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Les Paul dies at 94

The original guitar hero

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Les Paul - the inventor of the solid-body electric guitar and one of the most important developers of multi-track recording - died Thursday at age 94.

Born Lester William Polsfuss on June 9th in Waukesha, Wisconsin, Paul began his life-long affair with music at age eight, playing harmonica and piano. He got his first guitar after, as he told The Washington Post in 2005, "I tried an accordion, and pitched it into the city dump. Then I sent away to Sears. I was about 9."

Paul may have gone on to become the world's tastiest accordion player, but instead became the inspiration for Gibson Les Paul, the guitar that competes today for the title of World's Most Influential Rock Guitar with the Fender Stratocaster.

Paul began performing professionally at 13, playing under the noms de frets of "Red Hot Red" and "Rhubarb Red." Unfortunately, he had to fight to be heard in any but the quietest venues: acoustic guitars, whether archtops or flat-tops, are quiet affairs, unable to fill a room and - even worse - easily drowned out completely when accompanied by horns, reeds, or drums.

And so in the late 1920s, Paul began his quest to amplify his six-string. His first effort, he later explained, involved a telephone mouthpiece jerry-rigged into a microphone - and some petty larceny.

"I went to the railroad yard with some friends," Paul recounted, "and we stole a 2 1/2-foot length of steel rail. I stretched a string the length of the rail and held it down with a spike at each end. Then I put the telephone mouthpiece underneath the string."

His purloined "steel guitar" worked - but barely. He continued his experimentations by putting microphones on acoustic guitars and stuffing them full of various materials to kill feedback, but he remain dissatisfied.

It wasn't until the late 1930s that he came to the conclusion that the open-bodied guitar itself was the problem. As he told writer Jim O’Donnell in 2005, "What I wanted to do is not have two things vibrating. I wanted the string to vibrate and nothing else. I wanted the guitar to sustain longer than an acoustical box and have different sounds than an acoustical box."

Then came the brainstorm: Paul stuck a guitar neck onto a solid four-inch-by-four-inch block of pine, added some pickups, strung it up, and played.

It worked - plenty of volume and no feedback. As Paul said, referring to his invention's ability to stand out in the crowd, "We had a knob and all we had to do was turn it."

But it looked like, well, a block of wood with a guitar neck, something audiences couldn't relate to. (Remember, this was decades before Hohner G3Ts or Chapman Sticks).

Besides, as Paul explained, "You have to have a beautiful piece of wood, something you can caress, and hold, and love." His solution was straightforward: He cut an archtop guitar body in half and glued the two parts to the sides of his four-by-four and called his creation "The Log."

Paul tried to get Gibson Guitars to commercially produce versions of The Log, but the company didn't like the idea. As he told O'Donnell, "They said the guy's going to have to walk around with two guitars: one with holes in it so he can play normally, up with a microphone or however; and the other one he's going to have to plug into an amplifier."

A shortsighted equipment manufacturer? We're glad that no longer happens here in the enlightened 21st Century.

Unfortunately for Gibson, Paul was pals with the legendary Leo Fender, who saw the brilliance in Rhubarb Red's idea. Around 1950, Fender's eponymous company introduced the first mass-produced solid-body electric guitar, the Broadcaster, soon to be renamed the Telecaster and eventually to become the axe of choice for musicians as diverse as Bruce Springsteen and Buck Owens.

Gibson quickly realized its stupidity, however, and released the original Les Paul Model in 1952. The Kalamazoo, Michigan luthier then went on to create such mythic solid-bodies as the Flying V, FireBird and SG Standard. But the Les Paul remained its flagship series.

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