railroad track and put the receiver next to it, as though I was listening on the telephone. I took a magnet and a coil and put them under the strings and played it through the radio. By manoeuvring the railroad track around, I discovered that it was actually very good. Knowing that the world wouldn’t want to plug into a railroad track — it would have to be made of dense wood — I made this guitar out of a 4 x 4-inch piece of pinewood with a piece of steel for the pickup. I made two to compare, and I heard the drastic difference and it set me on the right track. I was probably about 10 at the time.”
PM: When did you first become interested in recording?
LP: “The recording began as soon as I got the guitar. From the very beginning, the two sides — music and sound reproduction — were always equal. My mother said it was good, but I had no way of knowing how good it sounded because I was playing it, so I decided that the best way forward was to record it. Recordings were just coming in with the Edison idea of gouging it out of a piece of celluloid or acetate, but it all began for me when I realised that I should be hearing what my mother was hearing.
“I was fascinated with the idea of frequency response, distortion, clean sound verses not-clean sound. The telephone, the radio and the phonograph were right there in my backyard in terms of what I needed for the electric guitar, the amplifier and the PA system, but I really had no idea that I would have such an influence on music and on recording technology.”
PM: How did you eventually end up coming up with the idea for multitrack recording?
LP: “That was quite a combination of things, but the player-piano, the Victrola needle, the telephone, the guitar and the harmonica were all there in my living room and set up for me to make my first record. In 1924, I was down in my dad’s garage, and I used the plastic side-curtains of the car as a phonograph record, so now I could hear myself on a crude recording. That led me into a decent microphone, which was superior to the telephone. I was starting to become aware of professional equipment, which was scarce, but it was on the horizon.
“The electric guitar going through the radio was a great idea, and it presented me with all kinds of ways of recording myself singing and playing. While I was doing that, I observed two things: If you slowed the player-piano down, the piano played the song slower. If you slowed a record down, then the pitch also changed. This opened my eyes to digital, analogue and all the important information I needed to advance into the recording world.
“Before tape, I was making multiple recordings on the disc lathe, but the difficulty was that you only had the two lathes, and you had to put one part down and play along with it and then record it on the next lathe, going back and forth between the two. I was already on my way. I already had the Les Paul Trio, and I also had an extra job editing all the speeches by Churchill, Roosevelt and Hitler. That was done with disc, because we didn’t have tape yet.”
Sound on sound
As late as June of this year, Les Paul was still playing every Monday night at New York’s Iridium jazz club.
As late as June of this year, Les Paul was still playing every Monday night at New York’s Iridium jazz club.
Photo: Press Association Images
PM: At what point did tape come into the story?
LP: “I was busy doing that until the War came along, and the tape came in from the Germans. A friend of mine came back from the Signal Corps with all the parts, and he put them together and made the first tape machine in 1946.
“I must have had the tape machine for about an hour in my garage when I said to my wife, ‘Don’t even finish hanging up the laundry, just start up the car and head for Chicago, because that’s where we’re going to perform.’ I was already packing and ready to leave with the first tape machine that could do sound-on-sound. Within an hour, I had already figured out how to do it, and that’s how I came up with the idea of multitracking. I had only drawn the idea out on the back of an envelope, so I hadn’t made a prototype, and my wife just kept saying to me over and over: ‘What if it doesn’t work?’”
PM: Was there ever a doubt in your mind that this would work?
LP: “I knew it would work, and the greatest records that I have made have all been made that way. I always tried to stay away from being stylised. If I made a record, the rule was that the next one would be nothing like the last. Rather than stacking one tape machine on another tape machine, the tracks were layered sound-on-sound, so when you record one and go to two, you erase the first one and you keep doing that.
“The idea was originally turned down by various companies. Ampex had started making tape machines, so I called them and asked if this was a possible way of recording. They just said: ‘Come on up as fast as you can.’ We went up there immediately, laid out exactly what we were going to do and worked out how long it would take to do it. In the end, it took us three years. Ampex made the prototype and we returned it to them twice so they could make the changes we required. A lot of people were very sceptical and cautious, but gradually it became accepted. The bottom line was that we made the first multitrack machine, and we made it work.”
PM: When did you realise that all of these new sonic possibilities were within touching distance?
LP: “I gradually realised that you could go to different places electronically. That’s how I discovered all those things like reverb, delay, phasing and flanging, but no one had put a name to these things. I just had to work out how to get those sounds for myself. Today they do it with effects pedals and boxes... Whatever you want, you’ve got it. There was only so much I could do with the guitar in terms of speeding it up, slowing it down, using effects, phasing, delay... different acoustic sounds.”
PM: How did you begin to discover the effects that you could get from different rooms?
LP: “When I first heard reverb on the radio, this sound impressed me so much that I went into my bathroom and found that it had quite a bit of ambient sound, which was being reflected off the hard surfaces. My bedroom was a dead room, because it had a mattress, carpeting and curtains. I finally found a place where I had just enough echo so that I could record between a live room and a dead room. One had ambience and the other one lacked it. Of course, today, they just do it all with pedals and effect boxes, so you just stomp down on them, and whatever sound you want, you’ve got it.
“The thing that impressed me the most was delay. I spent two years looking for that. Phasing was the other one. I was listening to Tokyo Rose during the war, because they were playing our records. The station was coming out of Japan all the way to California, and it would fade in and out of phase, and that sound was very intriguing to me. It gave me the idea for a guitar sound, so I then had to work out how to get that sound for myself.”
Contemporaries
Les Paul at the Gibson factory in 1954.
Les Paul at the Gibson factory in 1954.
PM: How did you end up working with Bing Crosby?
LP: “I was working in New York with Fred Waring, who had one of the biggest radio shows in America. I’d never met Bing, but I figured that if Bing heard me play he’d hire me because he loved guitars. He’d already had Eddie Lang, who was the best guitar player out there, and I could play just like him. Somehow I had to arrange it so that Bing happened to hear me playing, so we drove down to NBC, and during the lunch break when everyone was leaving, we passed the security guard and went inside. We found an empty studio and set our instruments up with the idea of playing until someone heard us. This guy asked who we were, went away and came back with the Musical Director at NBC. He hired us on the spot.
“I’d worked out that Bing used to sneak off to rehearse his lines or to have a drink in this studio called the Emergency Room, so-called in case there was an air raid. So we’re playing in the studio, the door opens, and sure enough, it’s Bing Crosby. He said: ‘Excuse me. I didn’t know anyone was in here, but do you mind if I listen?’ Of course, that was fine with us. He asked us where we worked, and I said, ‘Right here at NBC.’ ‘Not anymore,’ he said. ‘From next week you’re on The Bing Crosby Show.’ That’s how fast we got the job.”
PM: You had some chutzpah, Les.
LP: “I sure did [laughs]. He walked a few yards down the hallway and I called after him. ‘Hey, Bing... How much?’ He turned around and said, ‘One thou.’ He carried on walking and I called out: ‘Hey, Bing. How much for the other guys?’ I thought that was a funny line.
“I was friends with Bing from the time we met until he called me the night before he passed away. We’d spend our holidays together. I’d go to his home and play for him. He was a very private man, and he was the sort of person that everybody wanted something from, so everybody was on his case all the time. Of course, this often made Bing a bit defensive, so unless you knew him well, you didn’t know Bing at all. I learned very quickly not to take advantage from knowing and working with him.”
PM: If you had to put your finger on it, what would you say makes Crosby’s voice so unique?
LP: “He asked me that very same question. Bing never knew why the people liked him. I had a tough time answering, but I said, ‘I think it’s because of your looseness. You never sound too polished or too rehearsed.’ He had a very lackadaisical sound, and it’s hard to put your finger on why people liked that so much. All I know is that Bing had this incredible magnetism. I would say he was the most unusual artist of all the people I worked with.
“He sang a song once and that was it. Unless someone had goofed up, it was one take every time. I’m sure that’s why the recordings sound so fresh. There was one recording session where he missed a note, and Meredith Willson asked me if I’d talk to Bing about doing another take. I went over and asked him, and he said: ‘Let’s leave it as it is. Let the people know that I’m human.’ He wanted it to come out naturally.”
PM: What do you remember about the first show you played with Crosby and Sinatra?
LP: “It was quite a thing to see Bing and Sinatra meet and perform for the first time, and I was right in there between the two of them. Sinatra went to hit a low note and he missed it. Bing said: ‘Is this what you’re trying to hit, kid?’ Bing hit the note so perfectly, my goodness, he tore the place up.
“Sinatra absolutely idolised Crosby to the extent that he ended up taking all of Bing’s people, all the writers. He took everything he could from Bing and studied everything that Bing did, but he was wise enough to develop his own way of singing. Sinatra had his own style, his own thing. Sinatra took it on from Bing, if you like. I never made records with him, but I did work with Sinatra, mostly broadcasts for the Armed Forces. I was impressed from the first time I heard him playing with Tommy Dorsey around 1940.”
PM: What was Sinatra like as a person?
LP: “He was very much like the rest of us, but he became more guarded as he became more successful and people wanted things from him. We were eating dinner one night with Louis Prima, Keely Smith and the A&R man from Capitol, and I remarked that Mary and I were opening in Florida at the same time as Sinatra. I told our A&R man I’d see him down there, and he said: ‘I’ve got a problem. Sinatra will be opening on the same night as you and I can’t be with both of you at the same time. I’ve got to talk to Sinatra about ‘I’ve Got The World On A String’, because I don’t know what key he sings it in.’
“I said, ‘Well, he’s right over there at the table, so why don’t you go over and ask him yourself?’ He said, ‘I can’t just walk over to his table. I need to make arrangements to talk to him down in Florida.’ I said I’d sort it out, so I walk over to Sinatra and say, ‘How you doing, Frank? What key do you sing ‘I’ve Got The World On A String’ in?’ Sinatra just says, ‘I sing it in C.’ I thanked him and went back to the table and I said: ‘Well, we’ve just solved that problem’.
“When Mary Ford and I played London for the first time, we were met by this huge entourage, and they were throwing a big party for us. While we were in the limousine en route to London, they were telling us in the strongest possible terms that we can’t just go in there and be ourselves, so we had to act like stars, otherwise we’d get bad reviews and we wouldn’t be successful. That ride was difficult, because I had to tell them that it would be very hard to be anything other than ourselves. When we went to the party, we made sure that we acted like we were no better than anyone else there. We’re just plain folks.”
PM: How did Sinatra’s approach differ from Crosby’s?
LP: “Sinatra was entirely different from Bing. Sinatra would do 17 takes of ‘I’ve Got The World On A String’ and say: ‘Take four bars from this take and move this trumpet solo from take 15.’ He’d spend hours and hours on one song. Had Bing wanted to be a perfectionist, he would have made much better records than he did, but those records wouldn’t have had the same feeling. Bing rarely rehearsed. Bing sang like you would sing, so it’s like the way we’re talking now — completely natural, no pretence. I’m talking to you, I’m not reading my words from a book. He was no different on stage or off stage.”
Act normal
“I believe music is the greatest therapy there is.” Photo: Press Association Images
“I believe music is the greatest therapy there is.” Photo: Press Association Images
PM: That’s a difficult trick to pull off, isn’t it?
LP: “That makes it sound easy, but it’s hard to be normal on stage. What do you do to look natural? Most people don’t think about it, but I’ve had to think about it. The natural performer has the smarts to know what to do with his body so that he comes over as normal. When I’m down at the club, I see all kinds of performers, whether it’s Paul McCartney, Keith Richards, whoever. The big question is how good are they at being natural? Someone like Paul McCartney is very good at being normal on stage. He acts the same on stage as off stage. There are others like Jack Benny and Bob Hope who are totally different on a stage.”
PM: You mean they are putting on an act when they get up on stage?
LP: “That is correct. My manager and I were walking down Sunset Boulevard one day, and I noticed that every time he walked by a glass window, he would check out his reflection and his nostrils would open and he’d turn his head in a certain way. That was not the way he normally looked, but the way he wished to look, and this became very interesting to me in terms of my career. The big secret is to be yourself. Normal can be a tough thing to be, although it’s pretty easy if you just do it.
“I remember at one point the record company decided to take the piano away from Nat Cole and have him do what they called stand-up. We were sent up to Boston to improve his stage presence. I immediately realised we needed to do something with his hands, because without the piano, he didn’t know what to do with them. So we got one of those clavichords to put in his hands.”
PM: What was Nat Cole like to play with?
LP: “He was one of the finest people to work with. When he played the piano, he knew when to play the fills because he was a singer. He knew how to get out of his own way. A lot of players today, they sing but they don’t play. Piano players often overplay, but that doesn’t happen to a guy like Nat Cole, who plays and sings.”
PM: How did you meet Django Reinhardt?
LP: “I was at the Paramount Theatre, and the doorman downstairs yelled out: ‘Les, you have a visitor down here, name of Django Reinhardt.’ I thought he was kidding me, so I yelled back, ‘Well, send up Jesus Christ and a case of beer!’ Then in walked Django, who didn’t speak a word of English. I had a couple of guitars in the room, so we just started playing together. We played very similar, which makes it easy for one guitarist to know what the other is doing.
“He was touring with Duke Ellington and I was with Fred Waring, so our paths often crossed. Django would come over and we’d talk mostly about the people we learned from. He learned from an old Spanish gypsy fellow who hung around the fire at the encampments where he spent most of his youth, and he developed his down-stroking style.”
PM: You advised him not to switch from acoustic to electric guitar, didn’t you?
LP: “The biggest mistake Django made was not coming over to the States with his own musicians. In fact, he didn’t even bring a guitar or a pick, because he thought they would have better things here. When he played with Ellington’s band, they did not play the right kind of rhythm for him. He decided to change from acoustic to electric when he got back from the States in 1946. I advised him not to do it. He would have been better off staying with his own unique style than trying to compete with bebop. The truth is, Django didn’t know what he had.”
PM: Were you close?
LP: “I loved him as a person and as a player. We were very good friends, but we actually talked more than we jammed. During the war, he recorded from Europe and I recorded from the States. It’s a shame that we never sat in a recording studio together, it really is.”
PM: Who would you say were the greatest musicians that you ever played with?
LP: “I’d say Django and Art Tatum. I lived with Art. He was the king... He had so much technique. Sometimes I’d see him play and I had to walk out of the club — he was just too much. I couldn’t digest that much goodness. Django was spectacular. He had this incredible, natural fire and a heart of gold. He had this technique, but he played with soul too. I believe Django represented the biggest change in our times in terms of guitar playing.”
PM: At what point did Mary Ford come into the picture?
LP: “I was with Bing up until the time that I formed a new group. We’d started having hit records by then, and I figured it was time to do our thing. I was going to break away from playing jazz and move into more commercial music, so I was looking at vocalists like Rosemary Clooney and Doris Day. The problem was what I would do with these singers when they weren’t singing. I liked Doris Day very much, but I couldn’t picture her on stage playing a tambourine while I’m playing a 15 minute version of ‘Body And Soul’ or ‘Stardust’. They were great singers, but I really needed someone who could sing and play.
“I’d been going with Mary for five years and had never considered working with her. She knew some gospel and cowboy songs, but she was not a jazz singer. In fact, she’d never done any of this kind of singing work. One day a member of the trio didn’t show up, so Mary sang a song. When I saw the crowd reaction, I realised I’d found the gal I’d been looking for.”
Rock & roll
From left to right: Chet Atkins, Dolly Parton, Freddie Fender and Les Paul, at the Grammy Awards in 1977.
From left to right: Chet Atkins, Dolly Parton, Freddie Fender and Les Paul, at the Grammy Awards in 1977.
Photo: Press Association Images
PM: What did you make of rock & roll when it first arrived?
LP: “At the end of the war, bebop came in. The rhythm was no longer there. And then along came the beginning of rock & roll, a very rebellious form of music. At the beginning it was done very crudely and it sounded incorrect. We were used to the vocal being so loud and the instruments being so clear, and everything being in perspective in terms of the arrangement. All this went out of the window when rock & roll came in. The vocal was now buried. If you can’t sing, you’re just the guy we’re looking for [laughs].
“The change was there, and all the jazz musicians fell like flies, and that included people like Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey, Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra. Everyone realised they had to change. The record companies were insisting that this was the new kind of music coming in and everyone had to readjust.”
PM: So the reaction was one of fear?
LP: “Yes it was. It was not good at all, and a lot of us seriously considered getting out of the business altogether. Mary and I didn’t want to stomp on the boards or break all the rules, so like everyone else in the business, we were in trouble. Meanwhile, you had all these singers who were out of tune. It was the sound of rebellion, yes, but little did we know that future Presidents would come out of this rock & roll world. It gave rise to some of the worst music ever made.
“I never went that way, but that’s not to say I couldn’t see some of the good things in rock & roll that are still materialising now in the sense that music is changing constantly and for the better. There’s not a thing that we have done that a guitarist today can’t learn. By comparison, we were in covered wagons fighting the Indians.”
PM: Of all the guitarists who came out of the rock & roll era, which ones impressed you the most?
LP: “They’re all different. Jeff Beck is very good. Keith Richards is OK. He comes to the club, gets up and does his thing. Keith doesn’t blow me away, but then neither does Jimmy Page.”
Working with Gibson
Sharing a stage with BB King and ‘Lucille’, his ES-355-based signature Gibson guitar.
Sharing a stage with BB King and ‘Lucille’, his ES-355-based signature Gibson guitar.
Photo: Press Association Images
PM: When did you first hear the sound of a Gibson guitar?
LP: “There was a fellow who was in a cowboy band that came to my hometown when I was 13. They sneaked me in through the men’s room window. I was watching him play, and he handed me his instrument. It was the first time I’d ever seen a real professional guitar. It was a Gibson L-5, and I remember him saying: ‘This is the finest guitar in the whole world.’ It’s still rated as one of the Stradivariuses of the guitar world. So I had to have one, and I became a Gibson die-hard...I never left them in all those years. I was very loyal to the Gibson people and they always took good care of me.”
PM: Was it difficult to convince people that your solid-body guitar design was worth pursuing?
LP: “All the different manufacturers turned me down because they believed that the electric guitar was strictly a novelty and they could see no future going in that direction. I took that prototype to Gibson for 10 years. It was very hard work to convince them. Finally, in 1952 the boss of the company decided he wanted to hear the Gibson versus my guitar and all the other makes to convince them that this was worth putting on the market. They saw me as this character who had a broomstick with pick-ups on it. The idea was amusing to them.
“It was the last instrument to be heard. Before the guitar went electric, how many people even heard it in the middle of an orchestra? When the guitar went electric, it stopped being a meek and mild, apologetic underdog of an instrument and became the king of the road. I fell in love with the guitar and I believed that it was destined to become the number one instrument. When I was 13 and working in that laboratory of mine, the piano was the number one instrument, but with a piano, you’ve got your back to the audience and you can’t drag it around with you. There’s a million things you can’t do with a piano that you can do with the guitar.
“I wanted people to think of their guitar as their great pal. I’ve talked to a lot of people from all walks of life who can’t wait to get out of the office, sit in their kitchen and just play their guitar.
“I knew that the guitar had to become a lovable instrument. My wife always said: ‘I’m second and the guitar is first.’ I honestly believe that to be true. I wouldn’t say that a guitar is a greater object of desire than a woman, but I don’t see too many people getting divorced from their guitars or falling out of love with them. For me, a love for music is unexplainable. Someone who only knows three chords can be as much in love with his guitar as a man who can play all over.”
PM: Are you surprised by the enduring appeal of the Les Paul?
LP: “I was surprised a long time ago, but not today. It’s a very fine guitar, not only because we didn’t want to sell them like ironing boards, but we wanted them to be something you could hug and hold... like a woman.
“When someone walks into the club with a certain guitar, you say, ‘Boy, ain’t that beautiful,’ but then you see a different guitar and that might be beautiful in another way. Now, of course, they’re going the opposite way and they put out a brand new guitar that’s got nicks in it, so they actually make them look worn. They even take the knobs and soak them in tea to stain them. They want them to look 30 years old. It doesn’t make sense at all.”
PM: How close did Gibson get to realising your original vision for the Les Paul?
LP: “They realised it, absolutely. In terms of the original, they did everything they could. They were always co-operative. Right now they’re asking me to design four more, but after all these years, there’s only so far you can go, unless we can think of something completely new and different. I’m not the one to do it.”
PM: Where do you think the future of the electric guitar lies?
LP: “I couldn’t say if the guitar will suddenly be out and something else will replace it. People used to tell me that the synth was in and the guitar would eventually be gone. I told them that the synth was like eating a United Airlines dinner.”
PM: How do you think the modern Les Pauls compare with the originals?
LP: “The mystery to me is where someone from the Rolling Stones is playing a 1959 Les Paul, people think the guitar becomes better, and suddenly the price goes way up. This is all in the eyes of the beholder. The truth is that you can buy modern guitars that are just as good for a fraction of the price. Someone asked me recently how to go about buying a guitar and an amp. I told them to go in blindfolded. I don’t want to know who makes it and what it looks like. I just want to know that it gives me the sound I want. After I find that, they can tell me the price and the name on it.”
PM: Do you often modify your own performance guitars?
LP: “I’m doing that constantly. When I’m done talking to you, I’ll be working on another one, improving the sound. I’m always tinkering. The guitar I play is a home-made Gibson, a modified one from around 1950. I’m accustomed to this particular guitar and I’ll stick with it until I find a better one. No two guitars are alike, but you’ll always find a favourite. Every person has an idea of how something should sound, and I’m not here to change their minds, because what they like may not be what I like. It’s not for me to figure out what Jeff Beck hears, because that’s his thing and he knows when he’s happy.
“When someone plays a guitar, he’s doing two things — playing the guitar and playing the amp — and the amp is telling you what you’ve played. I’m designing amps for Gibson right now. Gibson is finally coming round to thinking about what can be done in the amplifier business. Somewhere way back, someone at Gibson put about a rumour that they were never meant to make amplifiers, so consequently they avoided moving into that area. I like to use an amp that I made myself, but when I’m at the club, I don’t use any amp — I just plug straight into the house system and that’s it.”
Playing from the heart
PM: How important is it to play from the heart?
LP: “With that comment, you happen to have struck on one of the things that I think about the most. It’s not uncommon to see people crying when I play. That’s been going on since I started playing, but it happens more often now. Technically you may not be able to play what you used to play, but as you grow older, you become wiser. Instead of playing a lot of notes, you play fewer notes but they mean more. It’s something that comes from the heart.
“After less than a minute, you know what kind of an audience you’re playing for. You read it and you understand it. You know what to do and what not to do. At any given moment you know when the Indians are getting restless, so you know whether to go this way or that way. Musically I can get through any language. When I’m connecting with the audience, it’s like kerosene on a fire.”
PM: It’s all about listening, isn’t it?
LP: “Now you’re talking about something that I’m deep into. It’s exactly that. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve had to tell my group: one guy is the picture and the rest of us are the frame around the picture. We are there to help enhance it in every way we can to make that person sound like the greatest they have ever sounded.
“The next time I go down the club, I know that if I play some pretty song like ‘Over The Rainbow’, I’m not there to be an exhibitionist or to show off, I’m there to show that the song belongs there. The guy who wrote it wrote a beautiful song, so unless you can play something better than what he originally wrote, then just play what he wrote.”
PM: What would you say have been the proudest moments of your career?
LP: “It would have to be playing with Fred Waring & The Pennsylvanians for Franklin D Roosevelt at the White House in 1939, because he was the most important President in my lifetime. As I was standing there, he says to me, ‘Hey kid, you’re pretty good. Would you mind coming downstairs and playing for me privately at a party?’ So I played for the President and his family, and the President got up and sang. The same thing happened many times with Eisenhower and several other Presidents.
“The other one would probably be the inaugural Jazz At The Philharmonic in 1944. Nat came into the backyard and said to me: ‘We’ve got some friction going on here with Oscar Moore. He’s locked up somewhere with some mad chick in an attic and we can’t get hold of him, so would you mind doing this?’ So I did the show with Nat completely unrehearsed. Well, that chase on the blues was one of the moments of my life. Everyone threw their hats in the air and went crazy.”
The Les Paul legacy
A rare ‘first-issue’ gold-top Les Paul — note the strings passing under the trapeze tailpiece/bridge, rather than over it, due to the incorrect neck angle on these models.
A rare ‘first-issue’ gold-top Les Paul — note the strings passing under the trapeze tailpiece/bridge, rather than over it, due to the incorrect neck angle on these models.
PM: Is the idea of leaving a legacy behind something that is important to you?
LP: “The idea of a legacy is not really important to me. I didn’t do it to become famous, although I’m glad that it all happened. It’s good to pass something on. If I’m doing a show and I see an eight-year-old who wants to get up and play, I do anything I can to encourage that kid to believe he’ll get to where I am.
“People say how much they respect me, but all I did was do what I did to get the results. Strictly speaking, I didn’t invent anything. If you look closely, you’ll find very few patents, because I didn’t do it with the idea of making money. They only came along because there was a need for them. The guitar is not loud enough, so I want to make it louder.”
PM: Would you say the key to your longevity is your passion for music?
LP: “That is correct. Foremost in my mind is music, all the time. Whether it’s what the music is going to be played through, a method of recording, whether it’s digital or analogue, I’m always thinking about music. Last night, for instance, I was in deep discussion about analogue and digital and where it’s all going. We spent hours just talking about that. I believe music is the greatest therapy there is. If you love your music and you’re willing to work hard, it will keep you young, if not younger [laughs].”
PM: Do you still get a buzz each time you pick up a guitar?
LP: “Sure, that remains the same. The enthusiasm is still there, but I can’t play what I used to play, because I have to deal with arthritis. I’m plagued with it. It’s a handicap to not have all my fingers able to play, so I have to play another way because the fingers aren’t the same. I’ll find a better way of playing it or a different way of playing it, or I’ll find something that’s been in front of me for years and I just never knew it. There’s always a new surprise. I learn something new every darned time I pick up my guitar.”  0

Chasing Sound
Les Paul never lost his passion for inventing and modifying instruments and recording technology.
Les Paul never lost his passion for inventing and modifying instruments and recording technology.
Chasing Sound! The Les Paul Story is released on DVD by Eagle Rock Entertainment.

Published in PM October 2009