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A True Visionary: Les Paul

By Paul White

One might wonder at the potential for success of an electric guitar with the name 'Lester William Polfuss' emblazoned across the headstock, but fortunately his stage name of Les Paul was somewhat easier to fit into the available space. Born in 1915, Les Paul was a remarkable musician and innovator, who continued playing live until his death, at the age of 94, in August of this year.

We've all witnessed how technology changes the way in which music is made, and how that, in turn, changes the type of music being composed — where would dance music be without the quantise button? — but few people can have made such an impact on the world of popular music as Les Paul. Even though his early attempts at building a solid‑body electric guitar were ridiculed, Gibson eventually asked him to help them create the signature Les Paul model, and even before the invention of magnetic tape, Les Paul was experimenting with 'sound on sound' overdubbing techniques using disc‑cutting lathes, adding a new part as he copied one disc to another. One can only imagine the pile of discs created during this process, as there was no erase button or undo function.

This destructive layering technique was successfully transferred to tape when mono tape machines became available, but Les Paul soon wanted to push things further, and had an electronic engineer build him a true multitrack tape recorder based on his ideas and needs as a musician. This was to be the forerunner of all the multitrack tape machines that were in use until computer technology started to edge them out in the last decade.

Along the way, Les Paul discovered tape echo and other effects that are still around today. Indeed, so major was his contribution to the art that he is one of very few people with a permanent exhibit in the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame. Less known perhaps is the fact that Les Paul also made it into the US National Inventors Hall Of Fame in 2005.

Though similar discoveries would probably have been made by someone else at some later time, Les Paul's musical and technical abilities saw this one man contribute to many areas of music technology that we still draw upon today, and it is hard to imagine what course things might have taken if he'd decided on a different career. Moreover, by playing live right up until immediately before his death, he also taught us that playing the music you love keeps you young and productive. Les Paul was a rare creative force and will be greatly missed.

Paul White Editor In Chief  

Published October 2009