Les Paul: The Legend Behind the Legend
In honor of Les' passing a year ago (August 2009), we're reposting this interview from 2000. It was great then, as it is now. Enjoy!
Les Paul is the only man whose entire name is completely synonymous with electric guitar. Born Lester Polfus in 1915, Les Paul first made a name for himself in the middle of the century as a lightly swinging jazz musician backing artists like Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters, and later had a hugely successful duo with wife Mary Ford. But beyond his talents as a musician, Les was a dyed-in-the-wool experimenter who sought ways to get more sounds -- and better sounds -- from his guitar and from the studio.
Les Paul's passion effectively created the solid-body electric guitar as we know it today. He also developed "sound-on-sound" recording, the tremendous breakthrough in audio technology we know today as multi-tracking. Additionally, Paul was instrumental in the creation of numerous electronic studio effects, including reverb, phasing, and echo.
For all of his accomplishments, Les Paul is known these days primarily for the solid block of wood that bears his name. When you think Les Paul, you think rock: You think Jimmy Page, Pete Townshend, Ace Frehley, Slash, Joe Perry. Not a bad set of rock and roll associations for a jazz musician. Well into his eighties now, Les still plays guitar and puts on a hell of a show in a Manhattan club every Monday night. We recently sat down with him prior to an early set, and he graciously offered up the background on his many accomplishments.
Guitar.com: Let's start with the obvious question: What first got you interested in guitars, effects, and recording?
Les Paul: I was always curious about sound. My mother had a player piano, which fascinated me when I was young, and I started playing with the rolls and punching holes in them. I found out, after a long time, how to punch the rolls in the right places to get multiple [notes] out of them. I went to my grade school science teacher -- all this was happening when I was in grade school -- and he explained to me the concepts of analog and digital, and that the player piano with roles really was sort of digital. And I realized the difference when I slowed down my mother's record player, a Victrola. When I slowed that down, the tone and the speed slowed, but when I slowed down the player piano, the speed slowed but the pitch stayed the same.
Eventually, I did a hysterectomy on my mother's piano [laughs], and I built a lot of things from her kitchen and from the house. I was singing and playing guitar at a barbecue stand one weekend and I hooked up the telephone to my mother's radio and created a PA system. That same weekend some guy in the crowd sent me a note saying he couldn't hear the guitar. He might have been a critic of my voice [laughs], but he did me a favor as far as the guitar was concerned. I took our phonograph pickup, the needle, and jammed it right into the bridge of my guitar. Now instead of playing a record, it was playing my guitar. Then I borrowed my dad's radio and had two speakers for my show. With everything all put together, it looked like something out of Frankenstein. I turned them both up, and lo and behold, everyone could hear the guitar and my voice. And my tips went up! [laughs]. Everyone was happy.
Guitar.com: What led you to the idea of a solid body?
Paul: Well, I still had a problem, because the guitar with the needle would always feed back, and moving the speaker wasn't the answer. The answer that first day was to get rid of my socks, towel, and everything I had with me, and stuff them into the guitar to kill the sound. The more I killed the sound, the better it got. Later on, I poured the whole guitar full of plaster of paris until it was solid as a rock. That was the perfect answer, but it was so goddamn heavy I couldn't lift it [laughs]. So I thought, what could I make a guitar out of that wouldn't resonate? We lived across the street from the railroad, and I realized that railroad tracks are pretty sturdy. So I got a wagon and five other guys and we lifted a four-foot piece of rail that had been taken off the line and took it home in the wagon. When I put strings on it and put my homemade pickups on it, I realized it would do the job perfectly. My mother thought I was a genius, my brother thought I was insane.
When I told my mother that this was the answer to the guitar sounds I had been looking for, she stopped me dead by saying, "Lester, the day you see Gene Autry on a horse with a piece of railroad track?." Well, she shot me down right there so I realized I'd have to use something softer. I decided to use pine wood. But after the railroad track, it sounded so bad I wanted to vomit. The track was heaven, this was hell. I knew I had to stay with wood, with basic guitar components, so starting around 1933 I had thicker and thicker tops made for my guitars. But there was still no reason for them to be hollow underneath.
Guitar.com: Is that when the "log" guitar came about?
Paul: In 1941, I came to New York because my career had come a long way, and I met with the people at Epiphone, who I knew very well. I asked them if I could use their machines on Sunday when no one was around or could watch me. So I mounted a neck to a 4x4 piece of wood, and it sounded as good as that railroad piece. It sounded absolutely great. Then I went to Woodside, Long Island, [New York] and sat in with some guys. I wanted to see the reaction of everyone, because I knew they were going to hear the best sound they had ever heard coming out of an electric guitar.
Well, everyone said it sounded horrible, including the other musicians, the people at the bar, and the bartender. So I thought about it, and I went down the following Sunday to Epiphone and put two L-5 wings [upper and lower bouts] on either side of the 4x4, and covered that middle part with black plastic, like a pickguard. I played with the same trio the next week and everyone said it was the best guitar they had ever heard [laughs]. And it was the same guitar! Then I moved to Chicago, and I took it to Gibson, which had its headquarters there at the time. They thought it was stupid. Here they were making beautiful L-5 guitars and I wanted them to make a goddamned 4x4. Years later, Maurice C. Berlin [head of Gibson's parent company] said that they used to joke about me; I was the guy with the broomstick guitar.
Guitar.com: But they came back to you once Leo Fender started successfully selling his version. Did you know what Leo was doing back then?
Paul: Leo Fender and I were dear friends. He used to come to my backyard when I was living in California, in the days when everyone came over, people like Bing Crosby and W.C. Fields. He saw my L-5 back in the 1940s. He even asked me to go into business with him, but I was holding out for the big guys -- Gibson. I really wanted to show them. Leo gave me one of his first guitars and I still have it at home.
Guitar.com: There were stories that Gibson wanted to give up making electric guitars just as rock and roll was getting big.
Paul: Well, they had to stop using my name as I went through my divorce from Mary, so they stopped making the guitar for a while. But when that was over, in 1966, I almost went to work with Fender because they had approached me to start making the Les Paul again, before I re-signed with Gibson. Before I did a deal with Fender -- and I really couldn't see the Les Paul being made by Fender -- I went to Gibson to give them a chance. And Mr. Berlin said that the electric guitar was dead, and that Gibson was going to stop making them. It took me and my manager 18 hours to convince them to keep producing them. I mean, people like Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, and Jeff Beck were showing up playing Les Pauls. So Mr. Berlin said if I oversaw the new electrics for the company, they would keep making them. He stuck to his word, and let me run the thing exactly the way I wanted to. And I'm the happiest guy in the world with the way it turned out.