Can you imagine having an electric guitar named after you? An instrument that artists all over the world use to create musical harmonies in genres from pop and rock to jazz and the blues, and even classical compositions. Can you imagine so many people making music with your namesake?
Les Paul certainly could; in fact, he dreamed of putting his stamp on the music industry from a very young age. Les Paul is well known as a talented singer, songwriter, and guitarist — and lesser known as the inventor of the neck-worn harmonica holder and the looping technique so many guitarists use.
He played jazz, country, and blues music throughout his career; and his brilliant inventions changed the way we play, record, and produce sound. As a tribute to the great Les Paul, we detail his life and music below.
Les Paul’s Personal Life
Les Paul was born with the name Lester William Polsfuss in Waukesha, Wisconsin in 1915 — later in his life, he took the stage name, Les Paul.
In 1943, Paul was drafted into the US Army, where he served in the Armed Forces Radio Network. He performed with artists like The Andrews Sisters, Bing Crosby, and jazz pioneer Django Reinhardt — a musician he especially admired. After WWII, the two became good friends, and Reinhardt undoubtedly influenced Paul’s musical style and compositions.
Paul married country-western singer Mary Ford in 1949, and the two produced several hit songs together — they even had their own television show. The couple divorced in 1964, but their impact on the music industry didn’t fade; the songs they produced together went on to influence many musicians after their time.
Even after he split from his wife, Les Paul continued to wow audiences on stage with his musical talent. He truly loved entertaining, and sharing his music with the world. He performed well into his elder years, and it’s said that he was still playing for audiences in New York just a few weeks before he passed away, at the age of 94.
Les Paul’s Music Career
Paul’s music career started young, when he began learning the harmonica at 8 years old. He tried his hand at piano, and later switched to learning guitar. During his childhood exploration into music, he invented a harmonica holder that would sit around his neck, so he could play the harmonica hands-free while playing along with his guitar. Today, the neck-worn harmonica holder is still manufactured using his design.
Paul began performing semi-professionally as a guitarist, harmonica player, and country music singer (a triple entertainer!) by the time he was 13. At this time, he was playing at local venues. In an effort to help more people hear him, he amplified his acoustic guitar by wiring a phonograph needle to it, and connecting that needle to radio speakers. With his passion and innovative mind, in his teen years, Paul managed to create his very own solid body electric guitar.
People quickly recognized Paul’s talent and his potential, and he didn’t find it hard to make friends in the music world. In his earlier years, Paul began playing with Rube Tronson’s Texas Cowboys. Shortly after dropping out of high school, he joined Sunny Joe Wolverton’s Radio Band. In 1934 he moved to Chicago, where he performed on radio, his music reaching the ears of people all over the city.
In 1936, he released his first two records — which were credited to his hillbilly alter ego, named Rhubarb Red. It was during this time, as he accompanied various bands in the beginning of his career, that he took the stage named Les Paul.
How His Music and Career Evolved
In Paul’s early days, he performed in character, as the hillbilly singer Rhubarb Red. After the release of his first two records, Paul formed a trio with Jim Atkins and Ernie “Darius” Newton in 1937. In 1938, they packed up their gear and left Chicago to head to New York. There, the trio was featured on Fred Waring’s Pennsylvanians radio show.
Answering to the draft, Paul went on to serve in the US Army, where he met influential musicians that opened new opportunities for the young guitarist. He was able to play in the inaugural Jazz at the Philharmonic in 1944, appear on Bing Crosby’s radio show, and even tour with the Andrews Sisters in 1946.
In 1948, Paul suffered a huge career setback. As a result of an automobile accident, Paul shattered his right elbow, and was told it may need to be amputated. Not wanting to lose his arm, and his ability to play music, he opted instead to set his arm at a fixed angle so he could cradle his guitar. It took him a year and a half to recover from the accident. During his recovery, he managed to adapt his playing style and teach himself to work with the position of his arm, so he could continue strumming his guitar.
Les Paul’s Inventions
Along with writing and playing music, Les Paul was a creative and impressive inventor — and his inventions weren’t limited to the harmonica holder he’d designed as a kid. While he was living in New York, Paul began experimenting with creating his own acoustic-electric guitars in his apartment. One of his well-known creations was “The Log.” This guitar used 4×4 lumber with a bridge, guitar neck, strings, and pickup attached. He also attached the body of an Epiphone hollow-body guitar that was sawn lengthwise to fit The Log in the middle. This design reduced feedback, sustaining a purer and clearer sound.
Paul took his idea to the Gibson Guitar Corporation in 1941, but the company turned him down at first. It wasn’t until Fender — Gibson’s competitor — began marketing the new Esquire guitar that Gibson showed real interest in Paul’s design. His guitar, named the Gibson Les Paul, later evolved into the Gibson SG, which became one of their best sellers.
Les Paul, along with his wife and musical partner Mary Ford, paved new milestones in the industry of recording and producing music. The duo pioneered the concept of recording in a home studio, by using whatever rooms they had at hand (whether at home or in a hotel), and experimenting with placement of the microphone and other sound equipment. During his time performing with his wife, Paul also introduced the method of multitrack recording, in which he layered his guitar sounds to produce a richer overall harmony in a song. While the equipment has evolved over the years, almost every music album you listen to today uses multitrack recording in the same way.
You’ve likely seen or heard a guitarist using a looping technique. This is where a guitarist will play and record a melody on a small device; the device then plays back that melody over and over on a loop, while the guitarist plays an accompanying tune on top of it. This looping technique, used in hundreds of performances today, came originally from Les Paul’s idea. When Paul was collaborating with his wife, Mary Ford, he wanted to be able to demonstrate in a live show how they produced “sound on sound” in their recorded songs. So, he invented a device he called the “Les Paulverizer” — which would record and playback a tune, while he and Mary Ford added new sounds on top of it. He later revised the Les Paulverizer into a small box-like device, which could be attached directly to a guitar, and allow for easier looping.
Put Your Hands Together for Les
Les Paul was the perfect example of a well-rounded artist. His talent on the guitar would have been more than enough to keep his fans engaged, but his passion for music extended beyond just that. His contributions to the music industry in the form of pure talent, practical invention, and innovative techniques will be remembered for years to come. His life is a reminder of how important it is to follow your dreams, even at a young age. You never know, your 8-year-old-self’s desire to pick up an instrument and start playing could turn into your lifelong career and passion!