June 9th was the 100th anniversary of the birth of Les Paul (the actual guy, not the guitar). His life story is a lesson in creativity and passion. He was self-taught, self-made, and totally driven.
Born Lester William Polsfuss in 1915, he became well-known as a virtuosic musician, but he was an even better problem-solver. Here are just a few of his engineering feats:
- Growing up in Wisconsin in the 1920s, he wanted to play his harmonica and guitar at the same time, so he invented the neck-worn wireframe holder whose basic design is still in use today.
- The Waukesha dance halls were too noisy for his country guitar playing to be heard clearly. So, from a plank of 4-inch lumber, Paul built one of the worlds first solid-body, amplified guitars, changing forever the face of music, and inspiring the design of the Gibson Les Paul. That guitar was adopted and beloved by rock musicians the world over, and I know some fans today who don’t realize there was a living, breathing guy behind that name.
- In 1946, his car crashed into a ravine alongside Route 66 in Oklahoma. At risk of losing the use of his right hand, he asked the doctors to lock his elbow at a permanent 90-degree angle, so that he could always hold and strum a guitar.
- Check out this 1951 clip of “How High The Moon”. I love it because it showcases his mad melodic skills and great charisma, but also his crazy techno-geekiness. Just look at all that gear:
- He was a pioneer in early overdub recording techniques, and later worked with engineers at AMPEX to develop some of the first multitrack tape recorders. That was back in the early 1950s, but I think it’s fair to say that, without “How High The Moon”, you could never get to the kind of layering that we hear all over The Beatles “Sgt. Pepper’s” recordings.
- He continued to invent and play music well into his 80s, and even designed the hearing aid he used until his death in 2009.
Les Paul was an innovator and a problem-solver who made the world a better-sounding place for the rest of us.
Photo courtesy The Les Paul Foundation