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How Les Paul Changed Recorded Music Forever (and Got an Iconic Guitar Named After Him)

Gibson Les Paul guitar

If you know the name Les Paul at all, it’s likely because of the Gibson guitar with the fat, gutsy tone. You may even know that there was a real guy named Les Paul.

But what’s less known is that the Gibson Les Paul is one of his lesser accomplishments. In fact, he wasn’t really that involved with it at all.

Regardless, the career of Les Paul can serve as an example to anyone looking for a career in the music business. Throughout his long life, Paul was an indefatigable musician, inventor, recording engineer, songwriter, and luthier. His perfectionism and showmanship are legendary. 

The Birth of a Legend

In 1915, Lester William Polsfuss born in Waukesha, Wisconsin, a small city near Milwaukee. At a young age, he started playing the harmonica, then the piano, before settling on the guitar.

He an inventor and a musician very early on. As a child, he took apart his family’s player piano to see how it worked. In his early teens, he devised a harmonica holder out of wire hangers so he could play the harp and guitar at the same time. 

At 13, he was calling himself “Red Hot Red” and playing roadhouses and drive-ins around Waukesha. He was already experimenting with amplification — Red Hot Red attached a phonograph needle to his Sears Roebuck acoustic and wired it to a radio speaker.

Red grew up to have a peripatetic life, moving to Chicago to New York to Los Angeles, gigging, tinkering, and experimenting with recording techniques in order to make new sounds.

Drafted during World War II, Paul worked for the Armed Forced Radio Network, backing giant recording stars like Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters.

Les Paul’s First Recording Studio

After the war, Les Paul set up a recording studio in his garage in Hollywood. He married singer Mary Ford in 1948, starting a collaboration that led to a radio show, a TV show, and numerous hit records.

At the time, the cutting-edge recording technology was the Ampex 200A reel-to-reel tape deck. Paul used it to devise a way to make multi-track recordings. In this clip from his TV show, the vocals demonstrate his revolutionary overdubbing techniques, as well as the incredible fluidity of his guitar playing.

(Check out also their rendition of the Tennessee Waltz and How High the Moon.)

Re-Inventing the Guitar

These achievements would be impressive enough. But as his recording-needle experiment shows, Les was also an early proponent of the electric guitar.

Hollow-body electric guitars were common during the 30s, but prone to feedback. Les tried to solve this problem by inventing a solid-body guitar.

His first attempt was to simply fill a hollow-body with plaster of Paris. This cut down on the feedback but made the guitar too heavy to play comfortably.

A more successful prototype was the Log — a plank of lumber with a bridge and a pickup and a neck attached. To make it look less strange, Les sliced an Epiphone archtop in half and attached each wing to the plank to make it look more like a guitar.

Les Paul and Gibson

He took the design to Gibson, who dismissed it as “a broomstick with pickups.” But by the early 50s, when Fender was having success with its solid-body electric guitars, Gibson paid Les to lend his name, and a few ideas, to their own solid-body design. The Gibson Les Paul was born.

The rise of rock and roll put Mary Ford’s close harmonies and Les’s clean picking out of fashion. But his recording techniques would go on to inspire innovators like the Beatles and the Beach Boys. And the Gibson Les Paul remains an iconic instrument in American popular music.

In his later years, Les achieved a comeback with a regular gig at New York City’s Iridium Club. Into his 90s, Les was astonishing the audience with his charm and virtuosity, even when his left hand was stiffened by arthritis.

Les Paul’s Impact on Music

Today, some may be tempted to dismiss Les as a relic of an earlier time. That would be a mistake. You don’t have to love his tunes or even be a guitar player. Nor should you worry about it if you don’t have his range of talents. Who does?

The thing to remember — especially if you’re embarking on a career in the music business — is his relentless curiosity, and that he never forgot that his primary job was to make music that made people feel good.

Located in the heart of Minneapolis’ arts and entertainment district, the Institute of Production and Recording provides hands-on training in media, video, sound, music and live show production.  Learn more about our Audio Production Program.