INNOCENT WORDS BLOG SERIES: 12 Moments Which Shaped Music – Les Paul Inventions


Les Paul on a lunch break

I will be honest here. The future of music scares me. With the digital revolution consuming music and music listeners, the art of music, its artists, and the history of music seem to be gone with nothing more than the click of the mouse on the delete button.

As a music writer and music fan (music nerd if you will), I don’t want the musical past to be erased. I love more than anything the history of music. If it wasn’t for the past, we, as music fans, wouldn’t be enjoying what we have today.

With the 2016 Innocent Words Blog Series, we are going to take a look at 12 events which shaped, changed even, the face of music. Events which not only influenced me as a music fan, but influenced the world of music.
To the casual music fan, the name Les Paul is usually indicative of the guitar which holds his name. But for the die-hard music fan, they know Les Paul was much more than that.

Les Paul was a genius. He was, as the Gibson website once put it, “the original nutty professor of the guitar — a smart-guy eccentric and joker.” Les Paul came along at a time when the world was getting introduced to electronic devices like television in the home. This helped make the music industry an open book for Les Paul. He studied that book, then rewrote it with his own vernacular and a tremendous amount of knowledge and ideas for music.

Yes, most consider Les Paul, along with Leo Fender, as the father of the electric guitar and all roads leading after it, but Les Paul is also the mind behind some of music’s greatest innovations, many of which are still being used today. He didn’t just pave the road for the modern solid body electric guitar, he is responsible for numerous recording inventions, including multi-track recording, which opened countless doors for not only record producers but also the musicians crafting the songs.

Originally a harmonica player, in his early teens Les Paul picked up the guitar and invented the neck-worn harmonica holder, which allowed him to play the harmonica hands free while playing guitar at the same time. His basic design of the harmonica holder is still in use today.

Later on, Les Paul would explore new ideas for his acoustic guitar like taking a record player needle and connecting it to his guitar and to a radio speaker, making for a primitive amplifier. Throughout his teens and early 20s, Les Paul explored the concept of an electric guitar. He took 2-foot piece of rail from a train line and used it for the body and neck of the guitar. He called this wild idea “The Log,” but when the guitar was getting too much feedback, Les Paul took “The Log” and affixed it to the middle of an Epiphone hollow-body guitar, essentially building the first electric guitar. In 1941, Les Paul nearly electrocuted himself to death while experimenting with the electric guitar in his apartment. It would take him two years to fully recover.

In 1941, Les Paul talked with Gibson Guitar Corporation about his electric solid body guitar, but they showed no interest. It would take seven years for the company to consider Les Paul’s invention, only after guitar competitor Leo Fender created his own (the Fender “Esquire,” a single pickup model) in 1948.


Les Paul, the great tinkerer

It would take over a decade for Les Paul and Gibson to come to terms, only after the company was suffering from declining sales. Gibson took Les Paul’s solid body electric guitar design, made it thinner and lighter, adding in a second cutaway, and sold it without telling Les Paul, basically stealing his design and altering it to make it their own.

Gibson’s new design had flaws, so they had to call in Les Paul to fix it, which he did, only he didn’t want his name on this model, so Gibson renamed it the “SG,” a.k.a. “solid guitar.” Gibson and Les Paul would forgive and forget and would go on to take Les Paul’s original design, put his name on it and make it one of the world’s bestselling guitars.

In 1945, World War II electric equipment designer Richard D. Bourgerie made an electric guitar pickup and amplifier for guitarist George Barnes. Les Paul met Barnes and arranged for Bourgerie to make him a guitar pickup. Les Paul would always use his own self-modified guitars. often winding the pickups himself. In 1962 Les Paul was issued US Patent No. 3,018,680 for a pickup in which the coil was physically attached to the strings.

Always the inventor and tinkerer, Les Paul came up with the idea of an aluminum guitar with the tuning keys below the bridge. It was the first “headless” guitar. The aluminum guitar was so sensitive to the heat from stage lights that it would not keep tune

Also during the 1940s, in his Hollywood home, Les Paul started construction of his own recording studio. In 1949, Les Paul was given one of the first Ampex Model 200A reel-to-reel audio tape recording decks and went on to work with Ampex to create the eight track “Sel-Sync” machines for multitrack recording. When trying to master the multitrack recording, Les Paul would go through nearly 500 acetate discs. He had to build his own disc-cutter assembly, based on automobile parts. He would use the flywheel from a Cadillac.

Les Paul went on to invent Sound on Sound recording using the Ampex Model 200 by placing an additional playback head, located before the conventional erase/record/playback heads. This allowed Paul to play along with a previously recorded track, both of which were mixed together on to a new track. He bought the first Ampex 8-track recorder in 1957. He named the recorder “the octopus” and the mixing console “the monster.”

He was not only at the forefront of the musical innovators of the early days, but he was leading the pack. Any musician who has picked up a guitar or played the harmonica or stepped inside a recording studio owes a debt of gratitude to Les Paul.

Thank you Les.

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