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Who is Les Paul?

Published: Sun March 19, 2006  News Feed

Les Paul (born June 9, 1915) is best known as a guitarist, and as one of the most important figures in the development of modern electric instruments and recording techniques. He is a pioneer in the development of the solid-body electric guitar (the Gibson Les Paul he helped design is one of the most famous and enduring models), multitrack recording, and various reverb and echo effects.

Paul was unsatisfied by the electric guitars that were sold in the mid 1930s and began experimenting with a few designs of his own. Famously, he created The Log which was nothing more than a length of common "4 by 4" fence post with bridge, guitar neck, and pickup attached. For appearances he attached the body of an Epiphone jazz guitar, sawn lengthwise 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.

In 1941, Paul designed and built one of the first solid-body electric guitars (though Leo Fender also independently invented his own solid-body electric guitar around the same time, and Adolph Rickenbacker had marketed a solid-body guitar in the 30s). Gibson Guitar Corporation made a number of these guitars for Paul, but insisted that their name be left off of the instrument. In later years, they would change their mind. These days, Gibson Les Paul guitars are used all over the world, both by novices and professionals. Les Paul guitars have been used by Duane Allman, Jeff Beck, Dickie Betts, Neal Schon, Tom Scholz, Mike Bloomfield, Eric Clapton, Davey Johnstone, Joe Perry, Jimmy Page, Buckethead, Gary Rossington, Randy Rhoads, Slash, Pete Townshend, Johnny Marr, Zakk Wylde, Frank Zappa, Noel Gallagher, Kirk Hammett, Matt Skiba, Billie Joe Armstrong

The Gibson Les Paul

The Les Paul model represented a design collaboration between the fairly solid Gibson guitars company, under president Ted McCarty, and the pop star, electronics inventor and accomplished jazz guitarist Les Paul. After the debut of the Fender Telecaster series of guitars, in 1950, solid-body electric instruments became a craze, and Les Paul was brought in by the company as an innovative and respected figure who had experimented with them on his own. An early hand-built prototype of his, called 'The Log,' was once widely considered the first solid-body Spanish (as opposed to 'Hawaiian,' or lap-steel) guitar ever built, although numerous other prototypes and limited-production models have since resurfaced. Paul had earlier, in 1945 or 46, approached Gibson with this prototype, and had been "shown the door."

The new guitar was to be an expensive, well-made instrument in Gibson's tradition, in response to the plain, bolted-together construction of the Fender guitars. Recollections differ on who contributed what to the design, but Gibson had offered electric, hollow-body guitars since the 1930s, and provided at minimum a basic set of design cues, including a more traditionally curved body shape than that of Fender's futuristic-utilitarian models, and a glued-in ("set") neck, rather than Fender's bolt-on design.

As to Paul's contributions, Tony Bacon in his book "50 Years of the Gibson Les Paul" minimizes Paul's contributions to advise on colour (Paul prefered gold as it looks expensive, and black, as it makes your fingers appear to move faster on the fretboard) and advise on the trapeze tailpiece. According to Gibson's president Ted McCarty, Gibson showed Paul a nearly finished instrument in 1951, and Gibson was mainly interested in having Paul's name on the headstock, as it would increase sales. Discussions with Paul were on the fitting of a maple cap over the mahogany body for increased density and sustain (which Paul wanted the other way around, but according to Gibson the guitar would become too heavy) and the tailpiece. For flash's sake, and to drive the point home that the Les Paul model was a quality instrument Paul also specified that it be offered with a gold finish. Later models included "flame" and "tiger" maple finishes for the top, as on fine furniture, and again in contrast to Fender's range of car-like custom body paint jobs.

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