In's ongoing series, we look inside the styles and guitars of some Gibson greats (note, in no particular order). But it's time we highlighted an untouchable Gibson legend. The one, the only... Mr Les Paul.

Who was he?

Genius guitarist. Inventor. Raconteur. Sound engineer. Collaborator. Producer. TV star. Joker. Recording pioneer… To say Les Paul was a pivotal figure of 20th century music is not hyperbole. Les was truly one of music's greats.

His first instrument was harmonica around the age of nine, but he soon became entranced with guitar. As a young performer, the young Lester Polsfuss dubbed himself Red Hot Red then Rhubarb Red – it was in deference to fellow harmonica/guitar player Pie Plant Pete. Les liked his rhubarb pie! He later became the less-jesty Les Paul.

Les Paul

Alongside his guitar learning, Paul was soon tearing all manner of devices apart to understand more about recording devices. A Victrola gramophone, a Cadillac car flywheel, telephones, a dental belt and more were all utilized in young Les's proto recorders. These days, we just buy a box with a bunch of processors in it and don't even think how we even got here.

And, after being told by a restaurant owner that his guitar wasn't loud enough when he played, he decided to invent another guitar. Electric guitars already existed, but the relentlessly-exploring Paul thought that he could do better. Enter “the Log”.

Les recalled, "I decided to pick the most dense material that I could find, and put a string on it, so I found a piece of railroad track that was about two and a half feet long and a piece of wood two and a half feet long. I placed a part of the telephone under the strings, fed it into the radio and I'm running to my mother and saying, I've got it! It was the railroad track – the piece of wood rolled over and died.”

Les persevered. With sawn sides from an acoustic glued to a center-block of wood, “the Log” was Les Paul's first guitar design. He built it, with permission, after-hours at Gibson's Epiphone factory. The Log was primitive and unloved and Gibson staff, at first, were unimpressed. But Les was, at the time, trying to deal mainly with patent lawyers, not musicians. He said he became known as “the character with the broomstick with pickups on it.”

A six-year tale ensued. But as LP's playing career took off, he was soon in collaboration with Gibson's true luthiers to make a guitar that would bear his name.

Les Paul Goldtop

Les recalled of the Gibson Les Paul design: “I've got to go to something that's not heavy, but something that's very dense, very sturdy; something that's going to sustain the sound and it's gotta be something that you love when you hold it... and immediately thought of something like a woman!” Les was always cheekily humorous.

Signature Sounds

If he had a “genre”, Les Paul was a jazz guitarist. Many times he said he didn't “play the blues.” Les's character was too upbeat for that. Tremolo-picking, glissandi, fluttering trills, supreme staccato palm-muting, string bends, and his wild pull-off and hammer-on runs were all part of his style. Les Paul was the Eddie Van Halen of the 1950s!

He recalled, “I wanted to be sure I got it all in. I was like a dive bomber, playing the fastest run I could that had nothing to do with expressing the blues.”

Les Paul and Gibson

The two remain, of course, inseparable. The gold-colored Les Paul Model debuted in 1952: Les wanted his Goldtop to “look expensive.” The upscale Custom followed in 1954, in black: Les wanted it to “look like a tuxedo.” The Standard followed in 1958, and '58-60 sunburst Standards have since become the holiest of guitar grails.

You could even argue Les's primitive “Log” guitar paved the way for Gibson's ES series from 1958 – solid center block with acoustic “wings.”

When it comes to Gibson Les Pauls, there's just too much to say here. Just be sure to investigate the whole current Gibson Les Paul lineup. Gibson offers all manner of finishes, fretboard inlays, binding/no binding, pickup combinations, artist models, innovations like the ES-Les Paul, Specials, Juniors, solid-bodies, chambered bodies, High Performance and Traditional Les Pauls for 2016 options... Such innovation would be right up Les's street.

If you can't find a Gibson Les Paul you love, maybe you should switch to kazoo? Just sayin'!?

Ever the studio wizard, Les Paul's own favorite was his Les Paul Recording model, originally of the 1970s. It was his vision for the ultimate studio guitar. Now updated, it has a transformer for direct-to-DAW recording, while a second, High-Z output jack accommodates traditional guitar amps. Les would have approved.

Les Paul Goldtop

Read more on Les's original vision of the Gibson Les Paul Recording model.

Essential Listening

It may be an obvious choice, but to hear Les Paul's unique sounds – playing and recording innovation – first go to 1951's “How High the Moon” with then-wife Mary Ford. Given the era, it's staggering. The Les Paul and Mary Ford recording was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1979 and is on the list of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum of the “Songs That Shaped Rock and Roll”.

There are, of course, many albums out there. Les Paul with Mary Ford: The Best of the Capitol Masters, is a faultless introduction. And it includes sleeve-notes by Les Paul himself. If you want to hear two legends of 20th century guitar tear it up with a smile, go for the Chester and Lester albums (with Chet Atkins). They remain baffling in their fretology. Chet Atkins, one of the greatest guitarists ever, once said, “Les was so far ahead of everybody... it was just amazing.”


I personally love this clip from the BBC's TV Omnibus program in 1953 where Les baffles U.K. broadcasting titan Alistair Cook with a fake recorder. Les then explains, truly, how he made 24-track recordings. In the 1950s, this was unprecedented.

The documentary movie about Les Paul Chasing Sound is a must-watch. Many great videos out there, of course, but here's a teaser on the man's genius and the esteem in which he is held, by the Les Paul Foundation.

The star-studded 2012 album/DVD organized by the Les Paul Trio's Lou Pallo is another great watch. Its title says it all. Thank You Les. Please keep in touch with the work of the Les Paul Foundation. They celebrate Les's amazing life and also carry out great educational work.

Thank you Les...