Les Paul

November 18, 2021
 by Paul McGowan

Modern music and the art of recording have much to thank the musician, Les Paul for.

Lester William Polsfuss was born in 1915 and lived to the ripe old age of 94. He was known around the world as a self-taught American jazz, country, and blues guitarist, songwriter, luthier, and inventor.

It is the inventor in Les Paul that brings me to today’s post.

After inventing the solid-body electric guitar (his prototype, called the Log, served as inspiration for the Gibson Les Paul) he went on to invent many innovations still in use today, including overdubbing (also known as sound on sound), delay effects such as tape delay, phasing, and multitrack recording.

It is to this last invention that I wanted to bring particular attention to.

At the beginning of audio recording, there was of course mono. Just about every tape machine I used (like the old Ampex 301) was a full-track mono recorder. Then, in the early 1960s came stereo two-track audio recorders. These (and a handful of 3-track machines like those used on the old mercury’s and RCAs) became the standard for recording—not for a different listening experience like going from mono to stereo, but to enable musicians to go from live studio recordings to the era of produced multitrack recording. Now, for the first time, recordings could be built in layers that could later be mixed into finished works.

And who was at the forefront of the multitrack recorder?

You guessed it, Les Paul.

In the mid-1950s, when the Ampex corporation devised the concept of 8-track recording, using its “Sel-Sync” (Selective Synchronous) recording system, it sold its very first machine to Les Paul for a princely sum of $10,000 – roughly three times the US average yearly income in 1957, and equivalent to $92,145 in 2020.

Wow. What a musician. What an innovator.

In addition to all his achievements, Les Paul is one of a handful of artists with a permanent exhibit in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the only person in history to be included in both the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the National Inventors Hall of Fame.

People like Les Paul come into our world only on occasion, and I love to celebrate their achievements.

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38 comments on “Les Paul”

  1. Milwaukee-born rock star Steve Miller of the Steve Miller Band had a childhood any other musician would die for: Les Paul was his godfather and taught him to play guitar. … Paul and Miller’s father met at Fazio’s in Milwaukee in 1948, where Paul and his wife, Mary Ford, were creating a show to take to New York.

    1. What a great article Frank. I started to read it and realized how long it was so I skimmed the interview but I’m gonna go back to it in a little while.

      I had no idea that’s Fat Tuesdays was his home away from home. One of my favorite jazz clubs. Sad that it is no longer around.

      Thanks for posting the link, I’m going to get back to the interview now.

      1. Thanks. After Fat Tuesday’s he moved his residency to Iridium, but I never got to see him there. Yes, it’s sad that Fat Tuesdays is gone. It was a fun place.

        1. Did you ever hear the story about the night that Professor Irwin Cory introduced Stan Getz at fat Tuesdays?

          A 15 minute rant in which Stan Getz went through three cigarettes until someone took the microphone away from the professor. It was absolutely hysterical.

            1. The professor was with Jerry Stiller. Someone on the back room microphone introduced the professor to say a few words (in this case it was an oxymoron) to bring out Stan’s quartet. From that point the professor went into his song and dance which he was famous for and Getz just hung out shaking his head while he was chain-smoking waiting for his introduction. This was not a typical jazz clubs intro.

    2. What a great article Frank. I started to read it and realized how long it was so I skimmed the interview but I’m gonna go back to it in a little while.

      I had no idea that’s Fat Tuesdays was his home away from home. One of my favorite jazz clubs. Sad that it is no longer around.

      Thanks for posting the link, I’m going to get back to the interview now.

  2. What a beautiful tribute to Les Paul.
    I grew up listening to his music and was always intrigued by the sound of his guitar and his playing technique. I had no idea that he was such an incredible innovator.

    For anyone in my age group, Les Paul was a household name. The Gibson Les Paul model is coveted by so many guitar players young and old.

    Bravo Paul!!

  3. Les Paul will always be idolized by me for inventing overdubbing which led to my favorite group/singer of all time The Carpenters. This was a great article . Thanks a lot.

  4. I think Les exaggerated his innovation while playing down some of his biggest accomplishments.

    The first known overdub ever released was Enrico Caruso adding his vocal to an orchestra. This was done using acoustical recording and playback! Every Victor studio was fully equipped to do disk to disk overdubbing and editing. Multitrack recording and overdubbing were first employed in the film industry during the 1930s. Les was just the first to brag about using techniques that had previously been very quietly used because they were considered cheating.

    Les actually DID invent country guitar playing and recording/broadcasting electric guitars “direct” without a microphone. This happened in Chicago on the National Barn Dance radio program. “Country music” was quite literally invented for that show by Sears Roebuck as an integral part of their radio station, WLS. George Hay, the announcer on that program, went on to create WSM in Nashville TN and the Grand Ole Opry. Unfortunately, “country” was not “cool,” so Les Paul never talked about where he’d gotten his start.

  5. Bing Crosby bought Les an Ampex 300 which he used for some of his “sound-on-sound” work. The story goes that he didn’t want Ampex to know what he was up to so when he ordered a additional head for the transport he told Ampex that the original head had “burned out”.

  6. He also seemed to be a very nice man. I met him once in the mid 1990s when I brought my young son to a New Jersey Arthritis Foundation fund raiser. Someone on our Board arranged for Les Paul to come to a Board member’s home not far from where he lived in Mahwah and thereby help gather donations for the Foundation (he did not have to solicit!). He had osteoarthritis of his hands which did not seem to affect his musicianship and so perhaps was interested in the Arthritis Foundation’s work. He was happy to talk to any guest who wanted to talk to him, and there were plenty. He was lively, talkative and polite despite what were likely very repetitive questions and conversations.

      1. I had vaguely heard of him as my elder son saved up for a GLP Sunburst when he was a teenager. He never crossed my musical radar.

        When I was a kid I did fencing (not bits of wood that separate gardens, swords that you use to try and stab your school friends). We used to get our gear from a shop called Leon Paul. Easy to get the two people confused.

    1. There are certain people who don’t like Les, but really who doesn’t respect Les? I’m not a fan of the Les Paul guitar, the neck is too thick and simply prefer the action of a Fender Stratocaster.

  7. A handful of years ago I attended the huge annual motorcycle show in Cleveland, OH, where I saw a custom motorcycle dedicated to Les Paul that embodied custom ornamentation relating to his famous work with the guitar. It was a work of art worthy of someone who does a lot more riding than I. Wish I could post some photos here. Here’s a link to a short article with a 2-minute video that shows some of the details of the bike. Unfortunately, like a lot of rock videos, it tends to glorify the people more than the motorcycle. Enjoy. 😎
    https://ultimatemotorcycling.com/2016/02/03/les-paul-100th-anniversary-commemorative-custom-chopper/

  8. Paul, Great article about one of the greatest. But when you started in on tracks it brought up a snippet of lyrics “can you relate to a quarter track tape, you know the band performs in the nude” and now I can’t get it out of my head. lol. I added that old Sugarloaf to my play queue, maybe that’ll help.

  9. I well recall my reel to reel taped in the late 1960’s. They were two track units and I had lots of fun recording with them.
    When I got into Hi-Fi it was turntables as the major source with cassettes coming along in the early 70’s.
    It was only many years later that I discovered the recording gems of Mercury from the mid 1950’s. Those 3 track stereo recordings were done on tape by the renowned Bob & Wilma Cozart Fine – so your timeline is slightly off Paul. I still play one of those 1955 recordings at audio events and ask people to guess how old the recoding might be. Nobody has guessed it right yet unless they have been to one of my events previously. It is stunning in every respect. Those old engineers and musicians such as Les Paul knew about music, how to read a score and how real instruments sounded.

  10. A number of years ago I found myself in Waukesha, Wisconsin for work and insisted we visit the Les Paul Museum in the Waukesha County Historical Society for lunch.
    It was time very well spent.
    Thanks for everything, Les!

  11. Find a recording called “Chester and Lester” – Les Paul and Chet Atkins playing duets.
    Absolutely amazing stuff.

    Another guitarist of the same era of whom you should be aware is George Barnes. He was
    Les’ equal on guitar, but not as an inventor.

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