Personalities | Les Paul | Innovator & Icon | Guitar Heroes

Les Paul (1915–2009) developed a reputation in modern music beyond his status as a successful performer and guitar innovator through his pioneering work with multitrack recording.

Born Lester Polsfuss in Waukesha, Wisconsin, the nine-year-old Paul first picked up the harmonica from a street musician. Soon, he was playing for money in the streets. He was attracted to electronics, and about the same time, began conducting his own experiments with sound. He started playing guitar at the age of 11 and, by the time he was 18, played country music under the name Rhubarb Red. After hearing Django Reinhardt, he switched over to jazz and changed his name to Les Paul.

In 1943, after a successful stint on New York radio, Paul moved to Hollywood, formed a trio, and soon was appearing with stars like Nat ‘King’ Cole and Bing Crosby, with whom he recorded a hit version of ‘It’s Been A Long, Long Time’. Crosby would help finance Paul’s experiments, which resulted in the Gibson Guitar Company adopting Paul’s suggestions for a guitar that, in the 1950s, became the Les Paul model. But Paul almost had to leave the guitar behind forever. His right arm was shattered in a car crash in 1948. The doctors could not restore mobility to the arm, but set it at a right angle so that Paul could continue to play.

In 1947, Capitol Records released a recording that had begun as an experiment in Paul’s garage. It featured Paul playing eight different parts on electric guitar. His experiments initiated the process of multitrack recording, which he used to successful effect when he teamed up with singer Mary Ford for a string of 1950s hits like ‘How High The Moon’, which featured overdubbed guitars playing in harmony. Paul’s fame helped his namesake guitar gain fans, ultimately exploding in popularity in the rock era. When Gibson changed the design without telling him, he demanded his name be removed from the headstock. That guitar, renamed the SG, also became a popular guitar with rockers. Paul continued to innovate and perform, and in the twenty-first century, he still held down a long-running weekly gig at New York’s Iridium Jazz Club. Les Paul succumbed to complications from pneumonia in 2009.

Essential Recordings

with Mary Ford: ‘How High The Moon’

with Mary Ford: ‘Via Con Dios’

with Chet Atkins: Chester & Lester

with Various Artists: Les Paul & Friends: American Made World Played

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