News Stories on Les Paul's Passing (all links open in a new window/tab)
Obituaries (links do not open a new window/tab)

    What can any guitarist say about the passing of Les Paul, the most important guitar and music innovator of the last century? In the early 1940s, he built his own electric guitar and played it in a very successful duo with his wife, Mary Ford. Throughout the decade, he couldn't interest any guitar manufacturers in commercializing his axe, until Leo Fender began his company, at which point Gibson figured they'd better get into the act.

    Paul passed away during the night of August 12th at the age of 94. His manager confirmed to Rolling Stone that the cause of death was respiratory failure, and a statement from Gibson indicates Paul was suffering from severe pneumonia and died at a hospital in White Plains, New York.

    [From Rolling Stone, 8/13/09, 12:48 pm EST] An inductee of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and Grammy Hall of Fame, Paul is credited as the inventor of the electric body guitar and the pioneer of recording techniques like electronic echo and multi-tracking. Paul also had a celebrated career as both a solo artist and with singer Mary Ford, his wife until 1964. In 2003, Rolling Stone named Les Paul to our list of the Greatest Guitarists of All Time, and his influence on guitar greats who followed him is undeniable. “He was one of the most stellar human beings I’ve ever known,” Slash posted on his Twitter today, referring to Paul as his “friend and mentor.” Chickenfoot guitarist Joe Satriani released a statement that reads, “Les Paul set a standard for musicianship and innovation that remains unsurpassed. He was the original guitar hero, and the kindest of souls.”

    In the 1930s, Paul worked in Chicago, Illinois, in radio, where he performed jazz. Paul's first two records were released in 1936. One was credited to "Rhubarb Red", Paul's hillbilly alter ego, and the other was as an accompanist for blues-artist Georgia White.

    Paul's jazz-guitar style was strongly influenced by the music of Django Reinhardt whom he greatly admired. Following World War II, Paul sought out and befriended Reinhardt. After Reinhardt's death in 1953, Paul furnished his headstone. One of Paul's prize possessions was a Selmer Maccaferri acoustic guitar given to him by Reinhardt's widow.

    In January 1948, Paul shattered his right arm and elbow in a near-fatal automobile accident in Oklahoma. Doctors told him that they could not rebuild his elbow so that he would regain movement; his arm would remain permanently in whatever position they placed it in. Paul instructed the surgeons to set his arm at an angle—just over 90 degrees—that would allow him to cradle and pick the guitar. It took him a year and a half to recover.

    In the early ’50s, Paul and Ford had a string of hits including Mockin’ Bird Hill,” “How High the Moon,” “The World Is Waiting for the Sunrise” and “Vaya Con Dios.” Paul also began experimenting with the electric guitar, building the Les Paul Recording Guitar, an instrument that allowed for “hot” pickups and “fatter” tone than the Fender on the market. Paul linked up with Gibson Guitars and his six-string became one of the guitar maker’s signatures. The Gibson Les Paul guitar was produced from 1952 to 1959, when it was discontinued. Several years later, due largely to consumer pressure, the Paul was re-introduced, and is still one of the top sellers nearly 50 years later.

    I've been collecting vintage Les Pauls for many years. Although I only have about a dozen, I've also been collecting really good photos of Les Pauls; if you'd like to have a look at virtually every year's Les Paul from 1950 through the present, here's the place to look: [new page]

    Les Paul not only developed a timeless electric guitar, vintage models (1952-1959) of which can get well over $100K, but also invented many studio techniques that are now industry standards. He developed multitrack recording (overdubbing), stereo recording, the delay technique, and several others. NPR ran a wonderful piece on Les Paul the day after his passing.

    In 1948, Capitol Records released a recording that had begun as an experiment in Paul's garage, entitled "Lover (When You're Near Me)", which featured Paul playing eight different parts on electric guitar, some of them recorded at half-speed, hence "double-fast" when played back at normal speed for the master. ("Brazil", similarly recorded, was the B-side.) This was the first time that multitracking had been used in a recording. These recordings were made not with magnetic tape, but with acetate disks. Paul would record a track onto a disk, then record himself playing another part with the first. He built the multitrack recording with overlaid tracks, rather than parallel ones as he did later. By the time he had a result he was satisfied with, he had discarded some 500 recording disks.

    Paul even built his own disc-cutter assembly, based on automobile parts. He favored the flywheel from a Cadillac for its weight and flatness. Even in these early days, he used the acetate-disk setup to record parts at different speeds and with delay, resulting in his signature sound with echoes and birdsong-like guitar riffs. When he later began using magnetic tape, the major change was that he could take his recording rig on tour with him, even making episodes for his 15-minute radio show in his hotel room. He later worked with Ross Snyder in the design of the first eight-track recording deck (built for him by Ampex for his home studio.)

    In the late 1960s, Paul went into semi-retirement, although he did return to the studio occasionally. He and Ford had divorced in December 1962, as she could no longer cope with the traveling lifestyle their act required of them. Paul's most-recognizable recordings from then through the mid-1970s were an album for London Records, Les Paul Now (1967), on which he updated some of his earlier hits; and, backed by some of Nashville's celebrated studio musicians, a meld of jazz and country improvisation with fellow guitar virtuoso Chet Atkins, Chester and Lester (1976), for RCA Victor.

    By the late 1980s, Paul had returned to active live performance. In 2006, at age 90, he won two Grammys at the 48th Annual Grammy Awards for his album Les Paul & Friends: American Made World Played. He also performed every Monday night, accompanied by a trio which included guitarist Lou Pallo, bassist Nicki Parrott and pianist John Colianni, at the Iridium Jazz Club on Broadway in the Times Square area of New York City.

    Composer Richard Stein (1909–1992) sued Paul for plagiarism, charging that Paul's "Johnny (Is the Boy for Me)" was taken from Stein's 1937 song "Sanie cu zurgălăi" (Romanian for "Sledge with Bells"). A 2000 cover version of "Johnny" by Belgian musical group Vaya Con Dios that credited Paul prompted another action by the Romanian Musical Performing and Mechanical Rights Society.

    Paul was born in Waukesha, Wisconsin in 1915, a fact noted in the name of the 1980 Les Paul documentary The Wizard of Waukesha. Last November, the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame honored Paul with its annual American Music Masters Concert, where Slash, ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons, Richie Sambora and the Patti Smith Group’s Lenny Kaye paid tribute to Paul (watch footage from the event, below). Kaye told the audience, “Before Les, guitars were only amplified. Les made them truly electric.” During his acceptance speech, Paul joked, “Everybody thought I was a guitar until I played here tonight.” One thing is for certain: Les Paul is responsible for changing the way rock & roll sounds and he will be greatly missed.


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