Guitar Legend Les Paul Dies at 94

BY Arts Desk  August 13, 2009 at 1:03 PM EDT

Legendary guitar innovator and player Les Paul died Thursday of complications of severe pneumonia in White Plains, N.Y. He was 94.

Paul pushed boundaries, drove technology and helped popularize the electric guitar before the age of rock idols. His line of guitars, sold by Gibson, is considered among the best on the market.

As a performer, Paul mixed jazz and country and helped usher in rock ‘n’ roll. While his last top 10 hit came in 1955, his name remains legendary among guitarists, and he continued to perform in a Manhattan nightclub until recently.

Here is Thursday’s NewsHour piece about Les Paul:

Born Lester William Polsfuss in Waukesha, Wis., he took the stage name Les Paul in the 1930s. He performed under the names Red Hot Red and Rhubarb Red, playing honky-tonk and western twang, with influences from gypsy-jazz great Django Reinhardt. He was on stage by the time he was a teenager and dropped out of high school to tour.

Paul had been tinkering with electronics since his childhood, and he grew increasingly unhappy with the hollow-body electric guitars available in the late 1930s. Those instruments produced a thin tone and were wrought with feedback problems. He once tried filling guitar’s body with plaster of Paris, which helped.

“I was interested in proving that a vibration-free top was the way to go,” he said, according to a post on Gibson.com. “I even built a guitar out of a railroad rail to prove it. What I wanted was to amplify pure string vibration, without the resonance of the wood getting involved in the sound.”

The result was “The Log,” a guitar that was little more than a piece of wood with pickups, a neck and wings off an Epiphone, to make it look more like a traditional instrument.

In a 2000 interview with Jim Lehrer, Miami University professor Steve Waksman explained Paul’s role in developing the electric sound:

“Les Paul did a whole lot for the electric guitar. He was a great inventor regarding the instrument. And that’s not to say he invented the instrument. But he made some modifications to the design of the electric guitar that had a great influence. The guitar I’m holding in my hand right now is what’s called a solid-body electric guitar. And it’s different from the earlier models in that the earlier models were basically hollowed-out acoustic instruments that had electronics put on them for amplifications. This kind of guitar has no hollow parts to it. It’s all based on the electronics. And that also means you get a different kind of sound.

“Let me say that the sound he got was something that I call a pure electric tone — one that was trying to eliminate all the distortion and the noise that later guitarists actually took as being the basis for what they wanted to do. So Paul’s pure electric tone he put into use on song like ‘How High is the Moon.’ So it’s that clean tone of the electric guitar that Les Paul was most working on with his innovations in electric guitar design around the solid body guitar.”

Below are some classic clips of Les Paul, the first of which highlights his love of innovation. In it he and Mary Ford play an incredible 26 parts of “How High the Moon.”

For more about Les Paul and a timeline of his career, visit American Masters: Chasing Sound.

More classic clips after the jump.