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Les Paul, 1915-2009 

W.C. Fields on the legendary innovator: “The music you’re making sounds like an octopus. Like a guy with a million hands”

Wednesday, Aug 19 2009
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He was without exaggeration the single most important figure in the history of modern music technology. The inventor of multitrack recording, the mobile recording studio, basic gear for reverb/echo and other effects, even the bass guitar — not to mention the primary architect of the solid-body guitar. ...

To chat on the phone with Les Paul was a little bit like talking to God. He was there at the beginning, and he changed everything. And at 91, his age when our conversation took place in 2006, he showed no signs of slowing down.

Since his boyhood days in Waukesha, Wisconsin, twin curiosities about all things musical and mechanical seemed to run in Les Paul’s blood.

click to enlarge AP PHOTO BY GEORGE BIRCH - In this February 19, 1977, file photo, Les Paul, right, and Chet Atkins, left, are presented Grammys by Dolly Parton and Freddie Fender, at the 19th Annual Grammy Awards in 
Los Angeles.
  • AP Photo by George Birch
  • In this February 19, 1977, file photo, Les Paul, right, and Chet Atkins, left, are presented Grammys by Dolly Parton and Freddie Fender, at the 19th Annual Grammy Awards in 
Los Angeles.

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“When I first recognized that I had any kind of musical ability,” he said, “I had to be around 5 to 6 years old. And I was pounding on boards that separated the stairway from the living room. I could play all kinds of different songs — except for one note, and that one board, I had to shave down a little bit.”

It was slightly sharp, you see.

Not yet having many musical instruments at his disposal, young Les grabbed most anything he could get his hands on, including the harmonica, and he could sing a little bit, too.

“I had to have something to accompany me with,” he said. “But with the piano I had my back turned to the people; and I tried an accordion, but Mother wouldn’t let it leave the house.”

So Paul’s decision wiggled itself down to guitar — “and when I got that guitar, that was it.”

Circa 1941, the carrot-topped Les was playing his first professional gigs as Rhubarb Red at a little roadhouse barbecue stand just outside Waukesha, on a custom PA system jerry-rigged from his mother’s radio, which he’d hooked up to a telephone mike. “I’m playing and singing and everything,” he said, “and some guy in the rumble seat of a car wrote a note to the carhop, and the note read, ‘Red, your voice and your harmonica are fine, but your guitar sounds lousy.’ He said the guitar wasn’t loud enough.”

Paul couldn’t stop thinking about that anonymous listener’s comment. It made him think about the ideal materials that ought to be employed to ensure a guitar’s maximum volume. He thought about the density and hardness of railroad track.

Paul’s idea was to combine that dense steel with wood: “Something,” he said, “where the strings would vibrate but not the object holding the strings — in other words, to add a piece of wood that would color the sound, and make it different than the string actually is.”

Thus he built two guitars, one of wood and one of steel railroad track. On the train-track guitar, he suspended the strings with spikes from the original track, and placed under it the half of the telephone that you listen on, which had a coil and a magnet inside. The resulting sound was fed into his mother’s radio, and blasted out loud and startlingly clear.

Playing his guitar and harmonica as Rhubarb Red in a country combo in Wisconsin and St. Louis had sharpened Paul’s playing chops, which dazzled with speed, agility and resourceful harmonic and melodic content. When he moved to Chicago and, later on, New York, he studied and played with the big boys of jazz, including Louis Armstrong, Art Tatum and Eddie South.

Yet when Paul teamed with singer Mary Ford in 1950, it was with the idea of “commercial music” in mind, something that would speak to a broader audience than jazz could ever hope to do. The duo scored 16 Top 10 hits between 1950 and 1954 — yet they were technically innovative projects whose multilayered and heavily effects-laden voices and guitars seem even today like a daring aural experience.

Paul continued to experiment with the science of the electric guitar, devoting his efforts to building a wood guitar that would convey a purer tone and accommodate the mechanics required for maximum volume. His first attempt was fashioned out of a 4-by-4 log.

“One day, the Gibson people said, ‘Hey, would you bring that broomstick in, that ironing board that you’re playing?’ And the rest is history.”

One of Paul’s greatest periods of innovation came during his residency in L.A. during the 1950s. In his garage studio on Curson Street, he worked in secrecy. Immersed in his work one day, however, he heard someone in his yard. It was W.C. Fields, sitting on a swing and listening to Paul’s strange new effects. “You know what?” Fields asked. “The music you’re making sounds like an octopus. Like a guy with a million hands. I’ve never heard anything like it.”

Among the myriad innovations Paul was developing was the first multitrack recording unit, an acetate recording lathe that he fashioned from a Cadillac flywheel and fan belt. After finishing up his night’s work on the project at a friend’s hobby shop in Hollywood one morning, Paul heard someone throwing rocks in the window. He looked out and saw Groucho Marx.

“Groucho says, ‘I’m trying to wake the guy up upstairs.’ I started throwing rocks too, and Groucho said, ‘What in the world are you doing here?’ ‘Well, I’m working on a recording. You wouldn’t know what it is.’ Groucho says, ‘Let’s see what you got.’ ”

Paul showed Marx the lathe. Marx said, “My family are engineers over in Glendale. They might be interested in something like this.”

Marx’s family company ultimately manufactured a lathe for Paul, which he used along with the one he’d built himself to create a multitrack recording unit that would record and bounce tracks back and forth between the two lathes.

Not the least of Paul’s creations would be his development with Ampex and engineer Ray Norman of the eight-track recording machine, initially inspired by the way in which film companies striped the video and audio track on a single strip of magnetic tape.

And then there is the mysterious Les Paulverizer, a multi-effects/playback unit that he custom-crafted to fit right onto his guitar, enabling him and Ford to improvise multitracked vocals and guitar and space it all out wacky, as the mood might deem. Among the first people to hear the Paulverizer were Richard Nixon and Dwight Eisenhower, at a command performance at the White House. They dug it, apparently. .

The Paulverizer was a key element in the success of Paul and Ford’s radio shows and live performances, where, by the way, Paul eliminated the acoustic bass to play the bass sound on the guitar — the beginning of the electric bass.

Through it all, Paul persistently plugged away at his dreams, following his muse, having the time of his life.

“I had my dreams, but they didn’t go way out,” he said. “I just thought the electric guitar should be here, it will be here and it’ll be successful. With my invention of all the sound effects: the reverb, and the delay and all those things, I knew they were great toys to play with; I knew I was gonna have a lot of fun with them, but I never knew it would continue to advance more and more. It was a very pleasant surprise.”

One more thing: Les Paul is the inventor of the Chipmunks. But that’s a whole ’nother story...

Further Reading: "Guitar Legends: Slash Remembers Friend and Mentor Les Paul, 'A Total Fuckin' Maverick,'" by Erin Broadley

Reach the writer at jpayne@bluefat.com

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