Les Paul was the original nutty professor of the guitar — a smart-guy eccentric and joker whose imagination was constantly a little bigger than that of his peers, if you can call anybody a peer of the great Lester, for as a guitar player, inventor, composer, star and studio visionary he had few.
Listeners who play multi-tracked recordings and musicians who pick up a solid body guitar or crank up an echo or delay pedal owe a debut to Les. Or, for that matter, anyone who blows harmonica in a holder. The harmonica holder was his first invention, patented in his early teens. Les was looking for a way to play both mouth harp and guitar during his gigs at burger joints in Wisconsin, and the device he designed remains the industry standard today.
At around the same time he stuck the needle of his parents' record player into the surface of his acoustic guitar — the first step toward developing a primitive amplification system he also used to play his country music gigs at drive-in chow houses.
Of course, Les was at the forefront of the musical innovators of 1930s six-string, following in the footsteps of Django Reinhardt and Charlie Christian in mimicking the voice of the horn on his guitar, and contributing to the then-evolving a vocabulary of sax-like trills and shimmering high-speed chord solos that helped extend the voice of the guitar in the era's popular music.
Les’s efforts at that point were often in service of Fred Waring and Bing Crosby. While he was with Waring’s orchestra, Les began tackling the foibles of state-of-the-art electric guitars. At the time they were glorified acoustic models run through an amplifier. At low or moderate volumes, they disappeared in the presence of horns and drums. At high volumes, hollow-body guitars howled with feedback.
Les decided the answer could be found in a solid-body guitar, which he reasoned would provide better volume control, less feedback and a rich, sustained tone, thanks to the vibrational qualities and sheer mass of its wood. Developing what would become the Gibson Les Paul model guitar was a tricky process with years of trial and error experiments. He created several versions of his now legendary "Log," a 4x4 piece of lumber with a neck, a bridge, a pickup and tuners attached. At one point, he was electrocuted so severely while tinkering in his Queens apartment that he had to be hospitalized and it took him two years to recover!
As legend spins it, the final version of Paul's "Log" was completed at the Epiphone guitar factory in New York City, after hours, in 1940, and was prettied up when he split a conventional hollow-body guitar in half and attached each curved side to his "Log" to make it more acceptable to the eye.
The Gibson Les Paul debuted in 1952 and immediately became popular with a host of cutting edge players, including bluesmen B.B. King and Muddy Waters. As manufacturing continued, the guitar retained its size, shape and weight — although Les' trapeze tailpiece was replaced with a stationary one – but evolved in other ways. The original’s two P-90 pickups, for example, were replaced by three pick-ups on the Gibson Les Paul Custom model of 1954, and humbuckers became an option. The sunburst finish became an option for the famed classes of '59 and '60, whose alumni include Billy Gibbons' "Miss Pearly Gates" and Peter Green's "Holy Grail."
For Les, the model of guitar that bears his name never ceased to be a work in progress. Those who attended his concerts at the New York City club Iridium in his final years saw him spinning beautiful melodies out of instruments with puzzling buttons, switches and LEDs set in their bodies. He built customized ways to switch between and blend pickups, and to enhance sustain and activate various effects.
Les’ other enormous contribution was multi-track recording. His first multi-tracked single, "Lover (When You're Near Me)," was issued in 1948, but he'd been trying to impress record companies with the virtues of the process since the 1930s. He originally experimented with acetate discs in his garage studio. Les would cut a guitar track to a disc, play it back while cutting a second guitar part, and so on until his arrangement was realized. Les reportedly went through roughly 500 acetate discs, recording on cutting machinery he made himself that utilized the flywheel of a Cadillac, before he was satisfied with "Lover (When You're Near Me)." He also invented a kind of prehistoric version of Vari-Speed by playing some of the song's eight guitar parts at half speed and then playing them back at the actual rate for his overdubs.
When Les switched to magnetic tape, he commissioned Ampex to build the first eight-track recorder and it took three years to perfect. He carried it on tour and used it occasionally to create episodes of his weekly radio show.
At the close of World War II, engineer Jack Mullin acquired a captured German Magnetophon tape recorder and sent it back to the States. When he returned, he gave a series of demonstrations of the mono machine's capabilities in Hollywood, prompting Bing Crosby, with whom Paul had recorded, to finance the creation of the mono Ampex Model 200. Crosby got the first one and he gave the second to Les, who immediately saw its potential for creating echo effects. Les added a second playback head, which allowed him to play along with the part he'd just recorded — a precursor to the Echo-Plex foot pedal.
Another of Les’ innovations was in the area of production. He was the original D.I.Y. artist, not only in sound recording, with home-cut projects like "Lover (When You're Near Me)" and many of his subsequent singles, but for radio and TV. Les and his wife and musical partner Mary Ford co-hosted a 15-minute radio program on NBC radio in 1950. It was a blend of music and gentle period humor that Les recorded on tape at home.
During the show Les introduced his listeners to the concepts of multi-tracking and varying the speed of recordings, using imaginary gadgets like the "Les Paulverizer" to illustrate how these techniques worked. He even made a version of the "Les Paulverizer" — essentially a tape echo device that presaged the arrival of stomp boxes — for the stage.
When The Les Paul & Mary Ford show made the leap to television in 1954, Les manned both the tape machines and the cameras and kept copies of the recordings that were broadcast in five-minute segments. Busy creating and tinkering till the end, one of Les’ final projects, left uncompleted when he died, was restoring and converting these short programs to DVD quality.