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Les Paul Dies, Aged 94

Published: Fri August 14, 2009  News Feed

Sad day for musicians everywhere - Les Paul, one of the world's most incredible, influential and innovative guitarists & inventors, has passed away. It's time to pay tribute to the man who gave us the Gibson Les Paul, the multi-track recording and the tape delay - and changed the face of music forever.

Les Paul, R. I. P. 1915 - 2009: The World Lost a Genius

Les Paul, R. I. P. 1915 - 2009: The World Lost a Genius

It's simply impossible to underestimate the importance of Les Paul (Born Lester William Polsfuss in 1915) to the world of music. Even though newer generations might've not been totally aware of him or his music, what he's done has changed the face of music forever, and his influence touched us all. He made the sound of rock and roll possible.

One of the foremost influences on 20th century sound and responsible for the world's most famous guitar, the Les Paul model, Les Paul's prestigious career in music and invention spans from the 1930s to the present. Though he's indisputably one of America's most popular, influential, and accomplished electric guitarists, Les Paul is best known as an early innovator in the development of the solid body guitar. His groundbreaking design would become the template for Gibson's best-selling electric, the Les Paul model, introduced in 1952.

Some Gibson Les Paul players: George Harrison (The Beatles), Jimmy Page (Led Zeppelin) and Noel Gallagher (Oasis)

Some Gibson Les Paul players: George Harrison (The Beatles), Jimmy Page (Led Zeppelin) and Noel Gallagher (Oasis)

Anyone who ever fell in love with rock music, at some point must have been thrilled by the sound of a Gibson Les Paul, whether they knew it was a Les Paul or not. Iconic guitarists who've played a Les Paul include George Harrison (Beatles), Jimmy Page (Led Zeppelin), Noel Gallagher (Oasis), Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton, Bob Marley, John Lennon and many, many more. The Gibson Les Paul guitar is still one of the most desirable musical instrument for many guitarists, and it's popularity remains undiminished, even many decades after Les Paul designed his first prototype.

In fact, the most popular guitar at Dolphin right now is a Les Paul-style guitar, the Vintage V100 Lemon Drop, which is inspired by the Gibson Les Paul pleayed by Peter Green during his Fleetwood Mac days.

How Les Paul invented the guitar that changed music

Les Paul and his invention, the Gibson Les Paul electric guitar

Tinkering with electronics and guitar amplification since his youth, Les Paul began constructing his own electric guitar in the late '30s. Unhappy with the first generation of commercially available hollowbodies because of their thin tone, lack of sustain, and feedback problems, Paul opted to build an entirely new structure. “I was interested in proving that a vibration-free top was the way to go," he has said. “I even built a guitar out of a railroad rail to prove it. What I wanted was to amplify pure string vibration, without the resonance of the wood getting involved in the sound."

With the good graces of Epiphone president Epi Stathopoulo, Paul used the Epiphone plant and machinery in 1941 to bring his vision to fruition. He affectionately dubbed the guitar “The Log."

From The Log, Les Paul's first invention, to Les Paul guitars such as the Lemon Drop...

Mark of genius: from The Log, Les Paul's first invention (left) to Les Paul-inspired guitars such as the Lemon Drop, the Les Paul invention changed the design of electric guitars.

Though The Log came close to it, it still wasn't quite what he was after. In the early 1950s, Gibson Guitar would cultivate a partnership with Paul that would lead to the creation of the guitar he'd seen only in his dreams.

Working closely with Paul, Gibson forged a relationship that would change popular culture forever. The Gibson Les Paul model—the most powerful and respected electric guitar in history—began with the 1952 release of the Les Paul Goldtop. After introducing the original Les Paul Goldtop in 1952, Gibson issued the Black Beauty, the mahogany-topped Les Paul Custom, in 1954. The Les Paul Junior (1954) and Special (1955) were also introduced before the canonical Les Paul Standard hit the market in 1958.

With revolutionary humbucker pickups, this sunburst classic has remained unchanged for the half-century since it hit the market.

View Vintage Les Paul-style Guitars

View Encore Les Paul-style guitars

Les Paul, the Jazz Guitarist

Les Paul and wife singing

Les Paul didn't just invent the iconic guitar - he was actually a gifted guitarist, often listed amongst the best and most influential players ever. In the Les Paul Trio he translated the dizzying runs and unusual harmonies found on Jazz at the Philharmonic into a slower, subtler, more commercial approach. His novelty instrumentals were tighter, brasher, and punctuated with effects. Overall, the trademark Les Paul sound was razor-sharp, clean-shaven, and divinely smooth.

And Les Paul was also one of the most succesful guitarists, too! In the 1950s, he had several hits with his wife Mary Ford, and the duo were bona fide popstars. Through hits, tours, and popular radio shows, Paul and Ford kept one foot in the technological vanguard and the other in the cultural mainstream. When not creating hit songs with his wife or doing radio and TV shows, Les Paul was busy revolutionizing the way people made music.

He experimented with dubbing live tracks over recorded tracks, also altering the playback speed. This resulted in “Lover (When You're Near Me)," his revolutionary 1947 predecessor to multi-track recording. The hit instrumental featured Les Paul on eight different electric guitar parts, all playing together. To explain this revolutionary new idea, he introduced the fictional "Les Paulverizer" device, which multiplies anything fed into it, like a guitar sound or a voice.

Paul has stated that the idea was to explain to the audience how his single guitar could be "multiplied" into an orchestra. The device even became the subject of comedy, with Ford multiplying herself and her vacuum cleaner with it so he could finish the housework faster. Later Paul claimed to have made the myth real for his stage show, using a small box attached to his guitar, which was really just a stage prop.

He typically pretended to lay down one track after another on stage, in-sync, and then play over the repeating forms he had recorded. Today, such a thing is not just possible but common, thanks to FX pedals such as the Akai Headrush, which simply updates Les Paul's visionary concept.

Les Paul  & the multi-track recording technique

Paul acquired a first generation Ampex tape recorder from Crosby in 1949, and began his most important multi-tracking adventure, adding a fourth head to the recorder to create sound-on-sound recordings. While tinkering with the machine and its many possibilities, he also came up with tape delay. These tricks, along with another recent Les Paul innovation—close mic-ing vocals—were integrated for the first time on a single recording: the 1950 No. 1 tour de force “How High the Moon."

Tributes to the Legend

When Les Paul passed away on 13th August, from complications of severe pneumonia at White Plains Hospital in White Plains, New York, he was surrounded by family and loved ones. According to the Gibson website, he had been receiving the best available treatment through this final battle and in keeping with his persona, he showed incredible strength, tenacity and courage.

Les Paul, performing live

Up until very recently, Les Paul could still be seen performing weekly at a jazz club in New York. In 2008, The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame paid tribute to Les Paul in a week-long celebration of the life of this Grammy-award winner musician. Les Paul has since become the only individual to share membership into the Grammy Hall of Fame, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the National Inventors Hall of Fame, and the National Broadcasters Hall of Fame.

Les Paul will be sadly missed, and many musicians have already paid their tributes to this musical giant:

Slash said, "Les Paul was a shining example of how full one's life can be, he was so vibrant and full of positive energy. I'm honored and humbled to have known and played with him over the years, he was an exceptionally brilliant man."

Joe Satriani said, "Les Paul set a standard for musicianship and innovation that remains unsurpassed. He was the original guitar hero, and the kindest of souls. Last October I joined him onstage at The Iridium club in NYC, and he was still shredding. He was and still is an inspiration to us all."

Joan Jett said, "I, and everyone at Blackheart Records, mourn the passing of our dear friend, Les Paul. He was a genius inventor, musical innovator, and a wonderful person. Without the advances he pioneered, the recording sciences and the electric guitar would have been left years behind. I will miss him so much."

Joe Perry said, "As a guitarist and a fan of music in general, I know the amazing contributions Les Paul made in his lifetime to the art of making music. I think if the general public knew how much of that influence is heard every day in the music that they listen to, they would be amazed. He was a true genius. The few times that I had met him, he made me feel like I had known him forever. He was always sharp, ready to rock and he was always talking about his next gig. Knowing that he is not walking the earth anymore is sad and I have lost a friend. But every time I pick up a guitar I’ll know that his spirit is alive and well right next to me. "

For more tributes and complete information about Les Paul's life and career, please visit the official Gibson website. 

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