5 Les Paul Gifts to Modern Music: Solid-Body Guitars, Multitrack Recording, More
Today marks what would have been the 100th birthday of Les Paul, one of the greatest innovators in music history, both for his work with instruments and with recording technology (and he wasn't half bad as a guitar player either). Music Times has assembled five of Paul's greatest contributions to the music world, in order of when he was most involved in its development. Understand that none of these technologies were solely his creation, but none of them would be the way we know them today if it weren't for his contributions, from the solid-body guitar to multitrack recording.
If you want to just relax and enjoy Paul's music, we're huge fans of his classic album Chester & Lester, a 1976 collaboration with Chet Atkins featuring the two legends noodling on their respective instruments.
The Solid-Body Guitar
Many mistakenly give Paul credit for being the sole inventor of the solid-body guitar, which is to say, a guitar amplified entirely by an outside speaker and not its own resonance, as is the case with acoustic instruments. In truth, Paul Tutmarc of the Audiovox company had developed a solid-body bass guitar five years before Paul began work on his own instrument. The latter luthier's first attempt at the project would go down as one of the famed instruments in the history of the guitar however, lovingly nicknamed "The Log" for its awkward appearance. Paul didn't waste time carving the wood for the instrument into the artful stylings you see on modern instruments...after all, it might not have worked anyhow. He took a small block of pine wood, measuring four inches by four inches, attached a neck and ran strings over one electric pickup. He was working for Epiphone at the time, yet owner Gibson poo-pooed the idea until Fender released its Esquire model during 1950...at which point it wholeheartedly embraced Paul's designs and even named its first sold-body model after him during 1952.
The Gibson Les Paul
That guitar, in case you couldn't figure out the math, was the Gibson Les Paul. The company had switched presidents and it didn't take new honcho Ted McCarty too long to figure out that Fender was onto something with its Esquire concept. It brought Les Paul in to help contribute to the design of Gibson's new product, and stuck his name on the headstock, not only as a tribute but also as a sales method. The design continued to develop for the next decade, adding humbucker pickups and the Tune-o-matic bridge. The biggest development would be immediately seen as a failure however: The company introduced the Standard model during 1959, featuring the now iconic Sunburst finish. The guitars were more expensive as a result and heavier as well...and the older jazz musicians that Gibson aimed its product at weren't willing to pay for it. That meant production ceased. Fortunes shifted five years later however when Keith Richards began playing the model with the Rolling Stones, followed by Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck and a host of guitar gods. Many now consider the model to be the ideal make and model for the electric guitar, leading to prices for original Standards to skyrocket. Alas, Paul had left the company by the time the instrument came back into vogue, both due to his divorce and his distaste for the "new" Les Paul, which would end up being titled the Gibson SG.
Some of Paul's ideas were so ahead of their time that even now, more than 60 years later, they still appear alien when seen onstage. Paul developed the "headless" guitar during the mid-'40s—One of the most annoying processes for a guitar player who's ready to rock is making sure the instrument is in tune, typically done via knobs on the head of the guitar (the use of the Tune-o-matic system on the Les Paul guitar was the result of his frustration with tuning). He attempted to make things a tad easier by making the head of a guitar useless, by featuring tuning mechanics below the bridge of the guitar. It was a good idea in theory, and Paul got the patent, however the aluminum model that he offered would get so warm under stage lights that it would fall out of tune far quicker than a standard guitar. You can still see "headless" guitars to this day however, better constructed and popular among progressive rockers (who dig alternative designs).
"Sound on Sound"
Paul was close friends with crooner Bing Crosby, having recorded often with him as a guitarist. Crosby also knew of Paul's fascination with audio technology, and therefore gifted him with the second Ampex Model 200, the first reel-to-reel audio tape recorder (which was built by Ampex, a company owned in part by Crosby). Surely the vocalist knew that Paul would tinker with the device and perhaps come up with something groundbreaking in the process...and sure enough, he did. He added another playback head prior to the other recording and playback heads, allowing him to play along with a previously recorded track and record a new layer on top of it. He would later release the track "Lover (When You're Near Me)," an experimental track that featured the guitarist playing no less than eight parts. This process took its toll on the original recording however, as musicians literally recorded on top of previous recordings. Paul would later clean things up by adding another tape player to record the combined parts, leaving the original intact.
Paul was in no way the only person messing around with delay effects during his day, but he still deserves kudos for his engineering expertise in figuring out ways to record music at different speeds and therefore change its tone. One of his methods was by building his own disc-cutting mechanism for creating acetates, or demo records. He used automotive parts to build the model, which was also small enough for him to take it on the road and cut tracks for his radio program from a hotel room while on tour.