The wizard from Waukesha

By Sergio Ariza

If we said the name Lester William Polsfuss, born June 9, 1915 in Waukesha, Wisconsin, and died August 13, 2009 in New York, there wouldn’t be many people who’d recognise him, but if we said Les Paul,  those two words would sound like magic to millions of electric guitar fans. Of course many of these folk, when putting a face on this magic, would think of a young Clapton, or Jimmy Page, Duane Allman, Peter Green, Mick Ronson, Neil Young, or Slash, before considering the man who gave the guitar its name. That’s a shame because this guy, beyond his connection to one the most legendary electric guitars in history, was a great guitarist on his own account, and almost more importantly, one of the grand inventors and  makers of the musical evolution of the 20th century, being the only person to be in both the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (along with Elvis, The Beatles, and Jimi Hendrix) and in the National Inventors Hall of Fame (together with Thomas Edison, Alexander Graham Bell, and the Wright Bros.).  

Never would a music teacher’s  comment prove to be as wrong as what a young Lester Polsfuss’ teacher  said to his mother, “ Your son Lester will never learn music”.  And not only was he  wrong, young Lester learned music, but also the music we’ve come to know today wouldn’t be the same without him and his many inventions, being the pioneer of solid body guitar development and multi-track recording tables among many other things.

Les Paul the musician and Les Paul the inventor always went hand in hand, at 7 years of age he was capable of dismantling the radios and telephones at home, then put them perfectly back together again. His technical knowledge and cleverness would have him learning to play other instruments at the same time adding various things of  his invention. At 8 he played the harmonica, then shortly after he started on the piano but quickly switched to guitar. To be able to play both the guitar and the harmonica (harp) he came up with a support for the harp that would be made popular years later by Bob Dylan and Neil young.   

When he was 13 he started his professional musical career playing country in local jukes under the name Red Hot Red, by then his guitar was already amplified using radio and telephone pieces  and the phonograph needle inside his guitar plugged into another radio piece. In 1934 he changed his nickname to Rhubarb Red and moved to Chicago where he would record his first albums a couple of years later. It was at this time when he began performing as Les Paul ( a shortened version of his name and the name his mother took after divorce). He formed a trio with Jim Atkins (Chet’s big brother) on rhythm guitar and Ernie Newton on bass, and left country music for his real love: jazz. His big idols were Louis Armstrong, Coleman Hawkins, Art Tatum and the great guitarist Django Reinhardt, who was his big influence in playing.  

After moving to NY his career got its first big break when his trio was inked to perform weekly on the radio, making his name and music quite popular at the end of the 30s, even landing them a gig playing at the White House for president Franklin D. Roosevelt

It was in the Big Apple where he began to agonize over what would become his big invention. Paul wasn’t happy with electric guitars of the 30s, so he decided to make his own designs. The most famous was known as The Log, a block of solid 4” by 4” pinewood, with a bridge, 2 pickups, and a Gibson neck. With this he managed to fix feedback problems, and was able to lengthen the duration of the notes. In those days, they weren’t ready to go on stage with a log for a guitar, so Paul joined 2 pieces to each side, similar to the body of an Epiphone. He gave birth to one of the first compact electric guitars. At the start of the 40s he decided to offer his invention to Gibson but was rejected, telling him, his "log” was nothing but a “broomstick” with pickups.   

In ‘43 he moved again with his trio to Los Angeles where he would live his best moments as a musician. For someone who loved jazz, on July 2, 1944 he lived what he himself considered the “peak of his career”. That day he got a call from Norman Granz, asking him to substitute for Oscar Moore in an inaugural gig at what was known as Jazz at the Philharmonic, or JATP, these were shows in which various artists would play together. That day the lineup was brilliant with people like Illinois Jacquet on tenor sax, JJ Johnson on trombone and the great Nat King Cole at the piano. His interplay with Cole on tunes like Blues Pt.2 and Body and Soul, reached mythical proportions, showing how good of a guitarist he was, without any need for his technical innovations. His musical conversation with Cole on Blues, Pt.2 brought people to their feet and was claimed by some critics to be  a precedent of the rock and roll of the following decade. Few knew it, but those two great improvisers were going to become 2 great pop stars in the next 10 years.  

Apart from this being his happiest day as a player, L.A. put him in contact with the most famous artists of the day. Before long he was recording with Bing Crosby, with whom he achieved great success with It’s Been a Long, Long Time, Judy Garland and the amazing harmonies of the Andrews Sisters that gave him the idea of the music with which he would dominate the charts at the beginning of the 50s. 

But before we get there, we must go back to the Les Paul inventions. At the end of the 40s, he got back into technological innovations and, as a result, changed the way of recording for decades. His friend Bing Crosby gave him an Ampex Model 200 as a gift, one of the first magnetophones with open reels produced to commercial scale worldwide and he encouraged him to set up his own studio.  The guitarist had already been  the first in starting to experiment with multi-track recording and in 1947 he had published in Capitol his recording of Lover (When You’re Near Me), a song in which Les Paul played 8 distinctive guitar parts, and to do this, he recorded himself on one record, then playing it back and recording another bit on top. Now with the Ampex, this wasn’t necessary, thanks to his development of a multi-track recording system, putting in an additional recording head and an extra circuit, which  manages multiple recordings, unsynchronised and separate on the same tape. The invention was built-in the Ampex double and triple track recorders. Les Paul had changed the way to record music;  up until then, the engineer/producer had to look for the best possible acoustics and record live. Now the recording studio became another instrument that allowed for all kinds of experimentation. 

He would put all of his knowledge into the most famous records of his career which t he recorded with his second wife Mary Ford. They met in 1947 when she was called Colleen Summers. They started to play together that same year and did many shows. These same shows were used by Paul to put the finishing touch on songs to turn them into potential hits . The minute he stumbled upon the arrangement , they would go into the family studio and record, on some songs there would up to 8 or 9 different guitar parts and as many vocals. In this way he managed to make Ford sound like the Andrews Sisters combined into one woman and established her own style, clean elegant and fast improvisations on pop songs of the day. Among the most memorable you find gems like How High the Moon, The World is Waiting for the Sunrise, and Vaya con Dios. They had a total of 22 gold record songs. 

He was at the height of commercial popularity when Gibson approached him again to help their designer Ted McCarty make an electric guitar  with a solid  body. A lot of that had to do with the appearance of the Broadcaster by Leo Fender in 1950 (the model that would become known as the Telecaster). In 1952 the first incarnation of the Gibson Les Paul would appear, one of the most iconic guitar models ever built. As part of his new contract, Paul agreed to never appear in public playing anything other than a Gibson. He fulfilled his contract and the guitar kept getting better, such as the incorporation of the humbuckers in 1958, many of them funded by the guitarist himself. However in 1960, after a fall in sales, and especially because of the competition the Stratocaster by Fender, Gibson decided to change the design and lighten up the guitar. Les Paul did not like the changes and asked the company to take his name off  their guitars. The new guitar was called the SG, and the Les Paul ceased production for a few years until it returned in 1968. What took place in those years for the return of the Les Paul had a lot to do with the entrenchment of rock, in particular, the blues rock from Britain. In June of ‘65 Clapton, the most popular guitarist in the UK, decided to buy a 1960 Les Paul Standard and put it to use in his performance together with John Mayall & the Bluesbreakers on their debut album, known as Beano. Within 2 years a great majority of British guitar heroes were playing a Les Paul, such as Jimmy Page, Paul Kossoff, Peter Green, Jeff Beck and Mick Taylor. Its  only rival as the most iconic electric guitar in history is the Stratocaster.

To get back to our hero, ironically, the music that gave greatest glory to his guitar also knocked him off the sales lists. The advent of rock pushed him, little by little, out of the business. At the start of the 60s he divorced Mary Ford and in ‘65, the same year Clapton began his romance with rock music on his famous model, he half-retired from music.

He only got out of this semi retirement in the 70s to record a couple of records with another 6-string legend Chet Atkins, the little brother of his partner on the Les Paul Trio, whose first guitar was an Archtop (by Gibson, couldn’t be any other way) given as a gift by Les himself. He did however continue playing at the Iridium Jazz Club on Broadway until his death in 2009. 

His name will forever be related to a guitar but Les Paul was much more than a man who gave his name to a guitar. His legacy as a musician and inventor is gigantic and his importance to the music of the last century is vast. His mother can rest assured, he not only learned music, he managed to leave a permanent fingerprint on it.