On the Passing of Guitar Legend Les Paul

First, the sad news from WTAE in Pittsburgh:

Les Paul, the guitarist and inventor who changed the course of music with the electric guitar and multitrack recording and had a string of hits, many with wife Mary Ford, died on Thursday. He was 94.

According to Gibson Guitar, Paul died of complications from pneumonia at White Plains Hospital. His family and friends were by his side.

He had been hospitalized in February 2006 when he learned he won two Grammys for an album he released after his 90th birthday, “Les Paul & Friends: American Made, World Played.”

“I feel like a condemned building with a new flagpole on it,” he joked.

As an inventor, Paul helped bring about the rise of rock ‘n’ roll and multitrack recording, which enables artists to record different instruments at different times, sing harmony with themselves, and then carefully balance the “tracks” in the finished recording.

With Ford, his wife from 1949 to 1962, he earned 36 gold records and 11 No. 1 pop hits, including “Vaya Con Dios,” “How High the Moon,” “Nola” and “Lover.” Many of their songs used overdubbing techniques that Paul the inventor had helped develop.

“I could take my Mary and make her three, six, nine, 12, as many voices as I wished,” he recalled. “This is quite an asset.” The overdubbing technique was highly influential on later recording artists such as the Carpenters.

The use of electric guitar gained popularity in the mid-to-late 1940s, and then exploded with the advent of rock the 1950s.

“Suddenly, it was recognized that power was a very important part of music,” Paul once said. “To have the dynamics, to have the way of expressing yourself beyond the normal limits of an unamplified instrument, was incredible. Today a guy wouldn’t think of singing a song on a stage without a microphone and a sound system.”

I play the guitar, but my Dad is the musician.  I’m accompanying Mom and Dad today on their doctor appointments, and just shared the news with Dad that Les Paul had died.

Dad spoke about Les Paul many times when we were growing up.  Inventor of the electric guitar, many young people probably don’t know who he is.

Born Lester Polfuss, Mr. Paul was an active musician from childhood.  I don’t know if it’s legend or truth, but the story goes that after a the car crash that nearly cost him his right arm, Paul had his arm set so he could play the guitar.

A few years back Mom and Dad took a trip to New York City to see Mr. Paul perform, and Les signed my Dad’s classic Gibson six-string.

Here’s the genesis of that electric guitar you have in your hands, again from WTAE:

A tinkerer and musician since childhood, he experimented with guitar amplification for years before coming up in 1941 with what he called “The Log,” a four-by-four piece of wood strung with steel strings.

“I went into a nightclub and played it. Of course, everybody had me labeled as a nut.” He later put the wooden wings onto the body to give it a tradition guitar shape.

In 1952, Gibson Guitars began production on the Les Paul guitar.

Fascinating.

Sometime today, no doubt you will hear a song playing on the radio or on your MP3 player accompanied by an electric guitar.  Stop for a moment, and thank the master of the six-string who made it all possible.