R.I.P. Les Paul

Les PaulThere aren’t a lot of deaths that make me pause and reflect. I mean, it’s a part of life. So when some celebrity dies, we all sort of go “Huh. Hate to hear it”, and then we’re on about the business of our every day lives.

I paused today when I heard that Les Paul died. Most of you don’t have any idea who he is. But go to Google images and do a search for “Les Paul”. You might be surprised to find that the results are mostly of a bunch of guitars, with maybe a few pics thrown in here and there of this cool old man. That pretty much sums up the life and influence of Les Paul, I think.

I’ll put it in black and white for you. I’m of the opinion that without Les Paul we would never have had Rock ‘N’ Roll as we know it today. I’m sure someone would have been banging away on guitar, and we’d still have the Blues. But it was Les Paul’s innovative techniques that lead to a lot of the pyrotechnics that we all enjoyed in later generations in the guise of people like Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton and shredders like Eddie Van Halen and Joe Satriani. Had it not been for Les Paul taking those first breath-taking steps off of the beaten path, we might not have had an example to follow.

Let me put it in perspective: Les Paul wasn’t happy with the acoustic guitars that were sold in the mid 1930s and began experimenting with a few designs for an electric model on his own. What he created was called “The Log.” It was nothing more than a length of common 4″ x 4″ lumber with bridge, guitar neck, and pickup attached. For appearance’s sake, he attached the body of an Epiphone hollow-body guitar, sawn lengthwise with The Log in the middle. This solved his two main problems: feedback, as the acoustic body no longer resonated with the amplified sound, and sustain, as the energy of the strings was not dissipated in generating sound through the guitar body. Paul’s innovative guitar was built in 1939, and it was one of the first solid-body electric guitars.

Gibson Guitar Corporation designed a guitar incorporating Paul’s suggestions in the early fifties, and presented it to him to try. He was impressed enough to sign a contract for what became the “Les Paul” model (originally only in a “gold top” version), and agreed never to be seen playing in public, or be photographed, with anything other than a Gibson guitar. The legend was born. Les Paul made significant contributions as a musician, but it could be said that it was the guitar that made him a household name.

I won’t blather on about this. I am, after all, a bass player. But today one of the greats has passed. When I finish writing this, I’ll bow my head a say a silent prayer of thanks for the life of Les Paul. So much of who and what I am today, thanks to my discovery of music, is owed to the pioneering spirit of Les Paul. Without him, I might very well be banging out blues on an acoustic guitar instead of roaring Rock ‘N’ Roll. Or, worse yet, I might be playing a trombone.

Thank you, Les Paul. May you rest in peace. I’m sure there are a lot of old Rockers in Heaven that are going to welcome you with open arms.

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