On This Day In Music History: Les Paul

Les Paul, guitarist and inventor, was born Lester William Polsfuss on this day, June 9, in 1915 in Waukesha, Wisconsin.

When I hear the name Les Paul, the first thing I think of is the Gibson guitar that bears his name. I picture a solid body electric with a small, round-ish shaped body, yellow/orange- colored sunburst top, two humbucking pickups, a tune-o-matic bridge that is seperate from the “stop” tailpiece and the neck, capped with a black headstock, three tuning pegs on each side and the trademark white Gibson logo, top and center. Also, having played one once, I know that the guitar is heavy: the body being made of mahogany and maple. 

The original “Les Paul” guitar was designed mostly by Gibson’s Ted McCarty with a debateable amount of input from Les, but definitely inspired by an instrument that Les invented in 1941 called “The Log.” This instrument, according to Les himself, was called “The Log” because: “It was made from a solid 4 x 4 inch piece of wood with a neck, and to make it look like a guitar we clamped on a pair of wings cut from the side of an old guitar.” (Guitar Player Magazine, May 1973) When Les presented this prototype to Gibson in 1946, “They politely ushered me out the door.” In 1950, with Les near the peak of his recording career, Gibson not only sought his input in the design of the new guitar but an endorsement deal that resulted in the instrument bearing his name.  

The reason behind the solid wood, by the way, is to increase the sustain of the guitar’s notes. With “The Log,” Les once said: “You could go out and eat and come back and the note would still be sounding.”

The “Les Paul” guitar was first marketed in 1952 by Gibson Guitars to compete with the “Telecaster,” a solid body electric that had been introduced by the Fender Electric Instrument Co. the year before. The “Les Paul” is still being made and is Gibson’s most popular model.

The guitar players that I connect with the “Les Paul” and who definitely took advantage of its sustain and distinctive tone are Jimmy Page, Duane Allman and Keith Richards. Keith was the first famous British guitarist to buy and use a “Les Paul,” doing so in 1964. 

The other thing I think of when I hear the name Les Paul is an album I own entitled: Chester & Lester. Recorded and released in 1976, it features country guitarist Chet Atkins and Les Paul playing wonderful, casual-sounding arrangements of 10 jazz standards. It also marked the coming-out-of-retirement of Les, who had had a very successful recording career from 1945-1964. Chester & Lester won the Grammy Award in 1976 for “Best Country Instrumental Performance.” Les told Guitar Player Magazine in December 1977: “You could have knocked me over. I don’t know why they called it country, though. Hell, there wasn’t a country cut on it.”

Les Paul passed away on August 14, 2009 in White Plains, NY.

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One Response to On This Day In Music History: Les Paul

  1. Tom Savage says:

    Nice tribute to the guitar and the man. I know little of Les Paul, other than the few articles I’ve read over the years, and of course his “name/icon” due to the enduring popularity of the instrument that bears his name. I do remember reading somewhere that late in life, he had his arm broken and set a certain way to enable him to continue playing the guitar. Now that’s devotion….

    He must have found it so gratifying to see such rock notables as Page, Richards, Allman playing his guitar, and speaking of it so reverently.

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