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Les Paul - Setting Some Things Straight
By Mick Polich - 09/01/2009 - 09:38 AM EDT

First off, Les Paul was a man with many talents. Now, in death, his contributions to the world of modern recording, music, and electric instruments cannot be denied.

I think it’s easier first to look at what Les DIDN’T achieve as accomplishments rather than what people are giving him credit for. He didn’t invent the electric guitar, design his “Les Paul” signature model, or invent multi-track recording. What he did do is help the processes along, popularized his namesake guitar and the idea of recording multi – tracks of sound.

Now, you’re going to read a thousand blogs on Les – some with dubious info, some not. I’m not here to cover his history, but go over his effect on my life, and hopefully, set some things straight .

In the mid-1970’s, my buddy Jim Salak was in possession of a Les Paul gold top model electric guitar with soap bar pickups. This you would drool over at the time because many of our heroes in music were playing Les Pauls. I was slowly becoming infused with the Fender Stratocaster bug, but still, seeing Jimmy Page with Led Zep honk some heavy blues/rock licks outta his Paul, and the cover of Jeff Beck’s “Blow By Blow” album ( a painting of Jeff playing a black Les Paul) – well, it was enough to salivate on. I kept bugging Jim to see if this dude that he borrowed the Paul off of would sell it.

“Yep, he wants $250 for it, but he isn’t sure if he wants to sell it yet.”

$250 ???!! TWO HUNDRED AND FIFTY BUCKS!! Probably a late 1960’s model – holy crap, Holmes, think about what that would fetch in today’s market (the mind boggles, weeps, then throws up….)? I mean, goll – lee, Sargent Carter, that is flippin’ amazing!!

Well, I couldn’t convince Jim to convince the other dude to sell the Paul, so I ended up being mainly a Fender Strat man for a lot of my career. Some things just is what they is.

That being said, I obtained back in 2005, a nice little Epiphone Les Paul ‘amber burst’ model, that I proceeded to hot rod with new pick-ups, tuning keys, and a new nut. Nice little axe, and all for under $700….

Back to Lester William Polsfuss….

Arguably, the recordings that put Les on the map were the records that he cut with then-wife Mary Ford. Keep in mind at the time of these recordings – the early 1950’s – recording multiple voices or tracks wasn’t yet on the radar of modern sound prints, so these Paul/Ford recordings were quite futuristic in sound. One suggestion (other than buy the recordings) is go to You Tube, and dial up a clip from Les and Mary’s t.v. show from the 1950’s,when they blaze thru “The World Is Waiting For The Sunrise.” The lead guitar break is, in a word, stunning.

But, in the wake of Les’ passing, people are giving him credit for a lot more than he did (and I’ve seen inaccurate articles in some big publications, not just little five-and-dimers like myself…).

Les Paul did not invent the electric guitar, or the electric solid body guitar, for that matter – Rickenbacker had a solid body model dubbed “The Frying Pan” in development as early as 1931 that came out a few years later, several years before the guitar that bore Les’ name was out. Les did work on the infamous ” Log”, which he worked on in the early 1940’s after hours at the Epiphone guitar plant. And the basic design for the Les Paul model guitar was already in place by Ted McCarthy of Gibson and his engineers – Les made some suggestions about changing the tailpiece, but really, given a few suggestions from Les, he lent his name to the guitar since he was a hot commodity at that point.

Les also didn’t invent sound-on-sound recording(the government already had that going, technically, with ship-to-shore radio back in those times, and there was an overdubbed recording of “The Sheik Of Araby” back in 1929, years before Les hit upon overdubs), but helped popularize the concept thru his recordings with Mary Ford. All of this rhetoric is kind of like the concept of Eddie Van Halen ‘inventing’ two-handed tapping (which even Van Halen says he saw someone else do before he hot-rodded the concept…) – he ‘popularized’ the technique, so he should get the credit.

I say, do your research, and give credit where it’s do before history gets out of hand.

What Les Paul did was bring a grand style and fun to music – you listen to Les, and you can hear where old-school rockers like Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page copped a lot of licks for their guitar styles. Plus, the man lent his name to what would be one of two famous models of solid body electric guitars that really helped shape the sound, look, and feel of rock and roll.

Big thanks to musician, guitar pick-up expert, and good friend Doug Miers back in the homeland of Des Moines, Iowa, for the accurate research and pointers on Les….

Now, do yourself a favor, download Les Pauls’ greatest hits, hit up You Tube for some vid, sit back with a brew and your guitar, and try to cop some licks from a musical architect of invention and innovation!

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