Les Paul: American Master (1915-2009)
–Ed. Note: In honor of the passing of Les Paul, we have decided to rerun Lenny Kaye’s wonderfully insightful column on the man.
It’s the “Guitar Boogie” to end all guitar boogies, with an honor guard of guitarists arrayed behind the benevolently smiling figure of Les Paul, who sits on a raised platform from where he has just finished entertaining a sold-out house at the State Theater in Cleveland and accepting an American Master award from the Rock n ‘Roll Hall of Fame.
I look down the line-up, a varied and virtuosic clusterfuck history of the electric guitar in all its begat-ing generations. Duane Eddy. James Burton. Billy Gibbons. Lonnie Mack and Dennis Coffey and Barbara Lynn. Steve Lukather, Jennifer Batten. Slash and Sambora and “Skunk.” Exclamation points all, and me, standing next to Nokie Edwards of the Ventures!
In my hands is a replica of an early ’60s Les Paul Special, two P-90 pickups with the selector switch next to the tone and volume controls. It is the same model as my very first electric six-string; and as I look down on its familiar slab body and feel it nestle on my hip much as it did 44 years ago when I first introduced a barre chord to the world at a Rutgers fraternity party, my debut in a band (name, the Vandals: “Bringing down the house with your kind of music!” our motto), I think of the long and unexpected road I have traveled with this instrument that, far more than any other, defines rock and roll, whatever it may be, and whoever may play it.
The irony is that Les Paul’s moment astride the charts presaged rock and roll; that, indeed, the pop music that hung his gold records on the wall was washed away on the Top 40 by those he would influence. Yet it wouldn’t matter to his longevity as an innovator. Les was and always will be a grander presence than the hits that placed him on the celestial jukebox; his Sound, that which made the electric guitar so much more than merely amplified, provided the texture and adventurism that would characterize the guitar’s phenomenal 20th-century growth into the people’s instrument that it is today. For those who only know him as a name on a Gibson headstock, Paul stands at the crossroads of the guitar’s evolution, the before and after, and all that comes between.
Now in his tenth decade of music-making, Les hearkens back to an era when not only the guitar was “acoustic,” but recording was itself. The onset of electricity in the studio meant things would be getting ever louder even as that newfangled microphone allowed intimate crooners like Bing Crosby to practically whisper in your ear – and the guitar, once an instrument more suited for the parlor than the stage, now had to compete with horn sections and PA systems. Les performed a miracle of synthesis, combining technologies of the radio, telephone, and phonograph, and together with his own innate musicality, came up with a tool that proved amenable to every conceivable player.
His Frankenstein creation was based on attaching a magnetic pickup to a railroad track, later evolving into The Log, one of the first attempts to create a solidbody electric guitar. Refined over the years, the “Les Paul” Gibson became an industry standard, and like Karloff’s creature who declared “smoke….good!” and went his own way, there is sometimes little resemblance to the purpose Les had in mind when he designed the instrument. His own tone was crystal clear, chime-y, quite inclined to the treble end of the frequency spectrum, a far cry from the infinite sustain, distortions, feedback and heavy metals that became the Les Paul stock-in-trade. Les, as is his way, enjoyed all the mutations, because he is first and foremost a manipulator of sound.
You can hear it in his early recordings, like “Lover,” with its speeded guitar licks and cascading echoplexes, and in the unearthly riffing that surrounded Mary Ford’s multi-tracked vocals. Could rockabilly have had such pinging reverb without Les paving the sonic way? Could the baritone-als of Duane Eddy, the Mos ‘Right soundscapes of the Ventures, the waterfall rapids of notes that shredders and speed-metallicas exult in as they push the notes-per-second sound barrier – could any of them be imagined without Les’s pave of the way, his melding of the fretboard and the onboard electronic?
He envisioned – or perhaps enlistened – the future, not only in texture, but in machines that might capture this quantum dimension of sound. As an inventor, he cobbled together the components of the multi-track recorder, even grasped the concept of digital when he punched holes in the paper of a player piano to add his own harmonics. But it is as a musician I like to appreciate him, the wild-card swoop and swerve on the strings, his meticulous choice of notes. Watching him from the wings at his land-o’-Cleve tribute, performing with his Trio much as he does each Monday night at Iridium in New York, Les taking as much joy and energy from the crowd as he bestows back on them, I was moved nigh-to-tears by his elegiac version of “Over The Rainbow” (a must-see on YouTube). His fingers don’t have the facility of his younger days, back when he took on all comers in the nineteen forties, even becoming Bing’s guitarist for a time (a role in which only he could begin to replace the pioneering Eddie Lang); but in the impeccable placement and vibrato and taste of each numeral of the scale selected, he showed why his invention grew from his musicality, and why, in his down-to-earth sense of humor and wonder, he is such a vital part of today’s musical soundscape.
When it came my turn on stage, I was gifted with not one, but two Mary Fords, Alannah Myles and Katy Moffatt. Versioning “Vaya Con Dios,” “Tennessee Waltz” and “How High the Moon,” negotiating the chord changes and each thrush’s beautiful birdsong, intro and obliggato and solo, I got to be Les for a moment in time, as we all do whenever we tickle the strings. And then when he gives me the nod in “Guitar Boogie,” I step out and let the notes fly where they might, as I’ve learned to make them my own, on a guitar which formed the opening strum of the life I have lived.