Changing Rock and Roll
Les Paul, the inventor and guitar-playing sensation, will forever be associated with the solid-body electric guitar that he helped design and bears his name.
Les stated that if there was one thing that he would want in a time capsule that symbolized him it would be the Gibson Les Paul guitar.
The eight-track tape recorder, for which Les Paul holds the patent, along with his numerous recording techniques swung open the door for Rock and Roll.
Les’ Sel-Sync®, over-dubbing, tape delay, echo, reverb, phase shifting and close miking have become commonplace in today’s recordings.
The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, which inducted Les in 1988, states on its website, “It’s safe to say that rock and roll as we know it would not exist without his inventions.”
The National Inventors Hall of Fame added Les to its luminaries in 2005.
Les Paul was an inventor from his school days in Waukesha, Wisconsin. Not only did he design the first solid body electric guitar when he was in his teens, but he was the guitar-playing sensation who showed the world how to play the electric guitar.
As a teen, guitar-harmonica playing Les created his first invention, a coat hanger harmonica holder. Commercial versions required taking the harmonica off the holder and repositioning it. Les wanted to be able to flip the harmonica with his chin so he could seamlessly keep singing and playing his guitar. He relayed that his brother Ralph worked at a dry cleaning store, “so there were plenty of wire coat hangers around” and that is what young Les used.
In search of the hardest substance available for a guitar, Les stretched a guitar string across the top of a two-foot piece of rail from a railroad track, added a microphone from his mother’s telephone, added a magnet, wired it into his mother’s radio and thus the first solid-body electric guitar came into existence at the hands of a teenager.
That was in the 1920s. Les knew that a guitar based on a piece of rail was not practical, but he keep thinking about the unparalleled sustain that strange guitar had. A replica of the “first log” can be seen in Discovery World’s “Les Paul House of Sound” in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
The Gibson Les Paul
In 1941, Lester was known as Les Paul and playing with Fred Waring in New York City. As Les continued his efforts to electrify a guitar that would have volume, tone and sustain that could be controlled, he reflected on his early rail “guitar”. Years of experimenting resulted in Les’ Log, the 4×4 chunk of pine with homemade pickups, a bridge, Vibrato tailpiece and an Epiphone neck.
The nightclub crowd was not ready for his 4 x4 guitar plugged into an amp. Les added the acoustic wings, “because people hear with their eyes.”
Although he was convinced his Log was the way of the future, it wasn’t until 1952 that the Gibson Guitar Company adapted Les’ invention into the now famous Gibson Les Paul guitar.
Eight Track Tape Recorder
Once other musicians started playing the solid body electric guitar, Les searched for a sound that would make his music stand apart. This led to his revolutionary sound-on-sound machine, which will be on display starting in June at the Waukesha County Museum’s new Les Paul exhibit in Wisconsin.
To explain his multi-level sound during live performances Les developed the Les Paulverizer. Les’ onstage gag became an actual black box he attached to his guitar. The box allowed Les to access pre-recorded layers of the songs he and his wife Mary Ford performed on stage.
Early in his career, Les used wire recorders, then progressed to multiple tape recorders, but at last he developed the machine that could record eight different sounds and blend them onto one tape. The culmination of Les’ search for layering sound was his patented eight-track tape recorder, which was introduced in 1952, the same year that the Gibson Les Paul gold-top guitar was introduced.
Les’ inventions were adapted for other uses.
Retired NASA Engineer Karl F. Anderson relayed, “Les Paul’s multi-track tape recording concept not only revolutionized the recording of music, but the recording of scientific data as well. As a retired NASA engineer, let me say thanks, Les, for this amazing tool.”
Les Paul gave the future to today’s musicians. Rock and Roll, the Blues, Country and all music genres are able to create their sounds using Les’ inventions of reverb, echo, phase shifting, close miking, tape delay and sound-on-sound.
Even in his last years, Les Paul remained the inventor and performer. He was working on improving hearing aids while maintaining his weekly shows at New York’s Iridium Jazz Club.
Les Paul joined the ranks of his hero, Thomas A. Edison, as one who changed the world. His legacy lives on through the Les Paul Foundation www.lespaulfoundation.org, which honors and shares the life, spirit and legacy of Les Paul by supporting music education, engineering and innovation as well as medical research.
Les Paul, often called the Thomas Edison of music technology, didn’t set out to invent. In fact, he stated he had to invent because he could not order or walk into a store and buy what he needed.
In the preface to Les Paul in His Own Words, Russ and Michael Cochrane referring to Les say, “…and the truth can be told: his greatest invention is himself.” That sums up Les Paul. He was constantly reinventing himself and the things around him, adapting to needs he saw and challenges he faced.
Photos by Chris Lentz of the Les Paul Foundation©