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Les Paul, dead at 94: a studio guitarist’s appreciation
Les Paul performs in New York in October 2008 (Thomas Faivre-Duboz)
Last night, I got together in my basement with some local musicians–really sharp players–to rehearse a set of cover tunes. I’ve never been in a cover band before, but I thought it might be a good way to keep my chops up as I search for a new original band to join or form. And the guitar player in this outfit, a dear friend, says, “Lou, mind if I borrow a guitar?”
Without hesitation, I went over to my wall and pulled out a trusted and treasured axe: a 1998 jet-black Gibson Les Paul with P-90 pickups. It’s one of three Les Pauls I own, and one that I played the night I released my last album in 2007 to a sold-out room at Schubas in Chicago.
I just heard moments ago that Les Paul is dead. It’s a kick in the stomach, and yet the man born Lester William Polfuss gave every ounce of himself to the world of music. Though a jazz musician by training, he was revered by nearly every rock god guitarist you can think of, from Jimmy Page to Eddie Van Halen to Pete Townshend–who loved his Les Pauls so he numbered them with big honking numerals visible from the cheap seats.
The solid-body Les Paul guitar that Lester developed with Gibson in the early 1950s IS rock and roll. Like the Fender Stratocaster, its shape is so synonymous with the genre that any musician–or music fan, for that matter–can recognize it by its single-cutaway silhouette alone.
As if that wasn’t enough, Les Paul pioneered multi-track recording, too: an invention that made the complex studio sounds of today possible. A restless tinkerer, Paul figured out a way to make tape machines record multiple signals, then play them back in unison. This led him to develop an effect still used in every recording studio, every day: double tracking. His 1947 Captiol Records single “Lover (When You’re Near Me)” bears two distinct trademarks: 1) it features Paul playing 8 guitar parts, recorded at various tape speeds, and 2) Paul recorded it in his garage, thereby giving birth to the one-man garage band.
Paul and his wife Mary Ford took multi-tracking to new heights; star players such as Eric Clapton made the Les Paul guitar so popular that certain models–the maple-top “Burst” being perhaps the most famous–are so valuable that some have sold for more than a quarter of a million dollars. Some “Burst” owners have even been robbed at gunpoint by people lusting after this holy grail of guitars.
One of my last pet projects at the Chicago Tribune was an attempt to interview Les Paul at his home studio, where word had it that he kept tons of old Gibson Les Paul guitar parts lying about in old cigar boxes. To you and me, they’d look like worthless old washers and such, but to vintage guitar collectors, notorious for being perfectionists, they’d be a treasure trove. Some folks might pay $1,000 for a teensy bag of 1959 “vintage” screws that hold a pick guard together on a Les Paul Gold Top, and not bat an eye.
God bless Les Paul, who consented to the interview, but not at his historic home studio: His publicist said he was too frail. I pressed, just a touch. No go … though I could fly to New York and meet him at the Iridium Jazz Club on Broadway, where he played every Monday night well into his 90s.
The Tribune wouldn’t foot the airfare to do it; looking back, I wish I had payed the freight myself. I always dreamed I would meet one of the true pioneers of popular music, and hear those amazing stories of invention and creation straight from the source. Now the source is gone.
But the Les Pauls remain. And so I’m headed to the basement to plug one into a Marshall JCM 800, turn up to 11, and crank out some power chords in Les’ honor.
Long live rock. Long live Les Paul.