Les Paul

by John Holbo on August 14, 2009

Dead at 94.

A year ago I was going through a Les Paul phase and posted a nice round-up of YouTube items. It’s fantastic stuff. I suggest you take 10 minutes to remember the father of rock and roll – well, he sort of was. There’s a whole documentary you can watch. I love the idea of idea of this guy with the future of music planted in his head, touring around as Rhubard Red. I love all that corny old stuff with Mary Ford. Corny and elegant and kinda nerd-brainy, and beloved by geniuses for what he let them do. Les Paul. Not a bad life.



bdbd 08.14.09 at 3:30 pm

This NYTimes Last Word video is also worthwhile http://video.nytimes.com/video/playlist/last-word/1194811622353/index.html#1247463983106

Rhubard Red indeed.


Matt McGrattan 08.14.09 at 3:51 pm

He wasn’t really the father of rock and roll, but he was a fine player.


John Holbo 08.14.09 at 3:53 pm

“He wasn’t really the father of rock and roll”.

Hmmm, well maybe he invented the father of rock and roll’s penis, then. Fair enough?


Matt McGrattan 08.14.09 at 4:01 pm

I’ve no idea what you mean.

He was great. But he didn’t invent the electric guitar ,and he didn’t invent rock’n’roll as a style of music. On the other hand, he did invent the multi-track recorder and was a fine guitar player in his own right. That’s plenty.


Bloix 08.14.09 at 5:03 pm

Rhubarb, please. And he invented the solid body electric guitar, which made guitar-driven rock and roll possible.


watson aname 08.14.09 at 6:32 pm

And he invented the solid body electric guitar

No, not even that. But he was instrumental in its development, along with Fender, Travis, and others.


roy belmont 08.14.09 at 8:21 pm

The internet will undoubtedly reveal something if asked but my own personal brain cells deliver an info-packet of Les being out in the garage and Mary being in the house and Les wanted her to hear in now-time what he was doing so stuck I believe it was a phono needle avec wire into a homemade axe? No into a pre-existing axe at hand, and wiring that back into the house and a speaker. Then later maybe making a wired-up axe.
Viola – electrified guitar. But not realizing what it was exactly until much later.
They did a fine fine version of “Tennessee Waltz” with Mary Ford’s Doris Day-like sunny contralto all through it. And he played real real clean.
Also in music news Mike Seeger passed on the other day.


John Emerson 08.14.09 at 8:54 pm

Coming out of semi-retirement, I link to my own Les Paul piece. What struck me was the number of guitar innovators, both players and engineers, who were self-taught nobodies from nowhere (e.g., Slovakia) fooling around in basements and garages.

Les Paul is also a reminder that music since 1940 or so has been increasingly formed by engineering and producing. In a bad way if you’re talking about Swedish producers, but in a good way when in the case of, e.g., Rudy van Gelder, Les Paul, et al.

I was impelled to buy a LP greatest hits and concluded that LP had almost no taste, musically speaking. Some real crap — e.g a tinny doubletime track dubbed over an OK blues song. Some kitsch. Some pretty good stuff.


stostosto 08.14.09 at 10:13 pm

Damn, I regret I didn’t go see him at the Iridium when I was in New York in 2007.


Mike Jonesah 08.14.09 at 11:32 pm

The Les Paul willnever go out of style. My son recently got into the guitar and when I took him to the local music store he immediatly reached for the LP. Of course I couldn’t afford it, but it shows that classic style never dies.


Soren 08.15.09 at 3:48 am

Les Paul — one of the greats.

All the Les Paul News


belle le triste 08.15.09 at 10:26 am

roy, that’s right — as a kid he amplified a guitar with a phonograph needle… i actually doubt he was the only person to do this, tho, there was a huge subculture of geeky kids trying to be the next edison via DIY radio-parts mail catalogues in the twenties in the US: “proper” electric guitars did just about exist — the first ones were amplified hawaiian steel guitars ircc in the late 20s

acc.dawson and propes’s useful list of the 50 answers to “what was the first rock’n’roll record?”, LP is at #23 for “how high the moon” in 1951, but actually played (as paul leslie) on their no.1, “blues pt.2”, in 1944, one of norman granz’s Jazz at the Philharmonic projects — profits to a fund to help zoot suit rioters! — feat. post-bop sax-squealers illinois jacquet and jack mcvea : the honker-squealer style split off from urban bop to mutate into R&B (/oversimplification)

(D&P’s #50 is “heartbreak hotel”: it’s a great book, if only for provoking arguments)


John Emerson 08.15.09 at 12:28 pm

Les Paul almost killed himself working out the electronics of something or another. He was out of commission for months. Always unplug your gear before getting out the screwdriver, kids.

I’m going through “The Very Best of Les Paul and Mary Ford” (mostly w/o Ford) and am confirming my previous mostly negative impression. The recording gimmicks are stale, the pop style sound dated, and he seems to prefer a tinny, harpischord-like guitar sound. There’s one medley with the Benny Carter rhythm section where he sounds good (on Swing to Bop Guitar).

“Mockingbird Hill” (1951, when I was 5) is my earliest musical memory, but I may remember the Patti Page version.


John Emerson 08.15.09 at 12:35 pm

Partial takeback regarding “How High the Moon”, which sounds pretty good. But talk about uneven.


Matt McGrattan 08.15.09 at 1:02 pm

Yeah, early in his career he was a fast/aggressive swing player with a nice edge to his playing. Bugle Call Rag (from the Jazz at the Philarmonic recording), is a good example, or something like Moten Swing (with Willie Smith). His later playing was technically very accomplished and great fun but without the edge of that earlier playing.


LizardBreath 08.15.09 at 1:41 pm



belle le triste 08.15.09 at 1:54 pm

a tinny, harpischord-like guitar sound: how is this bad tho? there is no pop feat/harpsichord which is not tremendous = IRON LAW OF POP

also: “he is uneven” = “he well represents a key characteristic of rock’n’roll” — UNEVEN-NESS IS OUR ELEVEN!!11!


belle le triste 08.15.09 at 1:56 pm

typically you can’t make the OMG exclamation mark one-eleven joke on CT — EVEN WHEN IT WOULD BE FUNNY

I am shouting because I am excited.


Paul 08.15.09 at 3:48 pm

If Les Paul hadn’t did what he did from the technical side with the guitar there would have been no rock’n’roll as we know it.


Paul 08.15.09 at 3:49 pm

Remember too children that Muddy Waters invented electricity ! :-)


Dave Maier 08.15.09 at 4:03 pm

In yet other music news, Rashied Ali has also died. I never saw him but that’s why we have recordings. (Still, I would rather have seen him.)


John Holbo 08.15.09 at 4:11 pm

Emerson! (Lizardbreath wins the thread.)


Matt McGrattan 08.15.09 at 4:13 pm

Paul, rock and roll had already been in existence for years [or a decade or more depending on your perspective on some of the proto-rock’n’roll records] before Gibson brought out the Les Paul guitar. A guitar, incidentally, to which Les Paul contributed only a few minor design changes as he was the endorser of the instrument, not the originator of it.

Les Paul’s experiments with solid-bodied guitars were indeed early, but nothing came of them until well after other manufacturers were producing and selling solid-body electrics. The credit that he gets as ‘inventor’ of the solid bodied electric guitar is largely misdirected. There were solid body guitars and basses in existence quite a few years before Les Paul built the ‘Log’.

For example:


Also, fwiw, the vast majority of the early rock’n’roll records weren’t recorded on solid bodied guitars at all, so in that sense the invention of the solid-bodied guitar is a total irrelevance. With a couple of exceptions almost none of the mainstream rock’n’roll guitar players of the 1950s even used solid body guitars but used ‘ES’ type guitars that had been existence since the late 1930s.

Les Paul was a fantastic innovator of recording technology, but all the credit people are dishing out for his supposed role in the birth of rock’n’roll is mistaken.


Wax Banks 08.15.09 at 6:54 pm

Perhaps this is the place to mention that Rashied Ali (RIP) is one fifth of several of Coltrane’s worst recordings and one half of his greatest (i.e. one of the greatest), among other things, and he deserves a few measures of silence as well.


belle le triste 08.15.09 at 10:25 pm

all the credit people are dishing out for his supposed role in the birth of rock’n’roll is mistaken

nonsense, matt: some of the credit is not mistaken — multitracking TICK, being on JATP TICK and emersonian unevenness TICK : here is (part of) rock’n’roll — it had a thousand warring fathers and he was some of them


John Emerson 08.15.09 at 10:59 pm

I don’t think that he was specifically a father of R&R, especially. A father of a kind of pop, a father of the electric guitar, the father of multitracking and other production gimmicks [“tools” if you wish].

Rgarding electric blues, I went forever thinking that Chicago blues was the beginning. But Chicago blues came after a lot of jazz guitarists had developed the guitar. TBone Walker I thought at first was a blues musician trying to go classy, but he was a jazz guitarist going rootsy.


belle le triste 08.15.09 at 11:24 pm

john lee hooker predates the chicago guys also

there’s a nice story about charlie christian: that what struck you (in the club, it’s really not obvious on record) was how LOUD he played

multitracking isn’t a tool, it’s a new geometry: les paul lifted off into it before stockhausen and everyone — what it says is “the studio is no longer just a mock-up of this space the band all sit in”: the exact opposite of what rudy van gelder was working at, and a much bigger deal than most of the records LP actually made make a drama of

the next big really step for this was surf: “wipe out” and etc (where the exactness of the repetition is the effect and the content) (if surf isn’t part of &R then yr right, but of course it IS part of R&R)


Matt McGrattan 08.16.09 at 12:57 am

Belle, oh I think his invention of multitracking definitely had a huge role in how popular music later progressed, really a massive massive role. I’m not dismissing his influence on music technology and how it developed. It tooks record producers quite a while to catch up with some of the things he was doing.

My dispute is just with (specifically) the rock and roll of the late 40s and 1950s — the stuff we think of as rock’n’roll — where he didn’t really have that much of a role at all. As a guitar player he wasn’t that influential compared to any one of dozens of other players. His playing on JATP is very nice in a fairly aggressive but not especially original or innovative swing style, but there were other people who did that better and were certainly much more influential on later players. He was, after all, only on JATP because Oscar Moore couldn’t make it. FWIW, I am something of a swing and early r’n’b guitar obsessive.


John Emerson 08.16.09 at 1:58 am

I suspect that few here have heard much of his hokey ricky-tick stuff.

To my 10 year old mind (kiddies) there was rock and old-people-music, and Les Pauls’s stuff I knew about was definitely over there with Patti Page as old-people-music. It took decades before I would voluntarily listen to pre-rock-and-roll, especially swing and jazz-pop.


JP Stormcrow 08.16.09 at 1:58 am

Out of my depth, but to knock the ball back a few centuries, a local early-music guy has pointed out this piece from 1604, Colascione (named for the instrument it was composed for) by Johannes Kapsberger, as a candidate for earliest “rock” song. Even my untutored ears can hear what he is getting at, but I forget now if it is open chords or the chord sequence (maybe both) that he claims gives it such a contemporary sound.


JP Stormcrow 08.16.09 at 2:00 am

In the Department of What Could Possibly Go Wrong, Les Paul sub-division: Les Paul was Steve Miller’s godfather.


John Holbo 08.16.09 at 2:01 am

I am convinced, by the body of evidence and testimony, that I have been giving Les Paul too much credit (much though he deserves credit, little though I wish to slight the recently departed, howsoever justly). In future I’ll stick to my core competencies: saying what’s wrong with McArdle’s grumping about health care.


roy belmont 08.17.09 at 10:26 pm

#31: Cheap shots at the undeserving to the nonce there’s a whiny abandoned step-child note to the dis-the-dinosaurs refrain that is so tiresomely repeated amongst what I am assuming is your age-clad and cultural affinity group.
Steve Miller paid lots of dues coming up and back when Boz Scaggs and himself were livening up the SF ballroom scene as the Steve Miller Blues Band they put on some uplifting and very exciting shows.
For extra credit you can listen to the Bobby Fuller Four’s defeatist “I Fought The Law and The Law Won” back-to-back with Miller’s rebel-rocking “Go On, Take The Money and Run”.


Richard Cownie 08.18.09 at 12:27 am

“Les Paul is also a reminder that music since 1940 or so has been increasingly formed by engineering and producing”

Yes, but it’s not as though American popular music (or Western classical music) before
1940 was some kind of pure art uncontaminated by engineering innovations. The saxophone,
the resonator guitar, the pianoforte, equal temperament, are all advances in engineering
and design which opened the way for new kinds of creative expression.

I’m not familiar with Les Paul’s recordings, but his 1950s guitar design was a classic and
arguably a great advance on its successors :-) To design something that can remain popular
for 50 years in an era of rapid technological change in a highly faddish business is simply
remarkable. He must have been a heck of an engineer and designer.


Salient 08.18.09 at 12:52 am

it had a thousand warring fathers and he was some of them

LB won the thread; bianca wins the internet.


Salient 08.18.09 at 12:53 am

Oops — belle. belle wins the internet.


peter ramus 08.18.09 at 12:59 am

“…they put on some uplifting and very exciting shows.

I’ll testify to that. Miller’s band, with Boz on board, on a flatbed truck in the Panhandle in ’67, said truck recently relinquished by the Dead. A fine, fine, rocking set in the early evening, in front of a smallish remaining crowd made up of the sort of people you might suspect could not remember precisely how to leave. Wonderful rave-up cover of “Mercury Blues.”

(Listing back toward the topic, Garcia played a Les Paul guitar that day)


pilgrimtraveller 08.18.09 at 3:29 am

before the man we know as t-bone walker was known as t-bone walker, his moniker was “oak cliff t-bone” and he was a country blues artist. which is to say, t-bone was rootsy (if that’s the right term) before he was jazzy, and he wasn’t jazzy long before he was jazzy-going-rootsy-again.

& john lee hooker didn’t really predate the chicago guys. muddy made his first recordings with an electric guitar in ’48, the same year as hooker.’s “boogie chillun”. anyway, muddy wasn’t the first chicago bluesman to play an electric guitar: before muddy, before hooker, there was tampa red, certainly, and possibly big bill broonzy and mebbe others, too.

the guitarist who was in on the birth of rock n roll was none other than tiny grimes, who, with his band the kilt-clad “rocking highlanders”, played what is said to be the first rock n roll concert evah–alan freed’s moondog coronation ball in cleveland, 1952.


Matt McGrattan 08.18.09 at 6:36 am

re: 34

He didn’t invent the Les Paul guitar. So it’s not his 1950s guitar design. Guitar historians dispute how much input he had into the guitar but the consensus is that it was the colour of paint that was used, and probably the trapeze bridge, which was replaced early on because it wasn’t very good. Everything else about it , i.e. everything we think of as distinctive about the Les Paul guitar, were Ted McCarty’s invention. It’s just constantly recited as fact that he invented the solid body guitar, and that the Les Paul model guitar was it, but neither are true.

PRS brought out a McCarty model in tribute to Ted McCarty. Most of the Gibson patents from that period are McCarty [or Seth Lover for the humbucking pickup].


9 08.18.09 at 3:26 pm

Wow Emerson, off the meds, outpatient status, and wit’ his Les Paul. Wunderbar!

LP’s How high the moon not bad


Richard Cownie 08.18.09 at 3:47 pm

“He didn’t invent the Les Paul guitar. So it’s not his 1950s guitar design”

I stand corrected. Seems like Les Paul’s most influential achievements were in
developing the technology and techniques of multi-track recording and overdubs.
That’s huge enough. Ted McCarty, Seth Lover, (and probably other people at
Gibson ?), take the credit for the LP guitar design.


Matt McGrattan 08.19.09 at 6:17 am

re: 41

Yeah, his achievments in multi-track recording were huge. Not only in inventing the technology but also in the uses he put it to, very early on.


JP Stormcrow 08.19.09 at 8:04 am

what I am assuming is your age-clad and cultural affinity group.

I assume you assume wrong. I am from those dinosaur days, and do in fact like me some early Steve Miller. My more complete cheap shot at Steve Miller is about his descent from his Chicago blues days and early stuff with Boz Scaggs etc. to “The Joker” et al.

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