A virtuoso guitarist steeped in Country, Jazz, and Pop who found fame as part of a duo with singer Mary Ford, Les Paul was also one of the driving forces behind the development and popularization of the electric guitar, creating one of the first solid-body models using a block of wood. His namesake model, the Gibson Les Paul, is an iconic instrument that’s been played by countless Rock guitarists. Paul is also known for his innovations in recording techniques – among his achievements was pioneering the use of “overdubbing,” or layering multiple tracks atop one another in the recording studio.
Paul was born Lester William Polsfuss in Waukesha, Wisconsin, and took up the guitar early: by 13, he was performing in local restaurants and taverns. By 17 he had dropped out of high school to play in Country bands and by 19 had a radio show in Chicago, where he was known as “Rhubarb Red.” Inspired by the playing of Django Reinhardt, he put together a Jazz trio and in 1937 moved with them to New York City, where he quickly became busy with nightclub work.
At the time, hollow-body electric guitars were increasingly common, but Paul – a born tinkerer obsessed with sound — was dissatisfied with their sonic limitations, and spent many hours in his garage looking for a way to achieve the sustain and tone he desired. In the early 40s, Paul hit on the idea of a solid body electric guitar, creating a prototype with a piece of timber that he dubbed “The Log.”
Armed with his new instrument, Paul moved to Los Angeles, where he became an in-demand session player. Ever the inventor, Paul built his own reverb and echo effects for his guitar; he also built his own recording studio and began experimenting with new ways of recording music. At the time most records were recorded with the musicians and vocalists playing together in a single take, but Paul became one of the first artists to use multi-track recording, building songs with layer upon layer of guitar tracks. In this fashion, Paul recorded a series of instrumental hits in the late 40s.
Paul married the singer Iris Colleen Summers in late 1949. She soon changed her name to Mary Ford and Paul began to make records featuring Ford singing layered harmonies with herself, using overdubbing. The duo produced a string of hits, the biggest of which, “How High The Moon,” reached No. 1 and became their signature song.
Soon after, the Fender company began having success with their initial solid-body electric guitars, and competitor Gibson contacted Paul, whom they had earlier turned down, for help following suit. With his consultation they produced the Gibson Les Paul model, which premiered in 1952, and is still in production today.
Paul and Ford divorced in 1962, and Paul, suffering from arthritis and other ailments afflicting his hands, more or less retired, spending his time tinkering in his garage and working only occasionally. In the late 1980s Paul began a twenty-plus-year run of Monday night shows at a succession of clubs in New York City, where he was often joined by prominent Rock musicians who came to pay tribute. Paul died in 2009 at age 94.