Guitar legend Les Paul dies at 94
WHITE PLAINS, N.Y. — Les Paul, the guitarist and inventor who changed the course of music with the electric guitar and multitrack recording and had a string of hits, many with wife Mary Ford, died on Thursday. He was 94.
According to Gibson Guitar, Paul died of complications from pneumonia at White Plains Hospital. His family and friends were by his side.
He had been hospitalized in February 2006 when he learned he won two Grammys for an album he released after his 90th birthday, "Les Paul & Friends: American Made, World Played."
Known as Les Paul, he was an American jazz guitarist and inventor. He was a pioneer in the development of the solid-body electric guitar which "made the sound of rock and roll possible." His many recording innovations included overdubbing, delay effects such as "sound on sound" and tape delay, phasing effects, and multitrack recording. He is often credited as being the 'father of modern music'.
Paul's innovative guitar, "The Log", built in 1939, was one of the first solid-body electric guitars. (Leo Fender also independently created his own solid-body electric guitar around the same time and Adolph Rickenbacher had marketed a solid-body guitar in the 30s). Gibson Guitar Corporation designed a guitar incorporating Paul's suggestions in the early fifties, and presented it to him to try. He was impressed enough to sign a contract for what became the "Les Paul" model (originally only in a "gold top" version), and agreed never to be seen playing in public, or be photographed, with anything other than a Gibson guitar.
The arrangement persisted until 1961, when declining sales prompted Gibson to change the design without Paul's knowledge, creating a much thinner, lighter, and more aggressive-looking instrument with two cutaway "horns" instead of one. Paul said he first saw the "new" Gibson Les Paul in a music store window, and disliked it. Though his contract required him to pose with the guitar, he said it was not "his" instrument, and asked Gibson to remove his name from the headstock. (Others claimed that Paul ended his endorsement contract with Gibson during his divorce, to avoid having his wife to get his endorsement money.) Gibson renamed the guitar "Gibson SG" (which stands for "Solid Guitar"), and it also became one of the company's best sellers.
The original Gibson Les Paul guitar design regained popularity when Eric Clapton began playing the instrument a few years later (although he also played an SG and an ES-335). Paul resumed his relationship with Gibson, and has endorsed the original Les Paul guitar design ever since (though his personal Gibson Les Pauls are much modified by him — Paul always used his own self-wound pickups and customized switching on his guitars). To this day, various models of Gibson Les Paul guitar are used all over the world, by both novice and professional guitarists. A less expensive version of the Les Paul guitar is also manufactured for Gibson's lower-priced Epiphone brand.
In 1947, Capitol Records released a recording that had begun as an experiment in Paul's garage, entitled "Lover (When You're Near Me)", which featured Paul playing eight different parts on electric guitar, some of them recorded at half-speed, hence "double-fast" when played back at normal speed for the master. ("Brazil", similarly recorded, was the B-side.) This was the first time that multi-tracking had been used in a recording. These recordings were made not with magnetic tape, but with acetate disks. Paul would record a track onto a disk, then record himself playing another part with the first. He built the multi-track recording with overlaid tracks, rather than parallel ones as he did later. There is no record of how many "takes" were needed before he was satisfied with one layer and moved onto the next.
Paul even built his own disc-cutter assembly, based on auto parts. He favored the flywheel from a Cadillac for its weight and flatness. Even in these early days, he used the acetate disk setup to record parts at different speeds and with delay, resulting in his signature sound with echoes and birdsong-like guitar riffs. When he later began using magnetic tape, the major change was that he could take his recording rig on tour with him, even making episodes for his 15-minute radio show in his hotel room.