Who was Les Paul? He was man who could be classified in many different ways: Inventor, audio engineer, producer, arranger, musician—as a jazz, country and blues guitarist– and designer of audio circuits and of guitars.
As disparate as each of these skills may be, he brought one common quality to all of them: Innovation. It is remarkable to recognize just how many of the innovations we now take for granted in audio can be traced back to this one man.
As I was doing research on his life, I couldn’t help but be overwhelmed with a feeling of sadness at times. Sadness because I’ll never get to meet Les Paul, sadness because I fear the world is lacking in people as great and as significant as him anymore.
Les Paul was a person filled with new ideas, exuberance, and a seemingly unquenchable thirst for life. He saw the world like a collection of small puzzles and seemed to genuinely believe that he was put on this earth to solve all of them.
His inventing started from an early age when it became clear to him that a “normal” harmonica holder just wasn’t good enough, and he didn’t stop for the rest of his life. He was at it even as he approached 90, working to improve the hearing aids he had to rely on late in life.
Sadly, he did not get to complete that endeavor, passing away in 2009, with less-than-innovative hearing aids to contend with. But along with the sadness I feel for a world without Les Paul is an awe of his accomplishments, and a gratefulness that he was even here to change the face of music and audio production as we know it.
An Unordinary Life
Paul began his musical career playing country and eventually, ended up in jazz and popular music.
He is one of the pioneers of the solid body electric guitar and experimented with various configurations for years until finally teaming up with Gibson to form one of the most successful and long-lasting endorsement partnerships in music history.
Les was never quite satisfied with the “typical” anything. When something he thought up wasn’t available, he would create it. He is credited with being one of the first to experiment with many different recording innovations such as overdubbing, delay effects, phasing, and many more.
He was also one of the earliest home recordists, and was recording his trio in his apartment in Chicago as early as 1935. He would record his then-wife and constant collaborator, Mary Ford, all over his house, and even displayed his sound on sound technique live using Ampex tape machines on the Alistair Cooke’s “Omnibus” show. He appeared on the show in order to dispel rumors that the sole basis of his music was electronics, rather than human performance.
I was fortunate to get my hands on a copy of his autobiography Les Paul: In His Own Words, which released the same year of his death. The book is currently out of print but you can still find it second-hand with a bit of digging. Throughout this article, I’ll include key quotes from the book to help tell Les’ story in his own words.
Lester William Polsfuss was born in 1915 in Waukesha, Wisconsin. His parents, George and Evelyn Polsfuss, were of German ancestry. They divorced when Paul was still young, and so he was raised solely by his mother.
He showed his exuberance and inventive spirit from a very young age, even modifying his mother’s player piano as early as 8 years old. He would cover up the holes on the piano roll and make new holes to alter the compositions to his own liking. This was typical of Les. It was almost as if he couldn’t look at anything without wondering how it worked and how he could change it to make it better.
“When I threw the switch, I wanted to know what happened between the switch and the bulb that made it come on. I knew there was something going on there and I wanted to know in detail what the hell it was.”
Les was given his first harmonica by a ditch digger around the same time he was altering his mother’s piano roll. That harmonica truly jump-started his love affair with music, which would last the rest of his life.
After designing his own neck worn harmonica holder—which allowed him to play both sides without removing it from the holder—he began to also take an interest in electronics. He started by building a crystal microphone set and going to the radio transmitter tower on weekends where he introduced himself to a friendly engineer who would show him the equipment and answer any questions he had.
From here, he complimented his harmonica with a guitar from Sears, and began to play anywhere that had an audience. Les was a born entertainer, and jumped at any opportunity to play in front of people. Soon, he began playing regularly at Beekman’s Barbecue Stand, and it was there that he was confronted with the catalyst that was to spark his obsession with developing an amplified electric guitar, and perfecting it. After finishing one set, he received a note from someone in the audience that simply said,“Red, your voice and harmonica are fine, but your guitar’s not loud enough.”
The Origin of the Les Paul Solid Body Guitar
Paul started out with a telephone mouthpiece, but using it on stage created too much feedback. He eventually figured that a phonograph needle might work better so he jammed his dad’s player’s needle down into the guitar’s bridge and connected it to a radio speaker. It wasn’t perfect but it worked.
(This wasn’t the only occasion that he’d try out a solution with whatever he could get his hands on. Around this time, he also had the idea of building his first disc cutting lathe with a Cadillac flywheel and dental belts.)
As a teenager, Les further developed the idea of a low-feedback amplified guitar by creating his first solid body electric using a two foot piece of metal rail from a nearby train line.
“Using a short length of steel railroad rail and two railroad spikes, I invented a device that could give me a consistent reference point for my experiments. I took a guitar string and fastened it at each end of the steel rail using the spikes like a bridge and nut to raise the string so it could be plucked. Then I took a telephone microphone, wired it into Mom’s radio for amplification, and placed it on the rail under the string. I soon figured out that the tremendous solidity of the rail allowed the string’s vibration to sustain for a longer time, and there was no feedback.”
After eventually dropping out of high school with his mother’s blessing, Les teamed up with Sunny Joe Wolverton’s Radio Band and began performing on “hillbilly” radio stations in Missouri. They had some success together and both moved to Missouri to start a two-man act, to which Paul credits his improvement as a guitar player. Sunny Joe became his mentor and Les had a knack for picking up and imitating everything he did.