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.
2) Joe Perry – Aerosmith: There are Australian Rules Football teams that have had fewer injuries and surgeries in entire seasons than Aerosmith has had in the past year alone. Between hot sauce and roller coaster endorsements and crap ballads for crap movies, it's easy to forget what a great guitar band Aerosmith once was and what an everlasting fountain of cool Joe Perry remains.
Perry had just enough know how to be dangerous, and the rest of his formula for success was attitude. Before they became pop stars on MTV or caricatures of themselves – and even while that was going on – Joe Perry embodied cool. Part of that came from the way he looked and sounded with a Les Paul guitar in his hands. Perry didn't have the chops of a Betts nor the inventiveness of The Edge. It's no wonder Guns N' Roses toured together or that Joe Perry jammed with GNR on-stage. The connection between Slash and Perry is pretty easy to see. Perry didn't wear the top hat – that was Slash's contribution to the look – but just about everything Perry did, Slash attempted. Perry just got there first.
1) Jimmy Page – Led Zeppelin: Yes, I know, anticlimatic and obvious. Some things are a matter of taste while some questions have right and wrong answers. You can list the guys whose names didn't appear in my Top 5 (Townshend comes to mind as a legitimate oversight) but no one can make a list of Les Paul guitarists in which Jimmy Page is not only not on it but where he's not #1. Tell the story of rock and roll guitar without mentioning Jimmy Page. Page may not be the most influential player in rock history, but he's among them. That's a list for another guest stint on the FML, though.
Led Zeppelin's The Song Remains The Same film is part of rock lore, and the image of Page and his Les Paul are foundations of the very soul of rock. Go listen to the solos of “Whole Lotta Love” and “Black Dog” and try to explain them. You can't. They defy our understanding. They exist as eternal monuments of the power of one man and a guitar. An idea is not responsible for the followers it attracts. Yes, many horrible atrocities have been committed by bands claiming Led Zeppelin as an influence. Go listen to the actual Led Zeppelin albums and forget those felons as quickly as possible. The solos for “Whole Lotta Love” and “Black Dog” are good places to start.
The first time I filled in for Mark as a Friday Morning Listen guest columnist, it was because he and his wife lost power in a severe ice storm that shut down a large swath of the Northeast. I'd like to tell you this week's appearance is because Mark and his wife won the lottery or are vacationing in the South Pacific, but unfortunately I'm once again filling in because of misadventure.
While returning from Mark's high school reunion, he and his wife were in a car accident. I'm happy to report Mark and his bride are both fine. They had some bumps and bruises. Mark sustained a dislocated wrist that required surgery. He's recovering. His Mini and the moose he collided with didn't survive the ordeal quite as well.
I'm always happy to fill in for Mark, but I think I'm going to have to demand the next time he calls looking for a substitute it under sunnier circumstances. The Blogcritics family sends out a huge exhale of relief that you are both safe and wishes you a speedy recovery. We'd also like to offer one piece of advice from years of collective experience: do what we do and skip those high school reunions!