Frankly Speaking

Hanging With Les Paul

Issue 128

Les Paul was a tremendous influence not only on guitar players but anyone who’s ever listened to music recorded after around the late 1940s. Aside from being a dazzling guitarist and one of the first electric guitar virtuoso “shredders,” Les Paul (born Lester William Polsfuss) pioneered or was one of the first in the development of multitrack recording, close-miking, tape echo, pitch-shifting and other modern recording techniques. The Gibson Les Paul guitar is an iconic rock and blues instrument, with a thick, powerful sustaining tone. In his heyday Les Paul and his musical partner Mary Ford were top stars who sold millions of records.

Les Paul.

Les Paul.

Les Paul certainly had a major impact on me, especially since I got to hang with the guy a few times.

In 1991 I was working at The Absolute Sound when a CD box set, Les Paul, the Legend and the Legacy arrived at the office. It was an excellent compilation of Les Paul and wife/fellow performer Mary Ford’s Capitol sides from 1947 through 1958.

The CD package came with press information, and, thinking quickly for once in my life, I saw this as an opportunity to interview Les Paul. I figured it was far from a certainty – after all, this was Les Paul, guitar legend. And I’d heard he could be difficult and had an ego. But I knew the man’s career and music, made a convincing pitch to Capitol’s PR person…and they said, “Come down to Fat Tuesday’s (the Manhattan club where Paul played on Monday nights) and you’ll be able to interview Les about an hour before the first show.”

A couple of weeks later it was time to drive from Sea Cliff, New York into Manhattan. I had brought my 1984 Les Paul Standard gold top for Les to sign. I loaded up my 1992 Honda Civic and drove away…but something didn’t feel right…

After driving about a mile I realized that in my excitement over being able to meet Les Paul I had forgotten to load my guitar into the car! I had left it in the street!

Panicked, I drove back to the office. I pulled up to the spot where I had left the guitar and it wasn’t there. Crushed, I went to the office to call the police (no cell phone in those days)…and saw an elderly man standing at the door with my guitar in hand. He had found it in the street, saw the TAS business card that was taped to the case and had gone to the office to return it. After I proved who I was, the man gave it back to me, refusing any kind of reward.

What a way to start the trip. Every five minutes I’d turn my head and look in the back seat to make sure the guitar was still there.

I got to Fat Tuesday’s and there was Les Paul, hanging out by the small stage in the small room, kibitzing with the other musicians, his son Rus and some other people. He still had some tinges of red in his hair (before making it as Les Paul he was known as Rhubarb Red), was wearing a turtleneck and old-man pants, and was thin, smaller than I’d imagined him. I was introduced to Les. “Hi, so you’re the guy from the magazine who’s going to do the article!” Les practically yelled it out in a gravelly yet friendly voice. He shook my hand, eyed my guitar case with a smile (said case in my left hand in a vise grip) and said, “C’mon, let’s go!”

Les Paul, 2008. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Thomas Faivre-Duboz.

Les Paul, 2008. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Thomas Faivre-Duboz.

He led me to a tiny back room with irregular dark walls and exposed pipes, boxes of food and liquor and a small, battered table. I’d pictured a fancy green room but nope; the two of us barely fit. Clearly, Les Paul wasn’t a man of affectations. I laid out my tape recorder and notebook and Les bellowed, “well, go ahead. Ask away!”

I was tongue-tied. I This was my first interview with a bona-fide legend. Sensing my nervousness, Les looked at me and said, “I know, I know…you’re all alone in a room with LES PAUL!” He said it in such a self-deprecating manner that it was a perfect way for him to break the ice. We laughed, then I looked at my notes and said, “I had all these questions I was going to ask you but now that I’m sitting with you, it doesn’t seem right.” He replied, “OK, let’s just talk. Ask me anything!” Which we did. Portions of the interview, which originally ran in The Absolute Sound in 1992, are included below with permission of TAS, along with a link to the complete interview. We talked about the beginning of his recording career in the 1920s, his early experiments with guitar amplification, his working with Mary Ford, specific recording techniques, his favorite guitarists and a lot more.

 

Then it was time for him to do a soundcheck with the rest of the musicians, long-time second guitarist Lou Pallo (who passed away in 2020) and I think Gary Mazzaroppi on bass (I’m not sure). Les picked up a brown sunburst Les Paul that looked somewhat customized (many of his onstage guitars weren’t stock), plugged into a seventies Fender Twin Reverb house amp, and played a few notes.

What is that indescribable something that defines a great artist? Their sound. Their tone. It’s the combination of the way they attack, hold and release the notes, the dynamic shadings of their touch, their timing, the spaces they leave between the notes…and an X factor that maybe none of us will ever understand, including the artists themselves. Les was playing 10 feet in front of me, and time stopped. There it was. The sound. THAT sound. Oh my god.

The rest of the band joined in and ran through snippets of a few songs to make sure the levels were right. Before leaving the stage, Les looked at his guitar, made a face and said, “you know what? This guitar is a b*tch!” I thought, here’s a guy with dozens of guitars in his house, who could play any guitar in the world, and why is he using one that’s hard to play? (Never got the answer.)

After the soundcheck Les went to the bar to hang out. He was drinking Miller Lite. Again I thought, this guy can afford any drink and why is he…I couldn’t help it. I asked him, “why are you drinking Miller Lite instead of something better?” He rasped, “because I like it!”

Someone tapped Les on the shoulder and motioned it was time for him to go on stage. In that short walk from the bar to the stage he transformed from some guy at the bar to…Les Paul. He bantered a little with the now-packed house, counted off the first tune (might have been (“Caravan”), and…pure magic.

Les Paul and Mary Ford, 1954. Like many of his personal guitars, this one is highly modified from stock.

Mesmerizing. Enchanting. Les had arthritis by this time and couldn’t play as adeptly as in the past. Didn’t matter. The notes, the sound, the music coming out of him was sublime. He played mostly (or maybe all) standards, and what playing, weaving jazzy and country licks, fast runs, slow bent notes and an endlessly creative stream of melodies, combined with that clean, articulate, bright yet full-bodied unmistakable hi-fi tone that no one else has ever attained.

After the show, many admirers wanted to shake his hand and get his autograph. I stood on the line to meet him with my guitar in hand. I figured I’d have him sign the edge or the back of the guitar so as not to mark the guitar’s gorgeous, pristine metallic gold top. As I got close to him I took the guitar out of the case to get it ready. I started noodling on it. When I got to Les he looked at me and said, “hey, you can play!”

If I’d died on the spot my life would have been complete.

I handed him the guitar and he said, “where do you want me to sign it?” I answered, “oh, I don’t know, maybe on the side or the back?”

He made a face and said, “If I sign it there, no one’s going to see it!” He waved the Sharpie I had given him around with a flourish.

Pause.

What am I going to do, say no to Les Paul? “OK, sign it wherever you want to.” He smiled – and proceeded to scrawl, “To Frank – Keep Pickin’! Les Paul, 12-91” on top of the guitar.

I don’t know what kind of nuclear-winter-resistant ink they put in that Sharpie, but look at the condition of the signature today.

1984 Les Paul Standard guitar with Les Paul's signature.

I saw Les a couple of more times in the 1990s at Fat Tuesday’s (now defunct) and at trade shows. He was always wearing a turtleneck and old-man pants and drinking Miller Lite. On November 13, 1993 I went to Fat Tuesday’s as a guest of Sony, and they lent me a portable DAT recorder with permission to record the show for personal use. I still have the tape.

I was surprised that he always remembered me, but he did, and greeted me warmly every time. The last time I saw him, around 2005 at an AES convention, I ran into him in the JBL booth. I hadn’t seen him in something like 10 years, but he went right up to me and said, “how are you doing?” The people working the booth thought I was some kind of rock star or something, but no, I was just someone lucky enough to have met Les Paul.

Once time I went to Fat Tuesday’s with my wife. We got there and Les said hello – and promptly ignored me once I introduced my wife to him. I have to tell you that women were attracted by Les’ easy charisma and well, flat-out star power, and he clearly liked their attention in return. Les lit up in talking to her. I disappeared into the background for a few moments.

On the way in to the show I’d been thinking – our wedding song was “Blue Skies,” and I was debating whether to ask Les to play it to surprise her. But I wimped out; I figured, he has a set list; he doesn’t know the song; he probably gets annoyed by constant requests.

Then Les got on the stage, greeted the crowd and counted off the first song.

“Blue Skies.”

I couldn’t breathe.

After the song ended I looked at my wife and, very emotionally, said, “I can’t believe it.” And told her I hadn’t put Les up to it.

It was fate.

After a couple of more songs, she turned to me and said, “he could have any woman in this room if he wanted.”

 

Excerpts From the Interview

The following are excerpts from the interview Les and I did in 1992.

For a link to the complete interview – over 6,000 words worth! – click here: Les Paul, Complete Interview. We talk about topics including wire recording, Bing Crosby, Jimi Hendrix, how Les Paul and Mary Ford met, analog versus digital, solid-state, tubes, drilling holes in tape recorders and a lot more.

Frank Doris: When did you first get involved with recording?

Les Paul: Right at the very beginning, in the 1920s.

FD: When did you realize that not only did you have to play the guitar, but wanted to get a certain sound?

LP: I wasn’t happy with the acoustical sound of the instrument. I heard what was happening on the string itself, without the influence of the guitar body…that was the sound that I wanted, and so analyzing it I strung up the string on a railroad track, then on a piece of wood…then on the guitar itself, and I said, “Now look. The guitar alters it. It enhances it. It changes it. It distorts it. It makes it something different than it originally was. What I would like to do is go back and build the guitar starting with the string itself. Picking up the [pure] sound of that string and then modifying it any way you wish. And so I came up with the idea of making a reproduction of the sound of the string only [and] came up with a 4 x 4 [piece of wood] with a string on it.

FD: The description of it sounds pretty close to what the Les Paul guitar eventually evolved into – two pickups and a solid body.

You started with disc recording in the Forties. It’s incredible that you even thought of doing sound-on-sound on disc. Were you using acetate in those days?

Les Paul in the studio.

LP: Aluminum [discs] in 1928. [Les would record a track on one disc, then overdub another track onto another disc while playing along with the first one, and so on.]

FD: The tape recorder first came out after World War II. Were the original wire recorders impractical?

LP: Oh I had the wire recorder in ’36…I was tying knots in that wire…(laughs) I knew that wasn’t going to work. I went back to the disc and stayed there. 

FD: And then Ampex came out with their magnetic tape machine.

LP: No Ampex didn’t. Rangertone.

FD: Rangertone?

LP: Col. Ranger. Dick Ranger. He worked for me. He approached me in 1946.

FD: I’ve never heard of him!

LP: I’m sure very few know him. [Then] Jack Mullin took the idea to Ampex, who put it out, but I already had told Bing Crosby that Col. Ranger had built one.

FD: I suppose it must have taken about a hundredth of a second for you to get the idea that you could do sound-on-sound by recording on one tape deck and bouncing the sound onto another.

LP: When I first saw the Ampex 300 tape machine, Bing Crosby brought it in my backyard and says, “Here’s a present for you…” I took a look at it and said, “How in the hell am I going to take this on the road so we don’t have to take the whole garage with us to make recordings!” And all of a sudden I said, “Mary, I got it! I can make a thing called sound-on-sound!”

We drove to Chicago to play a date. I told Ampex I needed a new [tape] head [and] had burned mine out, and I asked them to send a new head to the New Lawrence Hotel, where we were staying. I didn’t want to let them know what I was doing! I hooked that head up after I had a guy drill a hole for me in the top plate. And we wired in the head and I spoke into the mike and said, “Hello, hello, hello,” and out comes two hellos, three hellos, four hellos, and I went to work and Mary says “My god, the thing works!”

Mary Ford and Les Paul.

FD: How did you manage to go all the way to eight tracks?

LP: Well, it was very simple. In terms of fidelity, and according to available track width, we decided that eight was the magic number.

FD: It really didn’t catch on in pop recording until…

LP: Till the Beatles.

FD: Sgt. Pepper, ’67.

LP: I asked Paul McCartney about it and he says, “Les, we just worshipped what you did,” et cetera, et cetera. I said, “How come you didn’t grab it sooner?” And he said, “We didn’t know about it sooner!”

FD: What advice would you give aspiring guitarists?

LP: Do your own thing. No one guitarist can do everything. It helps to study the ways other guitarists play, but ultimately, you have to find your own voice. It you do that, playing will be a lot easier than if you try to force yourself to play in a style that isn’t you.

1984 Gibson Les Paul Standard.

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