Yesterday, the world lost a man whose influence on music and rock and roll cannot possibly be quantified or overstated when Les Paul passed away at the age of 94. For anyone who has ever loved the guitar or played the guitar, Les Paul is a godlike genius figure whose influence shines with a light as bright as any star in any galaxy. With that in mind, I thought I'd take this opportunity as guest columnist for the Friday Morning Listen (more on that later) to relive some of my favorite Les Paul-inspired rock and roll. Here are my Top 5 Les Paul guitarists, August 14, 2009 edition.
- 5) Slash – Guns N' Roses: Permanently etched in my mind is the vision of Slash wearing a top hat, a lit cigarette burning between his dangling, curly, black hair, and a Les Paul slung low. I can picture it in the videos for “Welcome To The Jungle,” “Paradise City,” and of course “Sweet Child of Mine.” That image should go in the time capsule of my junior high and high school years. That was rock and roll. Intentional or not, Slash turned that image into an unofficial uniform for would-be rockers. That's what my generation bought into (until Kurt Cobain, Eddie Vedder, and the Seattle sound would push them off the stage).
Slash was not a technical genius on the instrument but by channeling the blues-influenced players who influenced him, he brought a sense of beauty to the chaos, ugliness, and decadence of GNR. In addition to looking cool, his guitar work on those signature singles from Appetite for Destruction became signature moments in the history of rock. It's a controversial chapter and even these years later not one appreciated by all, but it continues to confound fans and rock historians.
4) The Edge – U2: If you think Slash was technically limited, here's The Edge, if you need him. In a 30-year career, I think The Edge has recorded four guitar solos total. In some ways, though, The Edge is probably more Les Paul-like than any guitarist on this list. Paul was an inventor and an innovator. He liked gear. He designed equipment and tweaked with it in order to get the sounds he wanted.
The Edge isn't an innovative player in terms of technique. There aren't legions of players out there copying his licks, and that's exactly the way he likes it. He has taken to the studio and stage many times with a Les Paul in his hands, a fact he has tried to disguise with every effect pedal and bit of studio wizardry he could find. The notes played aren't the thing to him. It's the sounds, the textures, and the feel.
3) Dickey Betts – The Allman Brothers Band: There are greater, more influential players than Dickey Betts. If I were to make a list of greatest guitarists of all time, I'll list Duane Allman among them every time and probably never mention Betts. For some reason though, the image and the sound of Betts playing a searing solo during any of 10,000 performances of “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed” is ringing so loudly in my ears that I simply cannot neglect it.
The cocktail of Betts, a Les Paul, and “Elizabeth Reed” was a potent brew that set The Allman Brothers Band apart. British kids took American blues classics and repackaged them to American teenagers as “rock and roll” long before American bands learned to do it themselves. The Allman Brothers Band didn't try to impersonate British invasion bands. These Southern boys went to the source for inspiration. Duane Allman's slide guitar is the sound most often associated with the band's greatest music and rightly so, but Betts' contributions are worthy of celebration as well. The jam bands of today exist, in part, because of the Allman Brothers Band. There are lots of bands who can play long but not all could play interesting. The interplay and contrasting style and sound of Allman and Betts were what set the band apart from contemporaries and protegees alike.