Les Paul, the man credited with helping to revolutionize the electric guitar and change the course of music with his innovations in multi-track recording, died on Thursday (August 13) at the age of 94. According to a statement released by Gibson guitars — which manufactures the world-famous guitars bearing Paul’s name — he died of complications from pneumonia in a White Plains, New York, hospital.
From the time he picked up his first guitar at the age of 9, Paul was fascinated with the instrument and its myriad possibilities. He began playing professionally at age 13 with country and western bands, as well as tinkering in his shop with a number of sound-related inventions that would soon revolutionize and forever change the sound of modern popular music.
While working as a bandleader for a number of jazz, country and pop groups, he built the first solid-body electric guitar in 1941 and devised a number of sound technologies that would become the building blocks of popular music, including echo, delay and overdubbing — adding more sounds over a basic recorded track — and, most importantly, multi-track recording, the process that allows an artist to record a number of different musical tracks at the same time and then blend them together to create a richer, fuller sound. Without this invention, the lush, psychedelic rock masterpieces of the Who, the Beatles and Led Zeppelin would not have been possible, not to mention every single popular song recorded today.
Lester William Polsfuss was born in Waukesha, Wisconsin on June 9, 1915. He dropped out of school at 17 to play in Sunny Joe Wolverton’s Radio Band in St. Louis, earning the nickname “Rhubarb Red” from the bandleader, a handle that would stay with him when he moved to Chicago in 1934 and became a radio star playing hillbilly music as well as jazz guitar under the name Les Paul.
Fascinated with the idea of electrifying musical instruments due to his distaste for the lack of sustain and thin sound of hollow-body guitars, the “Waukesha Wizard” toiled on weekends to perfect his solid-body electrical guitar, initially a 4-by-4 piece of wood strung with steel strings called “The Log.”
“I was interested in proving that a vibration-free top was the way to go,” he’s said of his drive to perfect the instrument. “I even built a guitar out of a railroad rail to prove it. What I wanted was to amplify pure string vibration, without the resonance of the wood getting involved in the sound.”
Even as he worked to perfect the electrified guitar, Paul backed up such popular 1940s acts as Bing Crosby, Dinah Shore and the Andrews Sisters. In 1947, he released the revolutionary instrumental “Lover (When You’re Near Me),” a precursor to multi-track recording that featured him playing eight different guitar parts. He also recorded hit songs with his wife, singer Mary Ford, including 36 gold records and 11 #1 pop hits such as “How High the Moon,” “Lover” and “Vaya Con Dios,” many of which used the overdubbing techniques Paul had helped develop.
When rock and roll exploded onto the scene in the 1950s, his signature Les Paul guitar became one of the weapons of choice for a generation of rockers including Chuck Berry, the Everly Brothers and B.B. King, and later, the Who’s Pete Townshend, Eric Clapton, Bob Marley, Carlos Santana, Dave Grohl, The Edge, Lenny Kravitz, Neil Young, Joan Jett, Eddie Van Halen, Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong, Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page and countless others. His gold-topped Gibson Les Paul went on to become one of the most popular guitar models of all time.
Paul won a Grammy in 1977 for an album of instrumental duets with Chet Atkins and had a standing gig for much of the 1980s and mid-’90s at the New York jazz club Fat Tuesday’s. He won a pair of Grammys at age 90 in 2005 for American Made, World Played, an all-star album featuring such disciples as Peter Frampton, Aerosmith’s Joe Perry, Steve Miller, Buddy Guy, Keith Richards, Jeff Beck and ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame at its third annual dinner in 1988 as “the architect of rock and roll.”
Until recently, Paul continued to perform two weekly shows with the Les Paul Trio at the Iridium Jazz Club in New York, which often featured guest stars such as Keith Richards and Paul McCartney.
A private funeral service for Paul will be held in New York and plans are being made for a memorial tribute for the public at a future date.