This weekend I went to my local library and got a few CDs, and one of them has just blown me away.
That CD - actually a 4 CD boxed set - is called "Les Paul: The Legend & The Legacy" (Capitol C2 - 97654). It appears to still be in print.
If you've never heard him play guitar, you are really missing something special. He started out playing jazz but then moved into pop music in the 40s. The term "pop" woefully underserves the quality of his playing and the material he picked; think "Charlie Christian morphs into Frank Zappa and launches pop music career" and you might just begin to have some clue what this music is all about. He is 87 years old now, and still plays regular Monday night gigs in New York - you can see many pictures of him with famous musical folks here.
He is also a musical and technological genius, almost unparalleled in modern recording history. This is a partial summary from the liner notes of the revolutionary technologies he invented or pioneered:
His pop career, as well, was very successful from the late 40s thru the late 50s, with many Top 10 and Top 40 recordings, and "How High the Moon" and "Vaya Con Dios" both reached #1.
To really get a flavor of his life, though, you have to hear some of the stories he tells; the following are again taken from the liner notes of "The Legend and the Legacy".
Les was a hit around town - when he could be heard. To make himself louder, he rigged up a crude microphone out of telephone parts. Then he discovered that by jamming the needle from the family photograph into the top of his guitar, he could amplify it.
Not only that, but he could get a crude stereo effect by wiring his guitar into a pair of radios placed at stage right and left. Soon, he was drawing and keeping evern larger crowds, and raking in even more cash.
By the time he'd hit his early teens, Les had already builts his first tiny broadcasting station, and in 1929, a primitive recording machine.
"I made a cutting lathe with a heavily-weighted head, which embossed a groove on an aluminum disk that was on a turntable made from a Cadillac flywheel, which was being driven by a motor and dental belts".
He invented a recording machine using a flywheel from a car, and dental belts! As a teenager! My oldest kid won't even wash the car.
Les on inventing the first useful solid-body electrics:
"Way back in grade school, I had studied how a string vibrates," Les says. "With the solidbody, I was trying to smplify pure string vibration, without the resonance of the wood affecting the sound."
In 1934, Les designed a solidbody electric guitar in Chicago and paid the Larson brothers, August and Carl, $15 to build it for him. It was a single-cutaway witha a half-inch maple top, no f-holes, 22 frets, and two pickups.
"As far as I know," Les notes, "I was the furst guy to use two pickups. People wondered why in the world anyone would need two. There was no reason for a cutaway because nobody ever played up there. And if you had 22 frets, your fingers would be too big to fit between them. People couldn't figure out why I'd be so stupid as to do that!" [laughs].
But perhaps his most important early axes are the ones he affectionately call The Log, and an Epiphone he modified to the max. He built the log on weekends in 1941 at the Epiphone factory in New York by attaching an Epiphone neck, fingerboard and body parts to a 4x4" board, and sandwiching a couple of guitar-body halves, or "wings", on it, just for looks. "I had to make it look like a conventional guitar, because if people saw just the 4x4", they'd think I was really crazy!" he laughs.
Les on his signature pickups:
Blazing pickups are part of the signature Les Paul sound, and to this day, how he makes them remains a well-kept secret.
"I'd started modifying pickups back in the late '20s/early '30s," he allows, "but the development really began after the war, in my garage studio. That's when I got them all shiny, and just exactly the way I wanted them. By the time I got with Capitol, they sounded really hot.
"But I've never let anybody, not even Gibson, know exactly what kind of pickups I use or how I get my sound on records and onstage," Les emphasizes. "That big, fat, round, ballsy sound with the bright high-end is the Les Paul sound - nobody else has it."
You get the general idea by now, I'm sure. Some people just have genius oozing out of them, and he was one of them. And he is still gigging every Monday night, at 87 years old.
Seriously, for all fans of electric guitar, and all the variety of sounds they make today, and all fans of multi-tracked music, which is to say, all of it recorded since the late 60s, Les Paul is the guy who pioneered all those things, plus many others.
The bittersweet irony, though, is that since he is remembered for these other accomplishments, his talents as a pure musician get lost in the mix. Do yourself a favor and go to your library, or buy it (it ain't cheap, but is well worth the money) and listen to a true creative genius at work.