June 9th marked the birth date of one of the most talented, creative, and brilliant guitar makers in the world. Born Lester William Polsfuss in 1915, in the town of Waukesha, Wisconsin, Les Paul began his career as a musician, songwriter, and inventor at age 13.
Over the years Les Paul's guitars have been played by Keith Richards, Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, Duane Allman, Pete Townshend, Paul McCartney, and Slash… just to name a meager few. Even Neil Young's beloved "Old Black" is said to have been born a Gibson Les Paul Goldtop.
There is a fiercely robust and versatile sound to a Gibson Les Paul that even those of us who are not musicians can pick up distinctly. Personally, Gibson Les Pauls are my favorite guitars. While punchy, whammy-bar glutted guitar playing seemed to dominate my MTV introduction to the pop/metal hair bands, it was the hard rock sound of the Gibson Les Paul that finally struck a chord deep in my soul. It's a sound that still has the power to make me stop and listen, whether it's being played on a radio station, or by the kid down the street who just started his own garage band. My first love played a Gibson Les Paul. My love affair with Les Paul's guitars began with him and, unlike that first doomed-to-die-a-cliched-death relationship, this love has never faded.
Stories about Les Paul abound, poignant remembrances told by legendary musicians and those whom he built guitars for, and with. Les Paul's contributions to music history have been honored in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame with a permanent exhibit "The New Sound: Les Paul and the Electric Guitar," featuring his guitars and stories from the guitarists whom he influenced, along with his many inventions and recordings.
He was inducted into The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1988 by Jeff Beck; he won two Grammy awards in 2005: Best Pop Instrumental Performance, "Caravan," and Best Rock Instrumental Performance, "69 Freedom Special." In 2008 his life and his legacy were immortalized in The American Music Masters series. Although his hands had become crippled due to severe arthritis, he continued to play every Monday night at the Iridium Jazz Club in New York City. His body may have betrayed him, but his spirit could never be diminished.
Les Paul died of pneumonia on August 12, 2009, in White Plains, New York, yet his legacy lives on. From Slash's vicious, goosebump-inspiring, Gibson Les Paul solo on "Knockin' on Heaven's Door," to Nigel Tufnel [Christopher Guest] describing the unheard sustain on his Les Paul Standard in the movie This Is Spinal Tap, he remains one of the most honored musical innovators in music history. Slash now has four signature series Les Paul guitars for sale by Gibson.
Les Paul continues to prove true what Joe Satriani said about him after his death: "His contributions to guitar playing, and to music, were just staggering. I mean, he was our first real guitar hero. He was one of those flashy guitar players who could back it up with solid musicianship. You know, he invented multi-track recording, he invented the idea of pirate radio–operated a radio station right out of his basement apartment in New York City. He was the first guy to really get the solid guitar right, the solid body guitar."