Remembering Guitar Legend Les Paul

August 13, 2009 at 12:00 AM EDT
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A look back at the life and career of Les Paul, whose electric guitar and multi-track recording changed how music is played and recorded. He died Thursday at 94.

JIM LEHRER: And finally tonight, remembering Les Paul, a guitar player and inventor extraordinary. Among other things, he and his wife, the singer Mary Ford, had a popular television program for a while. Here they perform the hit “The World is Waiting for the Sunrise.”

LES PAUL, guitarist: You know, I tied this string around my finger to remember to tell you something when you got back from shopping. I forgot what it was.

MARY FORD, vocalist and guitarist: Oh, not again. Well, let’s do “The World is Waiting for the Sunrise” while you try and think of it.

(Performs “The World is Waiting for the Sunrise”)

JIM LEHRER: And in March 2000, when Les Paul was 84 years old, he invited his friend, the Rolling Stones’ Keith Richards, to share the stage with him.


JIM LEHRER: And now, the Les Paul story. It comes from Jim Henke, vice president and chief curator for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland.

Jim Henke, they were saying today that Les Paul literally changed music forever. Is that true?

JIM HENKE, vice president, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame: Well, I think it is very true. He was a very unique individual. He was a great artist as a guitar player. He was a really great guitar player. But then all of his inventions — he invented the solid body electric guitar. He also invented multi-track recording. And those really just changed how music was made. And so he really did have a tremendous impact.

JIM LEHRER: Let’s go through those two inventions. The solid — what did you call it?

JIM HENKE: The solid body electric guitar.

JIM LEHRER: Now, what does that mean?

JIM HENKE: Well, basically, most guitars, when they first started amplifying guitars, they took like the version of like an acoustic guitar that had a hollow body, and they put a pickup on it to amplify it, and that was it. And Les wanted something that had a different sound, had a little bit more sustain, and had a deeper sound, and so he came up with the idea of, instead of having the guitar be hollow inside, to make it a solid piece of wood. And that’s what the Gibson Les Paul is.

JIM LEHRER: OK, now the multi-track, what is that?

JIM HENKE: Well, that was the idea that you could do recording on more than one track and put it all — mix it all down to one finished version. So prior to that, people would go into the studio and they’d pretty much have to play live. And, you know, if they made a mistake, they’d start over and go back again.

And what Les did is he developed the first eight-track tape recorder so you could go in and you could lay down, say, the rhythm section. You could do the bass and the drums. You could then record the guitar part, and you could record an additional guitar solo over that, and then you could record the vocals, and then mix it all down into one finished version.

So it enabled — what he was really looking for, I think, was the fact that, you know, he wanted to do different things with his guitar, so he could play one part on one track and then play an additional guitar part over that.

JIM LEHRER: Even the nonprofessionals, unlike you — you are a professional — but even the nonprofessionals always talked about the special sound of Les Paul’s guitar playing. How would you describe that? Is it the multi-track thing? It’s all — you’re hearing more than one guitar at a time?

JIM HENKE: I think that’s part of it, it was more than one at a time. I mean, he certainly had a very distinctive style, too, as we just heard in those video clips that you showed. And he was a very — you know, played some really beautiful different runs on his guitar and all that that was different from what other people were doing.

And one of the things I think Les really did is he really sort of brought the guitar to the forefront. And he also explored a lot of different styles of music. I mean, he basically began really as a country sort of honky-tonk musician, and then he went into jazz, and then with Mary Ford he had a lot of great pop hits in the ’50s, and then he certainly influenced a lot of rock and roll.

So he really, you know, wasn’t just — didn’t just play one style of guitar, but he also really brought the guitar to the front, into the forefront, and made it a leading instrument.

JIM LEHRER: And how did he influence rock and roll, the area that you’ve specialized in?

JIM HENKE: Well, I think a lot of it was — you know, it’s both a combination of the technological things that he did and all that, but also his playing and, like I say, his style was really different from what a lot of other people were doing.

And it wasn’t really — you know, for a while, it was jazz, but then it went into — off into other areas, and I think people like Keith Richards, who you showed there, or Jimmy Page from Led Zeppelin, they all were very inspired by him and really, you know, cite him as one of their great influences.

JIM LEHRER: Now, he was 94 years old when he died today, but he was still playing, was he not, until recently?

JIM HENKE: Yes, it’s pretty amazing. He had a regular — actually, two regular shows on Monday nights, an early show and a late show, at a club in New York called the Iridium. And I saw him there as recently as May, so he was still, you know, 94 and playing two shows every Monday night. It was pretty amazing.

JIM LEHRER: What should we remember most about him, now, in terms of his music, what he actually left behind that is lasting?

JIM HENKE: Well, what I think it is — I mean, I think, again, sort of going back to what I said earlier, that, you know, he really influenced guitarists all over, I think, and his impact both as a recording artist and as a guitar player, and then the things he did in the studio, and then with technology and all that, it really — I really can think of very few other people who sort of had both of those abilities and sort of, you know, crossed those bridges.

And, you know, so I think that’s really, you know, what we’re going to remember him as. And I think the Les Paul guitar has — certainly it’s become one of the most popular guitars and most played guitars in the world. And people are going to be playing that guitar for years to come, and, like I say, his inventions in the recording studio and all that. So, I mean, he really was a very extraordinary person.

JIM LEHRER: OK. Jim Henke, thank you very much.

JIM HENKE: Thank you.