Les Paul: Still Chasing Sound
Profile/Copyright © 2005, 2007 by Jim O’Donnell
The first thing to substantiate about Les Paul is that there really is one. Young people think he's a sociology report. Riddled middle-agers think he's a guitar. Older folks—aware that he was revolutionizing guitar-playing before Eric Clapton had his first pair of long pants—think he's a legend. All of them probably think he has guitar strings for arteries.
Nowadays, to confuse matters further, the 90-year-old guitar-picker has stepped into the stratospheric category known as Rock Star. On his recent CD release, American Made/World Played, his sidemen include the likes of Jeff Beck, Joe Perry and Buddy Guy.
The CD puts a big bold exclamation point on Mr. Paul becoming what was called a “permanent installation” exhibit at the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame last year. He had been inducted into the hall in 1988.
What does Les Paul, person, think about all the fame fuss that has surrounded his life?
“I don't think I'm very successful,” he drawls. “I just constantly try to improve, knowing that I've improved very little since I was fifteen, sixteen years old. You don't improve much after that."
The utter absence of hauteur is genuine and, in an age of megahype, downright unnerving. Fact is, besides his million-selling records, Grammy Awards, and permanently installed Rock Hall of Fame status, Les Paul is, truly, in a class by himself. When Jimi Hendrix was planning his Electric Lady Studios in the late 60s, he went to Les Paul for advice.
Asked some years ago to review a Les Paul album for the English newspaper Melody Maker, former Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page put it this way: "He's the man who started everything. He's just a genius."
It's a genius that has delivered to pop music a mad-scientist's bag of tricks like phase shifting, overdubbing, reverb effects, sound-on-sound, close-miking, echo and delay. The Les Paul guitar, in and of itself, is a fine-fragranced, long-stemmed rose in the garden of modern musical instruments.
Guitarist Eddie Van Halen once stood on a stage with Les Paul and said to him: "Without the things you have done, I wouldn't be able to do half the things I do."
A rock guitarist who built his instrument entirely from scratch is Brian May, formerly of Queen. When I asked Queen Guitar Brian about King Guitar Les, he said: “It’s incredible how far into the technology he got all at once.”
Mr. Paul also happens to be the guy who invented multi-track recording and the solidbody electric guitar. For those two contributions alone, one could venture to say that the history of popular music without Les Paul would be as diminished as the history of the Beatles less Paul.
If he were Mrs. Paul, his onions would be fried, and he'd be the mother of all electric guitar wars, since so many rock guitarists choose his instrument as their weapon of choice. Instead, he's the father because in 1941 in New York City Mr. Paul came up with the first solidbody guitar.
Since the instrument fundamentally transformed how pop music was played and heard, its development was the most important achievement in a lifetime of important achievements.
In the lifetime of 1941 America, people's minds were on two growing wars: one in Europe and one in Asia. The Yankees found themselves playing the Dodgers in an all-New-York World Series; something called "automatic transmission" found its way into automobiles; and in Duluth, Minnesota, a baby boy named Robert Allen Zimmerman (later to go by the name of Bob Dylan) found himself into the world.
A quarter got you into the movies or six tunes on a kaleidoscopic Wurlitzer jukebox. It was the height of the Big Band Era and ballroom dancing. Top tunes of the day were Glenn Miller's "Chattanooga Choo-Choo," Sammy Kaye's "Daddy," and the Inkspots' "I Don't Want to Set the World on Fire."
Setting the world of 1941-U.S.A. on fire was an early-stage communications metamorphosis in the cocoon of the electric wire. Across the increasingly wired-up nation, natural sound was beginning to be sublimated by amplified sound. That is to say, there were people beginning to think more in sound waves than sound.
One of those who sensed in electricity the earmarks of a new artistic medium was Lester William Polsfuss, born in Waukesha, Wisconsin, June 9, 1915, five years after the death of Mark Twain. Although born near the beginning of the Twentieth Century, Mr. Paul's instincts belonged to the end of it—to a far more voltaic, medium-is-the-message era.
A natural musician, he was as fascinated by the flow of electricity as by the flow of music. He would prove to be an American innovator who had an artistic feel for electric current that was as ingrained as Twain's artistic feel for the Mississippi's current.
In the early 30s, the up-and-coming professional guitarist began burning his energies on this central vision: a guitar that would produce undistorted electronic sounds.
"What I wanted to do," Mr. Paul told me, "is not have two things vibrating. I wanted the string to vibrate and nothing else. I wanted the guitar to sustain longer than an acoustical box and have different sounds than an acoustical box."
The concept, of course, fired a cannon shot across the bow of the aesthetic canon that guitars resonate. But it was Mr. Paul's precocious perception to see that the presence of electric current changed the entire context of the source.
The requirements were different. The acoustic guitar used its hollowness to get vibrations. With electricity, the vibrations hurt more than helped. The sound would be purer if the body was non-vibrating, stable, solid. The guitar was not to be the sound producer, after all, but the conveyer.
With the vitality of the pioneer and the certitude of the visionary, Mr. Paul hunkered down for years fashioning a guitar geared for a galvanic generation. He handled electricity as if it were a new vernacular and, like Dante writing in his native Italian, dared to create in the language of his day.
He determinedly sliced through one problem after another, the first problem being how the instrument would pick up the electric impulse so the strings would make a sound.
Explains Mr. Paul: "I picked it up first with the other half of a telephone—a magnet and a coil—put it under the strings. Then I used the phonograph—jabbed the needle in the top of the guitar."
Observing that the hollowness of the instrument was interfering with the electronic sound, he realized that a solid surface would serve better.
"I knew that what I needed was a guitar with no holes," says Mr. Paul. "I chucked rags in it. I poured it full of plaster of Paris. I tried everything with the guitar to try to get it to not feed back and not sound like an acoustical box."
He finally hit on his breakthrough in 1941. While F.D.R. was warming up the country with his fireside chats, 26-year-old Les Paul was leaving his fireside for a factory every Sunday.
Epiphone guitars, above a Woolworth's on 14th Street in New York City, was letting him use their factory once a week to work on his guitar-designing. He spent most of every Sunday in the factory while Big Band's big names serenaded New York hotels: Eddy Duchin at the Waldorf, Guy Lombardo at the Roosevelt, Benny Goodman at the New Yorker.
On his Sundays at the factory, he took a four-inch-by-four-inch piece of wood and attached the sides of a cut-up guitar onto it. There it was: a solid, non-vibrating guitar. The inventor-guitarist had redesigned some old tools—wood and string—into a new instrument. He dubbed it "The Log."
More than three-score years later, the solidbody electric guitar has become the biggest All-American wooden symbol since the baseball bat or the log cabin. And like the log cabin, the instrument embodies a pioneering spirit that is enduring.
The rugged Les Paul guitar—the house that Paul built. Over the years he has pointed to the formation of that piece in 1941 as the most essential step in the development of the solidbody prototype.
With the hope that his solid guitar would be his solid gangplank to other worlds, the guitar journeyman tried to sell the idea for manufacturing. But when he brought "The Log" to guitar companies, they eyed him like Cagney eyeing the FBI.
"They didn't buy it," recollects Mr. Paul. "When I went to Gibson with a guitar with no holes in it, they saw the limitations because they said the guy's going to have to walk around with two guitars: one with holes in it so he can play normally, up with a microphone or however; and the other one he's going to have to plug into an amplifier. It looked kind of stupid from their eyes. From my eyes, I was very excited."
Gibson guitars called Mr. Paul's concoction "a broomstick with pick-ups." So while Bing Crosby ("The Crooner") and Frank Sinatra ("The Swooner") raced to pop music fame, "The Broomer" had to sweep his ego under a rug and keep trying.
In the early 40s, the notion of a guitar being hollow was still hallow: it was the empty space inside that made the sound; you fill up that space and you might as well be making broomsticks or baseball bats, not guitars.
The time was also not quite right for Mr. Paul's vision, oracular as it might have been. In the Big Band Era, the big-bang instruments of choice were brass and wind. It was the Age of Swing and Mr. Paul was cooking up an Age of String.
What's more, there was a general feeling that electronics would cheapen art, not deepen it; that the artistic would become mechanical. In terms of the guitar, that translated into a fear that the naturally sublime would be reduced to the electronically ridiculous and that easier access to playing the guitar—just plug it in!—would water down the general quality of music.
The predicament was a precursor to the fear—nay, prejudice—that many have today in the current digital revolution: that electronically transmitted writing and easy Internet access for all writers will lower the general quality of the written word. In a democracy, both art and society improve with more freedom—whether it’s the freedom of a blog or a guitar built like a log.
But, of course, in a democracy changes take time. Mr. Paul's initial efforts with the guitar, consequently, were seen as the supernumerary exercises of a fanatical inventor rather than as the venturesome visions of a colossally creative artist.
Several years later, America had gone through another World War and the country was ready for a big, fat, amplified, celebratory sound. But the guitar companies still weren't ready for Les Paul. He was beaten to the production punch by the late Clarence Leo Fender.
In 1948 a solidbody electric guitar went into mass production, and it was the Fender Broadcaster. Mr. Paul, a superphenom who had learned to play just about every instrument around, found himself on second fiddle.
To a person less acclimatized to obstacles, the moment could have been catastrophic. But by 1948, Mr. Paul was well-launched on a heart-and-soul campaign to spend his life in music. He was already pop music's Timex: he could take a lickin', but keep on pickin'.
He even remembers the first musical lick he ever took. As a perky, red-headed boy of nine, he was taking piano lessons. One day the music teacher wrote a note to little Lester's mother. The note told her that she was wasting her time sending her son for lessons. Recalls a no-longer-so-little Lester: "She just pinned a note on me and I thought it was that I was going to win a scholarship. I didn't realize that she had made a decision that I was a dud."
The Waukesha Wizard was so one-track music-minded—even in his salad days—that the note curdled his ambition not a bit. He had started playing the harmonica at age seven; subsequently took up the piano, saxophone, drums, banjo, and, at age nine, the guitar. His first guitar was a Troubador Silvertone from Sears.
In his dash to create, Mr. Paul became a singing cowboy. He turned professional at age thirteen, called himself Rhubarb Red, and played any country fair, dance hall, Lions Club, or theater that would pay him.
Over the years, the country-picker established himself as a jazz player with all-night jam sessions; a bluesman with his studio work; and a pop music personality with radio shows.
Mr. Paul loved playing the guitar so much that he used to take the instrument out of its case each night, polish it, and position it in a place where it would be the first thing he'd see when he awoke in the morning. By 1939 he had proven himself the curator of such a prodigious talent, F.D.R. invited him and his trio to play at the White House.
In the 1940s, he backed up performers ranging from Bing Crosby to Dinah Shore to the Andrews Sisters. Then in 1946, trying to stay on top in the quicksilver tides of the music business, he decided to squirrel himself away and work on cultivating a guitar sound of his own.
"I dropped my trio and the whole thing," said Mr. Paul, "and locked myself in a room and said I'm going to come up with something—a different sound, a different concept, different everything. So Bing (Crosby) would say, 'What the hell are you doing locking yourself in a garage for?' I'd say, Tm looking for something.' 'What are you looking for? I'll help you find it!' 'Ain't no one gonna help me find it. I don't know what I'm looking for!'"
He looked for two years. The sound he brought forth as aesthetically acceptable was a rich ringing ripple. It was the musical manifestation of electric current in fluid motion and fleshy form, smooth as porcelain, yet deeply sensuous. The feeling was taut and tender as it shimmered across radio airwaves and Victrola speakers. He had taken the solidbody device he'd created, and invested it with a unique spirit.
Concurrent with his new guitar style was his invention of multi-track recording. In 1948 Mr. Paul released the first eight-track records, "Lover" and "Brazil." With the advent of multi-tracking, the record industry would never be the same. L.P. revolutionized the LP.
The following year, he married singer Mary Ford. As a duo in the early 50s, they sold millions upon millions of records, their biggest hit being "Vaya Con Dios" ("Go With God"). In the midst of rising fame and fortune—mid-1952—Gibson finally manufactured Mr. Paul's solidbody. Eleven years after "The Log," the gold-top Les Paul Model went on the market.
Today the Les Paul guitar is a much-sought-after wand by professional musicians worldwide, as well as the bedrock of much great rock. As for Les Paul, the live-wire 2005-vintage human being, he's still leading a multi-track life. His public profile (if legends can be said to have something so mundane) continues to forge forward.
For a guy supposedly in the September of his years, Les Paul is operating with January energy. What he enjoys most these days is playing every Monday night at the Iridium Jazz Club in New York City. It's as if wherever he performs anymore becomes a room of historic acoustics.
Indeed, watching Les Paul play an electric solidbody guitar is like watching Henry Ford drive a car, Thomas Edison change a light bulb, Alexander Graham Bell dial 1-800-WHAT-HATH-GOD-WROUGHT.
The audiences that watch him at the Iridium are wrought from all corners of the music world: jazz buffs; rock fans; blues aficionados; pop music lovers; old and young; guitar devotees; male and female; rich and not-so-rich; unknown and known.
Among the "known" cosmopolites to take in his show at the Iridium were Paul McCartney, Keith Richards, Tony Bennett and Steve Miller. They sit and listen and look up at him like footnotes at the bottom of a page.
Before busting a move into the Iridium nine years ago, Mr. Paul played a little cave of a jazz club in Greenwich Village called Fat Tuesday’s. The gig ran from 1984 to 1995. Every Monday night he would treat audiences to tasty masterstrokes that gave the New York night a lustrous intensity.
Les Paul may now be “permanently installed” in the Rock Hall of Fame, but, for many people, nothing could be more “permanently installed” than the memories of those Fat Tuesday nights . . .
. . . It's a little after 8 p.m. on a Monday at Tuesday's and the guy with the spindly, seventy-something frame approaches a guitar on a stool. Polished to a marble sheen, the guitar glistens with the streaked browns of a late autumn sunset. Les Paul puts his hand to the guitar delicately and precisely, as if he were about to lift a month-old baby.
Once the guitar is in hand, the eyes light to a seasoned flame. From the border of his combed-back light-red hair, there is a long slope of forehead, the shingle of a thinking blast furnace. He straps on the guitar and looks around and smiles. He starts thrumming the guitar and his age vanishes.
"We're gonna practice for about ten minutes," jokes Mr. Paul, "and then we'll start the show." The melody of long, rich experience runs through his voice. In the course of the evening, he weaves six decades of know-how into a colorful blanket that warms a music lover's heart. The moods range from impassioned to ruminative to playful.
"What would you like to hear?" asks Mr. Paul. "We'll do anything you want."
Someone says: '"Summertime."'
"You got it."
The lead-guitarist reaches into a subterranean storehouse over brimming with rich melodies and pulls out the chords to the George Gershwin classic. While George Harrison's guitar gently weeps, Les Paul's grandly sweeps.
It is a fine-spun sound of astonishing lucidity. The notes flow in a hot, hypnotic, lava-like movement. The delicacy of touch produces thin, chiming forms swaddled in sharpest clarity. The audience appears borne away on the softly floating notes.
Later in the evening, he plays "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" and the sharp blue eyes look upward and go there. Mr. Paul used to perform the song behind Judy Garland at the Palace Theatre. At Fat Tuesday's, he treats the piece just as lovingly.
The more he plays of the song, the more time slips away, and the living legend seems to return closer and closer to the enchanted young man who always slept with a shiny guitar within eyeshot. He exudes a lantern-soft charisma as the crowd listens with avidity.
Mr. Paul lightens the mood with jocular between-song patter. His audience interaction is as relaxed as a country doctor on a house call. One night he manages to make a humorous story out of his car being broken into. Somebody in the crowd hollers: "We'll get him for you, Mr. Paul."
"Thanks," he says with a throaty chuckle, and adds: "It’s just 'Les.'"
Another night, an elderly fellow in the front row asks:
"Can I touch your guitar?"
"Sure you can touch it. If it wasn't for the guitar, I wouldn't be here."
"If it wasn't for you," says the elderly fellow, reaching up, "the guitar wouldn't be here."
Actually, it's something of a long shot that either one of them is here. Mr. Paul owns a past that has been haunted by stunning setbacks. About the only thing in his life that is as astounding as his multiplex work is the life-long battle he has waged to do that work. He has had to be as dauntless as he's dexterous. His day-to-day indomitability is a match for his chord-for-chord talent.
Those who know Mr. Paul well think he has more lives than an old tomcat. In 1940 he stuck his hand in a radio transmitter and was put out of commission for a year. In 1948, driving in a snowstorm, his car skidded off a bridge and dropped 500 feet into a river.
He lay in icy water eight hours with a broken back, broken ribs, broken nose, broken collarbone, broken arm. In 1969 a friend accidentally cuffed his ear and broke his eardrum, requiring four operations. In 1980 he had quintuple bypass surgery.
Here in the Twenty First Century there is only one major battle left for this graceful man whom many think of as a myth, and it's a very human problem. From "Z" down to "B"—from "Z" as in Zero response of a music teacher down to "B" as in Bypass heart surgery—Les Paul has duked it out with just about every problem in life's alphabet—all the way down to a big "A": Arthritis.
"The bout with arthritis," Mr. Paul once told me, "never goes away. Right today I'm saying, 'Boy, how much longer have I got with my hands?' The swelling continues and the deterioration continues and the calcium keeps depositing.
"The pain doesn't bother me so much. I'm used to pain. All I'm trying to do is figure a way to play without it—not without the pain, but without the movement.
"Somehow, everybody is trying to stick around as long as they can—no matter how great they paint that picture. And I am a religious man. The choice would be if you really want to go upstairs, and I'm in no hurry to go there anymore than the Pope is. My first thing is to battle."
Besides battling his way to becoming known as a guitar-player, a guitar, an inventor, a sound, a legend, an exhibit and now a rock star worshipped by rock stars, Les Paul has also fought the battle to simply be a good guy.
When he finishes a show, he steps off the stage and heads directly into the audience. He shakes hands, poses for pictures, swaps stories and signs autographs until everyone in the place has been more or less Paulverized by Legend Access.
To re-frame the picture in non-legendary, human terms: a 90-year-old guy with arthritis in his hands signing dozens of autographs after playing a guitar for 90 minutes.
In particular, Mr. Paul gives special time and attention to young people, especially those who tell him they are fellow guitarists. He engages youth in a way that makes them feel more joyous about music and more confident about life.
One night a guy who looked about 20-years-old handed Les Paul a white Fender Stratocaster, of all things, and asked him to sign it. With a grin that was more ironic than iconic, Mr. Paul wrote his name across the body, then handed the young man the guitar back, smiled brightly, and said: “Now you really got something there. Practice. Don’t ever give up.”
Vaya con Dios, Mr. Paul—I mean, Les.