Guitar Legend Les Paul Dies At Age 94
The Gibson Les Paul is to the American musical landscape what the Louisville Slugger is to American sports.
But before Les Paul, the guitar, became a brand name brandished by rock stars and wannabes worldwide, Les Paul, the man, already had made his mark as a musician and inventor. He was a visionary who invented the solid-body guitar and pioneered modern studio techniques, including multitrack recording.
The musician, born Lester William Polsfuss in Waukesha, Wis., died Thursday from complications of pneumonia at a hospital in White Plains, N.Y. He was 94. He began his career at 13, playing guitar and harmonica.
As early as the 1930s, Paul was tinkering with guitar design. "What I wanted to do," Paul once told rock writer Jim O'Donnell, "is not have two things vibrating. I wanted the string to vibrate and nothing else. I wanted the guitar to sustain longer than an acoustical box and have different sounds than an acoustical box."
While performing outdoors, Paul was frustrated that people farther back couldn't hear him. He created an electric guitar and amplification system using a radio, the earpiece of a telephone and a needle from record player that he jammed into the fretboard.
But he was ahead of his time. In 1941, he approached the Gibson Guitar company with his first solid-body electric guitar, which was derided as a broomstick with pickups.
Finally, in 1952, Gibson launched the model that bears his name and became a staple for rock guitarists.
While designing guitars and making innovations in engineering and recording, Paul continued as a bandleader with the Les Paul Trio. He played for Franklin Delano Roosevelt at the White House and in the 1940s backed such performers as Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters.
But his career nearly came to an end in 1948, when he shattered his right arm and elbow in a car accident. Undeterred, he had his surgeons set his arm at an angle that would allow him to cradle and pick the guitar.
In 1949, he married singer Mary Ford. As a duo in the early 1950s, they sold millions of records, reaching No. 1 with "How High the Moon" in 1951 and "Vaya Con Dios" in 1953. The recordings sound timeless today, thanks to the pioneering use of multitracking, or layering guitar parts atop one another.
Even later in life, Paul was practically a god among the guitar gods he inspired.
In the British music magazine Melody Maker, Led Zeppelin's Jimmy Page described Paul as "the man who started everything. He's just a genius."
Eddie Van Halen stood on a stage with Les Paul in 1988 and told him: "Without the things you have done, I wouldn't be able to do half the things I do."
Until recently, Paul held down a regular twice-a-week gig at The Iridium jazz club in New York.
Late in life, Paul was asked about his long career and his impact.
"I don't think I'm very successful," he told O'Donnell in 2005. "I just constantly try to improve, knowing that I've improved very little since I was 15, 16 years old. You don't improve much after that."