Les Paul named his Ampex tape recorder “The Octopus” and the mixing console “The Monster.” The name “octopus” was inspired by comedian W. C. Fields who was the first person Paul played his multi-tracked guitar experiments to. “He came to my garage to make a little record (in 1946),” Les recalled. “I played him the acetate of ‘Lover’ that I’d done. When he heard it, he said, ‘My boy, you sound like an octopus.'”
“I was striving to create as much of this sound that you can get off of a string. And then to change and alter the sounds that you could make with a guitar otherwise.” – Les Paul.
The easiest and, I think, smartest thing I can do here is to quote Wikipedia:
“Lester William Polsfuss (June 9, 1915 – August 12, 2009), known as Les Paul, was an American jazz, country, and blues guitarist, songwriter, luthier, and inventor. He was one of the pioneers of the solid-body electric guitar, and his techniques served as inspiration for the Gibson Les Paul. He was born in Waukesha, Wisconsin. (With the foresight so often accorded by kids to adults, his teacher told his mother, “Your boy, Lester, will never learn music.”)
Paul taught himself how to play guitar, and while he is mainly known for jazz and popular music, he had an early career in country music. He is credited with many recording innovations. Although he was not the first to use the technique, his early experiments with overdubbing (also known as sound on sound), delay effects such as tape delay, phasing effects and multi-track recording were among the first to attract widespread attention.
His innovative talents extended into his playing style, including licks, trills, chording sequences, fretting techniques and timing, which set him apart from his contemporaries and inspired many guitarists of the present day. He recorded with his wife, the singer and guitarist Mary Ford, in the 1950s and they sold millions of records.”
Here are some (if not most) of Les’ pre-guitar innovations:
- Flipable harmonica holder as used by Bob Dylan
- A crystal radio (which he made in junior high school)
- His own radio station using a “one-tube radio transmitter. He extended the antenna to the roof so he could be heard throughout his neighborhood.”
- A device to emboss his recordings onto aluminum disks. For this, he “assembled a lathe using a flywheel from a discarded Cadillac, several endless belts from his dentist and other parts.”
- Multi-track recording.
- The Les Paulverizer, a black box remote control he attached to his guitar. The box allowed Les to access tape-recorded layers of songs as he and Mary performed the songs on stage.
Les made his first recording using a nail to record on the aluminum disk as he strummed a few chords on the guitar. Lester’s first disk recording machine no longer exists, but he made the one pictured here in California. One of Les’ early lathes is on display at Milwaukee’s Discovery World.
Paul played guitar on a 1945 Bing Crosby hit song called “It’s Been a Long, Long Time,” which was a number-one single in 1945. In 1949, Crosby gave him one of the first Ampex Model 200A reel-to-reel tape recorders. After a recording session, Crosby suggested that Paul build a recording studio so he could produce the sound he wanted. People started to consider his recording techniques as instruments—as important to production as a guitar, bass, or drums.
Capitol Records released “Lover (When You’re Near Me)”, which “had begun as an experiment in the garage with Paul playing eight different parts on electric guitar, some recorded at half-speed, hence ‘double-fast’ when played back at normal speed for the master. “Lover” introduced the world to his New Sound, a world of “reverb, phase shifting, echo, slap back, over-dubbing, tape delay, close miking, sounds sped up and slowed down.”
He recorded a track onto a disk, then recorded himself playing another part with the first. He built the multitrack recording with overlaid tracks rather than parallel ones as he did later. By the time he had a result that satisfied him, he had discarded some five hundred recording disks. This was the first time he used multitracking in a recording, though he had been shopping his multitracking technique unsuccessfully since the 1930s.”
He used a mono tape recorder with just one track across the entire width of quarter-inch tape; thus, the recording was “destructive” in the sense that the original recording was permanently replaced with the new, mixed recording. He eventually enhanced this by using one tape machine to play back the original recording and a second to record the combined track. This preserved the original recording.
(For some nifty audios on Les’ “Sound On Sound,” click here.
Les Paul and Mary Ford
Les had made his way to Chicago and New York, playing with all the big names in jazz. In the summer of 1945, Paul met country-western singer/guitarist Iris Colleen Summers whom he married in 1949.* They performed together as Les Paul and Mary Ford and were quite successful.
In 1951, Ford and Paul earned $500,000 ($5,000,000 in 2019 dollars) and had recorded more top ten hits for the year than Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, and The Andrews Sisters combined. They also tied Patti Page for top-selling recording artist, having sold more than six million records since January 1951. Arguably their most successful and famous songs were “How High the Moon,” and “Vaya Con Dios.”
In January of 1948, Paul shattered his right arm and elbow in a near-fatal automobile accident on an icy Route 66 (!) west of Davenport, Oklahoma. Doctors told him they could not rebuild his elbow. Their other option was amputation. Doctors in Los Angeles set his arm at an angle—just under 90 degrees—that allowed him to cradle and pick the guitar. It took him nearly a year and a half to recover. (Paul had once almost electrocuted himself years before.)
Like so many of their contemporaries, the duo’s career hit the skids when rock and roll came along. While they still had their older fans, young kids had no interest in ditties like “Mockin’ Bird Hill.”
After Les and Mary divorced in 1964 – unable to find anyone even close to replacing her – Les retired in 1965. He was coaxed out of retirement in 1975 by Chet Atkins. Their instrumental album, Chester and Lester won a Grammy. Here they are doing “Caravan,” a tribute of sorts to their hero Django Reinhardt:
The Les Paul guitar
Les’ original guitar was dubbed “The Log”, which was a length of common 4×4 lumber with a bridge, neck, strings, and pickup attached. He attached an Epiphone hollow-body guitar 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.
A variety of these guitars were produced most notably a cherry burst guitar, one of which – a 1959 model – was played by Duane Allman and is now in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Museum. According to Wikipedia, “In 1964, The Rolling Stones’ Keith Richards began using a sunburst, 1959 Les Paul Standard – becoming the first “star-guitarist” to play a Les Paul on the British scene.”
But this guitar really took off in popularity when the Blues Breakers with Eric Clapton album was released in 1966. Clapton’s combination of a 1960 Les Paul sunburst with some of the earliest Marshall amps was, and is, captivating and launched a whole new generation of blues rockers.
The list of guitarists who at one time or another have been associated with a Les Paul is too long to relate here. But everyone from Jimmy Page to Slash to Ace Frehley to Frank Zappa have at one time or another gotten their hands on one of these bad boys. (Yours truly loves Gibson guitars but has never owned or rarely played a Les Paul.)
For about 15 years, right up to his death in 2009, Les played Mondays at a 180-seat jazz venue called the Iridium. Turn around and you’re facing the Ed Sullivan Theater. I know. I saw Les there in, if memory serves, the late ’90’s when David Letterman’s Late Show was housed there. I sat in the back of the place while Les jammed with a couple of his sons. He was a little slow on the draw but hell, I didn’t care. I just sat there in awe.
Les Paul Foundation is here. I was advised that “Les Paul established his foundation that shares his legacy and provides funding to non-profit organizations that provide guitar lessons for youth and military veterans. The Les Paul Foundation also supports museum exhibits about Les Paul and research to find a cure for tinnitus.”
Go watch the Les Paul documentary Chasing Sound right here. Well worth an hour and a half of your time. It would take another whole paragraph to list all of Les Paul’s accomplishments. I strenuously avoid use of the word ‘genius’ because I think it’s overused. I use it here without hesitation.
*The best man and matron of honor were the parents of guitarist Steve Miller, whose family was from Milwaukee. Paul was Miller’s godfather and his first guitar teacher.
Sources. I am heavily indebted to not only Wikipedia but also the Chasing Sound documentary on PBS as well as the Les Paul Inventor page. If I used some of your words it’s because I just couldn’t improve upon them.