Rainer Maria Rilke with Baladine Klossowska at Chateau de Muzot (Switzerland), 1923
[born Lester William Polsfuss]
June 9, 1915 â€“ August 13, 2009
Les Paul, the American musician and inventor who gave his name to the Gibson Les Paul guitar, died of complications from pneumonia at White Plains Hospital in suburban New York City on August 13 at the age of 94.
As well as being a beautiful player who never sacrificed the musical idea for flashy displays of techniqueâ€”of which he had plentyâ€”Les Paul was responsible for key advances in musical recording techniques. In a professional musical career that spanned more than eight decades, Paul genuinely revolutionised popular music, a remarkable achievement for a man without formal training in electronics or music.
Born Lester William Polfuss in Waukesha, Wisconsin (100 miles north of Chicago), on June 9, 1915 to George and Evelyn Polfuss, Paulâ€™s family were of German ancestry. Paul showed an early and innate musical and technical ability. He taught himself to play the harmonica at the age of eight and then discovered how to program his motherâ€™s upright player piano by punching additional holes in its piano roll.
Paul soon moved on to the banjo and finally the guitar, and was one of the early pioneers of playing harmonica and guitar at the same time. Indeed, the neck-worn harmonica holder which he invented is still manufactured using his basic design.
At the age of 13 Paul began playing professionally at a local drive-in restaurant. Frustrated that he was barely audible over the sound of automobile engines and the hubbub of the patrons, he rigged up a phonograph needle in the middle of his guitar which he wired to a radio speaker, thus creating his first electric guitar.
Dubbed the â€śWizard from Waukeshaâ€ť, the red-haired teenager dropped out of school and joined a country band, finally ending up in Chicago where he was known as â€śRhubarb Redâ€ť on WJJD radio. Within two years he was being featured on the NBC network.
After hearing a recording of the brilliant Gypsy guitarist, Django Reinhardt, Paul began rehearsing with bass player Ernie Newton and rhythm guitarist Jimmy Atkins (the older half-brother of guitarist Chet Atkins) to explore the more varied and broader musical horizons offered by the world of jazz.
Known as the Les Paul Trio, the band moved to New York in 1938, played with bandleader Fred Waring and joined Harlem jam sessions with the likes of Louis Armstrong, Art Tatum, Ben Webster, Stuff Smith and Charlie Christian. In 1939 the trio was invited by President Roosevelt to perform at the White House.
Paul continued to experiment with different forms of electric guitar. As he later told rock music author Jim Oâ€™Donnell: â€śWhat I wanted to do is not have two things vibrating. I wanted the string to vibrate and nothing else. I wanted the guitar to sustain longer than an acoustical box and have different sounds than an acoustical box.â€ť
Here we glimpse some of Paulâ€™s genius. In general, one of the main problems with acoustic guitarsâ€”be they with steel or nylon stringsâ€”is their quickness of decay, i.e., the sounds of the notes donâ€™t linger for long. Paul figured out that the less the string vibration was dissipated the longer â€śthe returnâ€ť. Add electrification and the instrument could sustain a note for a previously unheard of length of time.
In 1941, after years of experimentâ€”or just â€śtinkering aroundâ€ť as he modestly put itâ€”Paul came up with the idea of a guitar which would be solid enough to enable the guitar pickups to capture nearly every part of the vibration and at the same time reduce the problems of feedback.
Paul called his invention â€śthe logâ€ť, a four-by-four-inch board with a neck from an Epiphone guitar, strings and an attached pickup. And to dress it up a bit, he fitted part of an Epiphone hollow-body guitar around â€śthe logâ€ť. While it was by no means perfect, the instrument provided the basis for a revolutionary transformation of the guitar sound, and eventually new musical mountains for guitarists to climb.
Unbelievably, at least in hindsight, the Gibson guitar company turned down Paulâ€™s invention, describing it as a â€śbroomstick with pickupsâ€ť. Undeterred, Paul moved on to Hollywood and formed a new trio, which appeared with Nat King Cole at the inaugural 1944 â€śJazz at the Philharmonicâ€ť concert in Los Angeles. He regularly performed with Bing Crosby and produced one of his hitsâ€”â€śItâ€™s Been A Long, Long Time.â€ť During WWII he served under bandleader Meredith Wilson in the Armed Forces Radio Service and toured with the Andrews Sisters.