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Friday Morning Listen: Les Paul’s Family Tree

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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.

    Slash - Guns N Roses 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.

    The Edge - U24) 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.

Dickey Betts - Allman Brothers Band3) 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.

About Josh Hathaway

  • MarkSaleski

    great stuff josh! makes me want to plug in my guitar….too bad my right hand isn’t up to the task.

  • Josh Hathaway

    Thanks, Mark. I know you aren’t a Gibson gtr. guy, but I knew the guitarist in you would appreciate a tribute to a guy like that and some who followed.

    I’m sorry you’re on the DL. Maybe guitar work can be part of the physical therapy when you get out of that cast.

  • MarkSaleski

    yes, i would have written about Les Paul had this not happened….despite being a Fender guy

  • Tom Johnson

    Get well soon, Mark. And your next car should be a tank.

    It’s not the list I would make, but no one’s would be the same, obviously. Mine would probably put Adrian Belew in the #1 slot. Anyone who can play with a crazy assortment of groups like Talking Heads, David Bowie, Frank Zappa, Paul Simon, Nine Inch Nails, Tori Amos, and King Crimson (among MANY others) is pretty special. The guy is a truly amazing guitarist – self-taught, he can pretty much do anything he sets out to do, it seems. (And Mark, you need to get yourself a copy of his new album, “e.” Right up yer alley. It’s only available on his site.)

  • Bliffle

    Boy, is this article ever overblown! I couldn’t finish it for fear of getting an insulin attack!

    “Godlike genius”?

    Les Paul was a damn good jazz guitar player, which was exactly what he aspired to be.

    He was also a world-class braggart (not a category to be sneered at, incidentally) as those of us who read his interviews back in the 50s and 60s (and beyond!) would attest. Apparently, he invented almost everything in the music business, by his own account.

    Electric guitars had been in use for many years by the time he decided to do away with the soundbox and amplify the sound straight from the strings, augmented by subsequent electronics. He invented multi-track because he realized that he himself was the only player good enough to accompany Les Paul and fill in the parts.

    Les Paul told this story on himself: by about 1940 he had decided he was the best guitar player in the world and never to be equalled, so he looked for new worlds to conquer, so he started studying piano. Then he went to hear Art Tatum and gave up his piano ambitions.

  • Josh Hathaway

    It’s not bragging if you can back it up. The man’s accomplishments speak for themselves.

  • MarkSaleski

    maybe people should be required to shower off the cynicism & sourness after leaving the bc politics section before commenting here

  • Glen Boyd

    Nice work on this Josh. And Mark, if you are reading this, my best wishes on a speedy recovery.


  • Bliffle

    I never miss a chance to listen to Les Paul. His jazz playing is excellent.

    What puzzles me is that so many R&R folks think he belongs to them. As far as I know he never played a R&R lick in his life, unless you include the riffs that various R&R guys copied. Chuck Berry ended his songs with a jazz riff, but that was an homage.

  • Josh Hathaway

    This isn’t about claiming him for rock and roll but recognizing his influence on it and all of music. I’d love it if someone wanted to focus on the jazz side of Paul in an article. That’s not the one I wrote because I’m not well-schooled in my jazz. If someone wrote it, I’d read it, though.

    Tom, I could have spent hours agonizing and trying to come up with some way to evaluate my list. In the end, it was as much a visual thing as an audio. I envision Slash with a Les Paul, even though he’s by no means one of the all-time great guitarists. It’s also an era thing. The Edge is unique, so I liked that. Joe Perry has always been cool, to me, and Dickey Betts was kind of my unconventional pick. He’s a house favorite from time to time. Jimmy Page is again a visual and an aural phenom with Gibson/Les Paul. If I had to make this list three months from now, I’d probably make many changes.

  • Josh Hathaway

    Oh, and I appreciate it, Glen.

  • Bliffle

    It isn’t about the guitar.

  • Diane

    thanks for reminding me of some great artists, visual and audible. after all, isn’t Rock and roll a combo of both?

  • Josh Hathaway

    Well then I guess you’re just going to be disappointed, Bliffle. This the article I wrote. I’m just as sorry as I can be that I’ve somehow… uh…. not done it the way you would have.

    Thanks, Diane.

  • Bliffle

    Les Paul was an excellent music man and a talented Jazz Guitarist. He realized that to get the ultimate clean recorded representation of his musical ideas he needed to eliminate the exigencies of the guitar soundbox and put at his disposal an ultra-clean instrument that would allow him to capture the purest part of the string sound and manipulate it and control it to produce exactly what he wanted. He exploited multi-track recording because he realized that no one else could complete his musical ideas in ensemble except Les Paul. Similar reasons apply to using his wife, Mary Ford, for vocals and vocalese.

    When all is said and done, Les Paul created superb jazz classics. They swing!

  • Mike D

    Why is Dickey Betts an unconventional pick? I know you chose, In memory of Elizabeth Reed, to focus on but what about his other compositions? Jessica, Blue Sky, Ramblin’ Man, Revival…Dickey Betts wrote some of the greatest Instrumentals in rock history and has inspired droves of young guitarist to pick the Les Paul as their axe. Gisbon, the manufacturer of the Les Paul, has a Dickey Betts signature model that has been out for years. He may not be as well known as the others, except among guitar players.

    I for one put him #1 when it comes to a Rock Les Paul playing Icon, no matter his level of notoriety. EAPFP (Eat-A-Peach-For-Peace)

  • malcontent

    Les Paul was a delusional braggart that never invented anything. Even the Les Paul guitar was developed by Ted McCarty and a team of Gibson techs. Les Paul ONLY endorsed it. He had an ego problem, but now everyone believes the little ass.

  • John Wilson

    Les Paul WAS a braggart(delusional?) with a huge ego, but he was a great jazz musician and he’ll be listened to long after a lot of more famous guitar players are forgotten.

    And that will be because of his musicianship, not just virtuoso riffs and technical tricks.