My name’s Paul, and that’s between y’all

Musician and technological innovator Les Paul died today, at the ripe old age of 94.

It’s sometimes said of people who’ve recently passed away — I’m sure I’ve written it in reference to dozens of folks — that it would be impossible to overestimate their influence. When it comes to the art of music and the industry of recording, there might well be no one of whom the saying is more true.

Les Paul — whose original name was Lester Polfuss, and you can see why he changed it — made modern popular music possible when he created the solid-body electric guitar. Just try to imagine what rock, pop, jazz, or country would sound like without that instrument. You can’t, because they wouldn’t exist — at least, not in anything approaching the forms to which we’re accustomed.

It’s also important to note that Paul was a brilliant player of the instrument he invented. He not only produced the tool, but also developed a sizable lexicon of technique for its use.

If that one innovation was all that Paul contributed to music, we’d still be hailing him today. But wait… there’s more! (I’ve always wanted to do that.)

Paul also created multitrack recording. Which is to say that he’s responsible for the entire recording industry as we know it today — not just musical recordings, but pretty much everything we hear on television or in film. Whenever you hear an artist singing or speaking over a separately recorded instrumental track, or layered instrumentals or vocals, or any kind of recording that necessitated multiple sources being combined into a single signal — again, just about all of the recorded sound you hear anywhere — you have Les Paul to thank for both the idea and the execution.

For live performances, he invented the Les Paulverizer, the first electronic device for in-the-moment sound-on-sound production (or live looping, as it’s often called). With this system — the inner workings of which Paul never publicized, and which he continually upgraded for over 50 years — Paul could transform a solo performer (himself, for instance) or a duo (himself and then-wife and collaborator Mary Ford) into an entire ensemble, all from a control box attached to his guitar. (Or so it appeared — Paul confessed in later years that the on-stage control mechanism was nothing more than a prop.)

No wonder they called the man “the Edison of music.” That might even be giving Edison a little too much credit.

Until shortly before his death, Les Paul was still playing his music live every Monday night at a New York City jazz club. I doubt I’ll live to be 90-plus, but on the off chance, I hope I’m still doing things I love.

Les Paul is dead, may he rest in peace. But his legend, like the sounds from his multitrack recording equipment, will just keep going and going.

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One Comment on “My name’s Paul, and that’s between y’all”

  1. Sank Says:

    Nice tribute.. two words, one name..

    Leo Fender


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