Les Paul designed a solid-body electric guitar in 1941, but by the time it was ready for production by Gibson in 1952, Leo Fender had already mass-produced the Fender Broadcaster four years earlier, thus beating Paul to popular credit for the invention. Nonetheless, the Les Paul acquired a devoted following, and its versatility and balance made it the favored guitar of many rock guitarists.
An innovative musician and recording artist who developed the solid-body electric guitar, Les Paul was born Lester William Polsfuss on June 9, 1915 in Waukesha, Wisconsin.
By at least one account, Paul's early musical ability wasn't superb. "Your boy, Lester, will never learn music," one teacher wrote his mother. But nobody could dissuade him from trying, and as a young boy he taught himself the harmonica, guitar and banjo.
By his teen years, Paul was playing in country bands around the Midwest. He also played live on St. Louis radio stations, calling himself the Rhubarb Red.
Coupled with Paul's interest in playing instruments was a love for modifying them. At the age of nine he built his first crystal radio. At 10 he built a harmonica holder out of a coat hanger, and then later constructed his own amplified guitar.
Not content to strictly be a country musician, Paul developed an interest in jazz music and by the mid 1930s had moved to Chicago and formed the Les Paul Trio. He formed his first trio and learned jazz on the South Side of Chicago while he was playing country music during the day on the Chicago radio stations.By the 1940s Paul had established himself in the jazz world, recording with such stars as Nat King Cole, Rudy Vallee and Kate Smith.
The New Electric Guitar
In 1941 the perfectionist in Paul believed he could improve upon the common amplified guitar. To do so he attached strings and two pickups to what was essentially a wooden board with a guitar neck. Paul called it the "the log," and while it drew some early criticism, mainly for its look, it produced just the kind of sound its creator had been looking for.
"You could go out and eat and come back and the note would still be playing," he later described it.
It was the first solid-body guitar, and it changed music in unbelievable ways. In the 1960s, the rock world embraced and adored his instrument. By then, Paul had teamed up with the guitar manufacturer Gibson, which had hired him to design a Les Paul guitar. Paul had approached Gibson in 1941, but it took 10 years, and Leo Fender introducing his solid body guitar for Gibson, for the company to develop what is now known as the Gibson Les Paul.
Paul's commitment to his music was such that in 1948 a car accident left him with a shattered right elbow. Faced with doctors setting the arm in a position that wouldn't again be movable, Paul, ever mindful of his career, asked that it be set at a slight angle so he could still play guitar.
Revolutionary Recording Artist
Paul's influence on the music world extended far beyond the guitar. With the encouragement of Bing Crosby, with whom Paul had performed and recorded, Paul built a recording studio in his garage in his Los Angeles home in 1945.
There, Paul experimented with a number of different recording techniques. His breakthrough came in 1948 with a recording of the song "Lover," which utilized a variety of tracks and introduced his multiple new recording techniques. It wasn't long before Paul was creating 24-track recordings and producing hits like "How High the Moon" and "The World Is Waiting for Sunrise."
After divorcing his first wife, Virginia Webb, Paul met the former Colleen Summers, a singer who had performed with Gene Autry's band. Paul changed her name to Mary Ford and began recording with her. They married in 1949, and for much of the 1950s the two had their own television show, Les Paul and Mary Ford at Home.
In addition, the couple had more than three dozen hits together, all of them utilizing the recording techniques Paul had created in his studio.
In his later years, Paul's standing and legend in the music industry only increased. His final recorded album, American Made, World Played, debuted in 2005 and featured, among others, Keith Richards, Jeff Beck, Sting and Eric Clapton. Paul won two Grammy Awards for the album.
Among his many honors, Les Paul is the only person to be inducted into both the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the National Inventors Hall of Fame.
According to Rolling Stone magazine, Paul died from complications associated with pneumonia on August 12, 2009. Other sources have listed August 13 as the date of his death, but his memorial in Waukesha, Wisconsin, lists August 12 as the official date. Paul was laid to rest in the Prairie Home Cemetery alongside his mother.
For more information about the guitar legend, visit The Les Paul Foundation.
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