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.