The History of Les Paul (1915-2009)

The History of Les Paul (1915-2009)

Lester William Polsfuss (Les Paul), the “wizard of Waukesha.”

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Les Paul is one of the most important figures in the technological evolution applied to music, being among the main and most prominent pioneers in the development of the solid body electric guitar, being his collaboration in the creation of the guitar model marketed by Gibson, called with his name, his most well-known and successful contribution.

His guitar model the Les Paul, along with the Fender Stratocaster, is currently considered as the most popular and acclaimed electric guitar models in history.

Although Les Paul would also stand out for being the precursor of new recording techniques that today are essential and every day, such as multitrack recording or the development of special pedal effects.

As if all this were not enough, he was also a magnificent guitarist, also innovating in guitar techniques that inspired future musicians, popularly known as the Waukesha wizard.

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Les Paul was an American with German descent, born in 1915 in the town of Waukesha in the state of Wisconsin. At the age of eight he would start his love for music by starting to play the harmonica at the same time that he would start his curiosity about electronics by manufacturing with only nine years of age his first radio receiver, being the music of a guitar, one of the first sounds he heard on his radio.

Anyone would have thought that if you play the guitar you will not be able to play the harmonica at the same time, but Paul invented a support for his harmonica that allowed him to play both instruments at the same time, the product being manufactured today based on the original design devised by the guitarist.

At the age of 13, Les Paul was already playing semi-professionally at carnivals as a country musician, performing on many occasions in open spaces, having to exert a lot of force when playing so that his music could be heard clearly. To solve the problem, Les Paul installed a phonograph needle on the guitar’s bridge and with a cable sent the signal to the speaker of his radio, acting as an amplifier.

He began his professional career after leaving high school as part of a band from Saint Louis in the state of Missouri but in 1934 he would move to Chicago where he used to perform as a jazz musician on different radio stations influenced by his great idol Django Reinhart, forming in 1937 in this city the jazz band Les Paul Trio with which he would later move to New York in 1938.

But Les Paul was not satisfied due to the problems derived from the amplification of guitars with a soundboard, such as feedback or feedback generated by the vibrations of an acoustic body, making the microphone installed in the harmonic stage itself vibrate as well.

Something that Paul also wanted was to have a guitar that would hold the notes for as long as possible, something difficult to achieve with an acoustic instrument since the vibrations of the strings are diluted in the soundboard itself. To solve these problems, Les Paul would start To experiment in his apartment, Paul would install an equivalence of electromagnetic pickups on a centerpiece of solid wood cut from a fence post. He attached it to a Gibson neck and also incorporated a rudimentary vibrato system.

To improve the appearance of the prototype, I would install two equal halves of an Epiphone on the sides of the trunk, although the final result is still quite improvable, but hey, we must understand that in the early 40s nobody had imagined an electric guitar as we currently know it.

What he did manage was to solve the problems mentioned above by installing the pickups in a rigid wooden body, thus avoiding the feedback derived from the resonance and vibrations of an acoustic instrument, on the other hand the sustain was increased by doing without a box resonance.

While carrying out his experiments, Les Paul would suffer an electric shock in 1941 that almost took him away, but luckily he survived this shock, moving to the city of Los Angeles in 1943 where he would form a new trio of musicians. Les Paul would use his prototype since its creation both in live performances and in the studio, finally presenting his design to the Gibson brand in 1946 with the proposal of developing a new model of solid-body electric guitar taking his prototype as a reference.

But the Gibson manager only needed to order the dogs to be released so that Paul would disappear as soon as possible with that grotesque, convinced that a solid body guitar would never be accepted by the consumer. After Gibson’s refusal, Les Paul decided to build his own recording studio in which he played all the guitar parts on some of the songs he developed in 1948 on the hitherto unknown multitrack recording.

That same year, Pol would suffer a road accident that could have been fatal. As a result of this accident, the elbow of his right arm was practically destroyed. The doctors would inform Les Paul that they could not rebuild it, consequently the elbow would have to remain in one fixed position. Les Paul indicated to the surgeon the correct angle in which his arm should be in order to continue playing the guitar, but this would not be the only injury that Les Paul had to endure.

Because of this accident, he had to endure serious injuries to his back, ribs and neck, costing him almost a year and a half to recover. Shortly after recovery, a visionary saw the melodic potential of a solid-body electric guitar and would introduce the first mass-produced model of it. That visionary was Leo Fender and his model was the Fender Telecaster.

Gibson found the impression of a solid-bodied guitar grotesque, squandering the opportunity to pioneer its development and mass production, until Fender began selling its products like hotcakes in the early 1950s. Consequently, Gibson would radically be changed when they saw the results of a new competitor.

Gibson contacted Les Paul in 1951 to develop a solid-body guitar, but following the brand’s tradition of creating high-end products, the chief designer who approved the final product would be Ted McCarthy. Paul would provide the name to the model in question with the intention of promoting the instrument as an experienced guitarist or, if it was a commercial failure, the brand could ignore the model in question, holding Les Paul responsible.

The guitarist had to sign a contract with the brand that prevented him from playing any instrument in public that was not a product made by Gibson. Finally, the first Gibson Les Paul model was marketed in 1952 with p90 pickups designed by Gibson in 1946, precisely the same year that Paul presented his prototype.

Paul, dissatisfied with the final result, would get the brand to accept some improvements, finally appearing in 1958 with the standard Les Paul mounted with its new double-coil pickups, the star quality of these microphones being the reduction of parasitic sounds or interference, completing what is considered one of the most perfect solid body electric guitar models ever made.

But the standard Les Paul would cease to be manufactured in 1960, commercially crushed by the fender Stratocaster, a cheaper, lighter guitar with a vibrato lever. Consequently, Gibson would modify the Les Paul model in 1961 by adding a vibrato system mounted on a narrower body with a superior cut away, thus lightening the weight of the instrument and at the same time facilitating access to the lower part of the neck, giving birth to the Gibson Les Paul SG, the abbreviation SG referring to its solid body construction.

Some important modifications that should have been communicated to Les Paul but that he was unaware of until he saw the new model with his name on the exhaust
rate from a store, he would immediately deny the new shape, forcing Gibson to withdraw his name from the model, alleging that it did not correspond to his guitar.

Finally, the new guitar would be renamed simply as SG, becoming one of the company’s greatest successes. The Les Paul would return to the Gibson catalog in 1968 after the wide demand caused by the widespread use of this model by top-ranking artists, finishing the Les Paul for being an icon in the development of musical genres such as hard rock and heavy metal, although its use is applicable to practically any melodic genre, this guitar being a fundamental part of the sound of many jazz and blues guitarists.

Although Les Paul is mainly recognized for giving his name to one of the most popular guitars in history, he also enjoyed a brilliant career as a musician and virtuoso guitarist, enjoying several number ones in the US, together with his wife Mary Castle.

In 1987, Les Paul underwent surgery on his heart after recovering from the operation, he returned to the stage despite his growing arthritis in his hands and continued playing until he was over 80 years old, dying in 2009 at the age of 94.

The only thing Les Paul liked in life was being able to make people happy. Mission Accomplished Paul!


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