Les Paul, the father of the electric guitar and multitrack recording, dressed in a thick, oatmeal-colored ribbed turtleneck sweater (and it’s in the high-70s and humid on this June 3rd day), navy blue trousers and black loafers, and wearing wire rimmed aviator-style glasses, is doing a sound check at 6:00 p.m., before the first of his two shows every Monday night at the Iridium Club on Broadway and 51st in Manhattan.
“Is my amp flat”? He asks. “It’s flat, Les.” Comes the reply from his soundman.
“On the dot?” “On the dot, Les.”
“It should be 4 decibels clean,” Paul replies. “In other words, when I hit this note” – Paul bangs the high E-string of his signature guitar – “it should be minus-four on the meter. On the tape machine, it should be zero. But I know this guitar is like a minesweeper, sometimes!”
Hard to believe this slight looking, but authoritative man is about to celebrate his 87th birthday next week. And even harder for me, as a part-time guitarist myself, to believe I was about to be interviewing him.
Who Is Les Paul?
To baby boomers, he’s the name on their, or their favorite guitarist’s instrument (as his recent commercial for Coors Beer made light of). To the previous generation, he’s a musician with a string of pop hits in the 1950s. And there are lots of older folks around who still remember his days from the 1930s, playing in Fred Waring’s Orchestra, and backing up Bing Crosby.
Clearly, while most people would be happy with one successful career, Les Paul is a man who can look back on several simultaneous lives.
Born Lester William Polfus on June 9, 1915 in Waukesha, Wisconsin, he began to teach himself not only the guitar, but electronic engineering when he was just a child. He later shortened his name to Les Paul (after a brief spell known as Rhubarb Red!) and played with big bands in the 1930s, such as Fred Waring’s outfit in the 1930s and with Bing Crosby in the 1940s.
Simultaneously, he also did much developmental work on the concept of the electric guitar. His electrical engineering skills led him to finally develop the electric solidbody guitar, designed initially to reduce feedback and increase the sustain of notes and chords.
Later in that same decade, he began developing the concept of sound on sound recording, first painstakingly overdubbing part after part on a 78 rpm record cutting machine, and then later on magnetic tape. The Beatles’ complex and masterful recordings of the late 1960s, as well as virtually all popular music recorded since, use the very methods he developed. Led Zeppelin’s albums, with layer upon layer of overdubbed, multitracked guitars, and often recorded in large country homes instead of professional recording studios, would be unthinkable without Paul’s first efforts away from a studio.
Rock and Roll’s Most Popular Instrument
In 1948, Paul was critically injured in a car crash and almost lost the use of his right arm. Rather than having it amputated, he pleaded with his doctors to set it in such a fashion that he could still pick a guitar.
Thankfully, they did – and this renewed lease on not only life but also his career, was the springboard for Paul’s most important decade as a musician.
In the 1950s, he began to write, record and play guitar on numerous gold records with his then-wife, Mary Ford. He also helped to design what would go on to be one of the most important instruments in rock and roll: the Gibson Les Paul electric guitar, played at various times in their careers by such notable musicians as B.B. King, John Lee Hooker, Jimmy Page, Eric Clapton, Keith Richards, Jeff Beck, Pete Townshend, Bob Marley, John McLaughlin (the jazz star, not the fellow with the talk show on PBS), and Slash of Guns and Roses. And when they’re in New York, many of these musicians often stop by to watch the man whose name is on their guitar, in action.