Les Paul, the original guitar hero, dies aged 94

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The Independent Culture

Les Paul, the evergreen musician and inventor who created the solid-body electric guitar which ushered-in the era of rock and roll, and went on to change the face of modern music has died. He was 94.

Gibson, maker of the instruments that bear Paul’s name, announced yesterday that he had passed away overnight at White Plains hospital in New York State, following complications related to a bout of pneumonia.

He will be mourned by generations of devotees of the Les Paul guitar, which first went on sale in 1952 and is still sold today, together with a cross-section of record producers who owe their success to multi-track recording techniques, which he also pioneered.

Dozens of rock and roll legends rose to fame wielding his range of instruments. They range from Paul McCartney and Richie Sambora to Pete Townshend of The Who, Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin, and Steve Jones of The Sex Pistols.

Tributes were led by Slash Hudson, the former Guns and Roses guitarist, who described Paul as “one of the most stellar human beings I have ever known,” and described him as “my friend and mentor.”

“Les was a shining example of how full one’s life can be,” he said. “He was so vibrant and full of positive energy. I’m honoured and humbled to have known and played with him over the years, he was an exceptionally brilliant man.”

Though he owed his own fame to the eponymous guitar, Paul was also a popular musician in his own right. He achieved prominence in the 1930s and was still performing reglular sets at the Iridium Jazz Club in New York in the months before his death.

With Mary Ford, his wife from 1949 to 1962, he earned 36 gold records for hits that included “Vaya Con Dios” and “How High the Moon,” which were both number ones. Many of the duo’s songs were distinguished by innovative overdubbing techniques that form one of his most significant legacies.

“I could take my Mary and make her three, six, nine, 12, as many voices as I wished,” he once recalled. “This was quite an asset.”

Les Paul begun experimenting with overdubbing after the War, when Bing Crosby gave him an early tape recorder. He soon pioneered so-called multi-track recording, which allowed an artist to record different instruments and harmonies at different times, then edit them together.

The technique was highly influential on later bands such as the Carpenters. “Without him, it's hard to imagine how rock and roll would be played today,” the late Ahmet Ertegun, founder of Atlantic Records, once said.

Born Lester William Polfus on June 9, 1915, and brought up in Wisconsin, Les Paul taught himself acoustic guitar during childhood and began his professional career as a teenager, billed as Red Hot Red or Rhubarb Red.

A self-confessed “tinkerer,” he experimented with guitar amplification for years, before coming up in 1941 with the instrument he described as “The Log,” a piece of wood strung with steel strings. “I went into a nightclub and played it… Of course, everybody had me labeled as a nut.”

Public reactions began to shift when Paul put wooden wings onto the body to give it a traditional guitar shape. Electric guitars gained popularity throughout the 1940s, though it wasn’t until a decade later that Gibson began production on a Les Paul.

Friends yesterday described Paul as an ebullient character with a colourful sense of humour. On his induction to the Rock and Roll hall of fame in the 1980s, he joked that people might finally realise that he was a real person, as opposed to a brand of guitar.

In recent years, Paul continued to play on Monday nights at New York's Iridium jazz club, where fans like as Jimmy Page, Dire Straits' Mark Knopfler, Bruce Springsteen, Eric Clapton and Eddie Van Halen came to pay tribute and occasionally sit in with him.

“I cannot imagine life without Les Paul. He would walk into a room and put a smile on anyone’s face. His musical charm was extraordinary and his techniques unmatched anywhere in the world,” said Henry Juszkiewicz, the Chairman of Gibson. “We will dedicate ourselves to preserving Les’ legacy to insure that it lives on forever.”