Legendary guitarist and inventor Les Paul passed away today. Considering the enormous influence he had on modern music both as musician and inventor, it’s difficult to summarize it all. CNN notes:
In the 1930s and ’40s, he played with the bandleader Fred Waring and several big band singers, including Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra and the Andrews Sisters, as well as with his own Les Paul Trio. In the early 1950s, he had a handful of huge hits with his then-wife, Mary Ford, such as “How High the Moon” and “Vaya Con Dios.”
His guitar style, heavily influenced by jazzman Django Reinhardt, featured lightning-quick runs and double-time rhythms. In 1948, after being involved in a severe car accident, he asked the doctor to set his arm permanently in a guitar-playing position.
Paul also credited Crosby for teaching him about timing, phrasing and preparation.
Crosby “didn’t say it, he did it — one time only. Unless he blew the lyrics, he did one take.”
Paul never stopped tinkering with electronics, and after Crosby gave him an early audiotape recorder, Paul went to work changing it. It eventually led to multitrack recording; on Paul and Ford’s hits, he plays many of the guitar parts, and Ford harmonizes with herself. Multitrack recording is now the industry standard.
But Paul likely will be best remembered for the Gibson Les Paul, a variation on the solid-body guitar he built in the early 1940s — “The Log” — and offered to the guitar company.
“For 10 years, I was a laugh,” he told CNN in an interview. “[But] kept pounding at them and pounding at them saying hey, here’s where it’s at. Here’s where tomorrow, this is it. You can drown out anybody with it. And you can make all these different sounds that you can’t do with a regular guitar.”
Gibson, spurred by rival Fender, finally took Paul up on his offer and introduced the model in 1952. It has since become the go-to guitar for such performers as Jimmy Page.
Paul is enshrined in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the Grammy Hall of Fame, the Inventors Hall of Fame and the Songwriters Hall of Fame. He is survived by three sons, a daughter, five grandchildren and five great-grandchildren. Until recently he had a standing gig at New York’s Iridium Jazz Club, where he would play with a who’s-who of famed musicians.
He admired the places guitarists and engineers took his inventions, but he said there was nothing to replace good, old-fashioned elbow grease and soul.
Here’s a too-short list of some famous Les Paul guitar players.
Les Paul was precisely the kind of innovator whom the CEI video, “Human Achievement Hour,” is intended to honor.
UPDATE: The strangest headline about Les Paul I’ve seen today.
And two nice tributes from some friends:
Brian Doherty at Reason.
Mark Hemingway at National Review Online.