Strum machine - Life and Style - The Independent

Strum machine

The company sensed that a guitar called the Gibson Polfus may not grasp the public imagination... so the Gibson Les Paul was born

The work of Lester Polfus, of Wisconsin, rarely appears in All Time Hot 100s; few could hum the string of hits he compiled in the Forties and Fifties under a myriad of pseudonyms - Hot Rod Red, Rhubarb Red; numbers like "How High The Moon", or "Lover! Brazil!" could play all the way through before anyone could Name That Tune. Yet Polfus's legacy to the rock business is as profound as Berry's, Richards's or Lennon's; his gift not so much what he played as what he gave others to play.

A dedicated jazz guitarist, Polfus was forever tinkering with his instrument in an attempt to make a cleaner, sharper, crisper sound. In 1946 he cracked it, and took his latest invention - a solid wood-bodied, smooth-angled, lovingly burnished electric number - to the Gibson guitar company in Montana. They loved its style, the rolling M-shape of its body, the deep, luxuriant tone it emitted, and bought the design on the spot. Sensing that a guitar called the Gibson Polfus may not grasp the public imagination, the company used the inventor's latest nom de plectrum instead: and so the Gibson Les Paul was born.

The big break

It takes time to craft a Les Paul, to put together the mahogany body, hand-carved maple top, humbucking pick-ups and rosewood fingerboards (ebony in the more exclusive models) and between 1958 and 1960 only 1,000 were made. But in the mid-Sixties, after Eric Clapton got hold of one and produced an unprecedented rich, dignified sound from it on the album John Mayall's Bluesbreakers, everyone wanted one. Production was upped and soon Les Pauls were an essential accessory to every British and American rock band. Paul Kossoff picked out the riff for Free's "All Right Now" on a Les; Steve Howe did pompous things on his with Yes; Nigel Tufnell of Spinal Tap had one that no-one was allowed even to look at.

With the Les Paul approaching its 50th anniversary, its shape unchanged in half a century, Mr Polfus's legacy is much drooled over, less frequently bought. All that hand-tooling doesn't come cheap. At pounds 1,150 for the basic model, they lag well behind sales of that other legendary machine, the Fender Stratocaster (pounds 550) at the Rose Morris Music Store in Soho's Denmark Street. Custom Les Pauls sell for substantially more: the guitar pictured, a reissue of the famous 1956 gold-top, retails at about pounds 2,500. A 1956 original, in mint condition with all the tags, would set you back pounds 15,000.

Top of the pops

Yet from a peak of pounds 14million in 1992, the electric guitar market has shrunk to less than pounds 10million. And this despite the fact that Britpop has returned the guitar to its rightful place at the centre of rock music (Paul Weller directs his homages to Traffic on one; Noel Gallagher wallops out Oasis's glorious surging sound via its fretboard). But the electric guitar is no longer a statement of rebellious youth; it is a symbol of a desperate effort to regain it . With Les Paul prices as they are, most buyers these days are beyond any hope of pop stardom. Known pejoratively in the business as "doctors and dentists", they are mature buyers (75 per cent of second- hand classic Les Pauls are reckoned by dealers to be destined for Japan). And, the suspicion is, buyers take the instrument home with them, put on the CD player and strum along while striking poses in front of the mirror: thus making the Gibson Les Paul the most expensive tennis racquet substitute in the world

as loon pants and fancy art-work on your album's gate-fold sleeve

, faces contorted with the strain,

reminiscent of their youth

the Les Paul still sets the standard for rock playing:

guitar shops around the world still echo to fantasists playing "Stairway to Heaven" on

Les Pauls are

"Vaya Con Dios"

selected by listeners to radio stations at Christmas

flame-top, with its surface lovingly hand-burnished, will set you back pounds 35,000,

Second-hand Les Pauls regularly sell for far more than new ones if the hand concerned did something legendary with it. Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin sold a cast-off Les Paul Standard, its body custom-scratched and battered, at auction in 1993 for pounds 1700.

No-one could call themselves a progressive rocker without a Les Paul in their locker.

(so dedicated that after a bad car accident messed up his elbow he had it re-set at an angle so he could continue strumming)

- or later in partnership with his late wife Mary Ford

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