Thursday, August 13, 2009

Les Paul- American Genius

For any of us who play guitar this is a very sad day. Les Paul whose name is synonymous with the instrument passed away at 94. Paul was a giant in terms of an industry and an art form. It is safe to assume everything we hear,every note of recorded music is the way it is because of Les Paul for he was not only an extraordinary guitarist he was an inventor and innovator of the first order right up their with Edison and Ben Franklin. A purveyor of American ingenuity he blazed the trail of multi-track recordings. Les Paul invented the overdub as I understand, the concept of the first multi-track Ampex tape recorder sprung from the fertile brain of Les Paul. His recordings with his former wife Mary Ford of songs like "Dear One (Waiting for the Sunshine) and the phenomenal "How High the Moon" stand up today as brilliant playing coupled with technical wizardry.

When Les Paul's right elbow was shattered in a car accident they were getting ready to fuse the bones, he instructed the doctors to bring his guitar and he had them fuse it at an angle so he could continue playing. His pictures from the early 50's on show him holding the guitar with his arm nearly at a perfect right angle.
Perhaps the most incredible thing about Paul is that he was gigging at least once a week in Manhattan all through his nineties. I don't know the details of his last months but he was working at his usual gig as recently as six months ago because I saw it advertise. He basically played and performed until the very end sharp and brilliant even with arthritis I saw a TV show where he was gallivanting across the neck of his Les Paul guitar more nimble than many one fifth his age and brilliantly inventive his playing always had a sense of flash and humor. He led a life than must be admired and wondered over beloved and iconized by any and all of us who ever plucked the strings of the instrument long enough to learn anything about it. One cannot think of the electric guitar with out thinking of two men Leo Fender (who's one hundredth anniversary of his birthday was last week) and of course the mighty marvelous Les Paul.
I own a 1967 Les Paul Gold Top it is perhaps, aside from my wife, the thing I treasure most in life. For me it is a magical thing.For me it is Excalibur and when I take it from its case I always feel a tingle of excitement even though I have owned it for over 34 years. When ever I play a gig it never fails somebody will walk up to me and ask"It that the real thing?" The Les Paul was more than the real thing it is the thing. I always smile and nod yes. They shake their envious heads and walk away usually backwards as one would walk from an idol in a temple. Which is what my LP is when it is on its stand on a stage somewhere. The guitar elevates my playing. I take solace in the fact that every time I open the case I will be reminded of his greatness by the familiar signature below the Gibson logo and in my small way play just a little better because I have my Les Paul in my hand but my guitar will always be his- A Les Paul- and any guitarist knows it doesn't get any better than that.

1 comment:

  1. I loved his version of 'How High the Moon'. It was the first song of his I ever heard. He was a great man and all our lives are lessened for his passing.
    I wish I hadn't ever been fool enough to sell my '80 Studio Custom. It wasn't an original Gold Top, but it was a beautiful instrument, and I miss it more than I ever thought I would.
    Raise one to Les tonight boys.