“My secret is to keep going, keep working”

And that’s what Les Paul did. 

The legendary guitarist, and even more legendary inventor, passed away today at age 94 from complications to a case of pneumonia – but not before winning a Grammy for an album recorded when he was already past 90.

His big contributions, of course, came 50 and 60 years ago:

As an inventor, Paul helped bring about the rise of rock ‘n’ roll and multitrack recording, which enables artists to record different instruments at different times, sing harmony with themselves, and then carefully balance the “tracks” in the finished recording.

With Ford, his wife from 1949 to 1962, he earned 36 gold records and 11 No. 1 pop hits, including “Vaya Con Dios,” “How High the Moon,” “Nola” and “Lover.” Many of their songs used overdubbing techniques that Paul the inventor had helped develop.

“I could take my Mary and make her three, six, nine, 12, as many voices as I wished,” he recalled. “This is quite an asset.” The overdubbing technique was highly influential on later recording artists such as the Carpenters.

“Overdubbing”, as well as the multi-track recording technology that Paul helped pioneer, arguably was one of the most important facets in creating the production style that has dominated popular music (of all genres, from rock to R’nB to country to rap to whatever) for the past 45 years; it changed recording music from an essentially technical, almost secretarial exercise of placing mikes and recording performances into a self-contained art form of its own, limited less by the performance than by the producer’s imagination.

Of course, among musicians he’s most famous for his eponymous guitar:

 Paul was working on solid-body guitars in the late 1940’s, experimenting about the idea of trying to get more “sustain” from a note – to make the tone ring as long as possible.  He figured bright and early that the mass of the guitar was the key factor in retaining the vibrations that made a guitar old a note.  He famously wired a pickup and a string/head/tail combination onto a railroad tie and, as he related it, plucked a note, went out to lunch, and came back to find the note still ringing.

He worked from there:

Now I need to take a piece of wood and make it sound like the railroad track, but I also had to make it beautiful and lovable so that a person playing it would think of it in terms of his mistress, a bartender, his wife, a good psychiatrist – whatever.

And it worked; legendarily so.  The Les Paul in its many styles did for the electric guitar what dubbing did for recording; revolutionized it. 

What a life!  Think about it; doing what he loved (playing music, tinkering with instruments) and doing it well not only made him a living, but left behind a legacy that pretty much everyone in both fields will owe a debt to forever.

Hard to beat that!

RIP, Les Paul.

9 thoughts on ““My secret is to keep going, keep working”

  1. A true visionary and pioneer, and “How High the Moon” is one of my favorite songs.

    On a somewhat related note, the documentary “It Might Get Loud” featuring Jimmy Page, The Edge and Jack White jamming together and talking about the life comes out tomorrow, I believe.

    Yes, it’s tomorrow in NY and LA, so angryclown gets to see it first: http://www.sonyclassics.com/itmightgetloud/

  2. Jimmy Page, The Edge and Jack White

    Two of them mostly famed as Les Paul players (and I”m not sure what White plays; maybe 3 for 3?)

  3. Another question: Would there have been the Pete Townsend we know if there had never been a Les Paul?

  4. Kerm,

    Good question.

    He actually played mostly Rickenbackers and Strats through the early years, through “A Quick One”; most of “Tommy” was cut on an SG and some Gretsch (IIRC) acoustics. And “Won’t Get Fooled Again”? Recorded on a Gretsch Chet Atkins, believe it or not! He didn’t really get broadly associated with single-cutaway Les Pauls until the early seventies, and switched to Schechter-modified Telecasters in the eighties.

    But if you had to try to miic the stereotypical “Pete Townsend Sound”, most people would go for a Les Paul Custom through a Hiwatt stack, I bet.

    Your question started me wondering – so I found this site, which should provide me hours of geek heaven when I get home…

  5. Kermit: No.
    Les Paul is the man who changed everything and really deserves the credit for modern rock, because without the electric guitar and its effects, we’d just be butt-deep in folk and skiffle bands. Talk about a dystopia. 🙁

  6. Wombat brings up the necessary followup to Kerm’s question: While Townsend wasn’t associated with Les Pauls until the ’71 tour (except for one that he’d played in ’67, briefly – and by the way, “Les Paul Junior” is just the original term for “SG”, and I don’t count them as Les Pauls, whatever their merits), Paul himself is largely responsible for what the solid-body electric guitar turned out to be, whether it was built by Fender, Rickenbacker or anyone else.

  7. Your question started me wondering – so I found this site, which should provide me hours of geek heaven when I get home…

    OK – enabler! Now I have another site waste away more time on.

    I still play Les Pauls. Cannot play a Strat at ALL. Telecaster a bit, but it just feels too strange. I’d love to get an SG, but they feel just too light as well. No wonder playing makes me exhausted – 75% of the effort is just holding the thing up!

  8. It’s just when I think Townsend I think of windmilling and then pounding a Les Paul on the stage floor. It’s iconic.

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