Les Paul brought the future.
As a Wisconsinite, it’s easy to feel outgunned when it comes to music history. We’re surrounded on all sides by music landmarks: Motown to the east, sweet home Chicago to the south, and the birthplace of Bob Dylan (and Prince, I guess) to the west. Meanwhile, the Badger State is known mostly as a musician’s graveyard; Otis Redding (whom I covered last week) and Stevie Ray Vaughan both died in aviation accidents while in Wisconsin. This lesser reputation isn’t exactly fair, because long before Dylan picked up a guitar and Hitsville U.S.A. earned its name, the sound of rock and roll was being invented by a man from Waukesha.
In other words, Michigan may have Mo’, but we’ve got Les.
Les Paul didn’t invent the electric guitar, but you’d be forgiven for thinking he did. With his revolutionary solid-body design, Paul paved the way for the modern electric guitar, and his continuing refinements and innovations perfected the instrument. The Gibson Les Paul is known worldwide as the weapon of choice for guitar heroes such as Pete Townshend, Jimmy Page, Joe Perry, Eddie Van Halen, and many more.
That would be enough of a legacy as is, but Les Paul did more. A legendary guitarist in his own right, Paul mixed jazz guitar with innovative recording technology to create a sound that was all his own. He pioneered the use of overdubbing, stacking and multitracking his guitar until he sounded like a very talented octopus. His recordings with his wife Mary Ford were quite successful, frequently charting and occasionally topping the charts in the 50’s. His sound remains unique, a mix between quaint oldies and proto-prog, both nostalgic and futuristic.
Paul never stopped tinkering with his inventions; his last guitar model was released a year before his death at the age of 94. He never stopped playing either–not after a near-fatal electrocution, not after serving in World War II, not after a car accident that broke half the bones in his body and paralyzed his right arm. He may not have looked like a guitar god (though he could have passed for Larry King’s badass alter ego in his later years), but Les Paul was the godfather of guitar gods.
Top that, Minnesota.
Here are some of Les Paul’s innovative recordings:
The result of experimental recording sessions in Paul’s garage, this quirky instrumental demonstrates his revolutionary overdubbing technique.
This jazz standard would be one of Paul and Ford’s biggest hits. Paul overdubbed both his guitar and Ford’s voice, creating an ethereal chorus of sound.
Another standard that Paul and Ford had success with, this ballad is a perfect example of the duo’s otherworldly style.
Paul and Ford’s singles would usually be complemented by an instrumental B-side. A few of these instrumentals, such as this lilting tune, made the charts as well.
Paul was influenced by Django Reinhardt and Gypsy jazz guitar, and it shows, both in the techniques he used while playing and in compositions such as this one.
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