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Lester William Polfuss, known as Les Paul (June 9, 1915 August 13, 2009) was an American jazz guitarist and inventor. He was a pioneer in the development of the solid-body electric guitar which “made the sound of rock and roll possible.” His many recording innovations include overdubbing, delay effects such as “sound on sound” and tape delay, phasing effects, and multitrack recording.
In the 1930s, Paul worked in Chicago in radio, where he performed jazz music. Paul’s first two records were released in 1936. One was credited to Rhubarb Red, Paul’s hillbilly alter ego, and the other was as an accompanist for blues artist Georgia White.
In January 1948, Paul was injured in a near-fatal automobile accident in Oklahoma, which shattered his right arm and elbow. Doctors told Paul that there was no way for them to rebuild his elbow in a way that would let him regain movement, and that his arm would remain permanently in whatever position they placed it in. Paul then instructed the surgeons to set his arm at an angle that would allow him to cradle and pick the guitar. It took him a year and a half to recover.
Les Paul died on August 13th, 2009 due to complications from pneumonia; He was 94 years old.
Paul was dissatisfied with the acoustic guitars that were sold in the mid 1930s and began experimenting with a few designs for an electric model on his own. Famously, he created “The Log,” which was nothing more than a length of common 4″ x 4″ lumber with bridge, guitar neck, and pickup attached. For the sake of appearance, he attached the body of an Epiphone hollow-body guitar, sawn lengthwise with The Log in the middle. This solved his two main problems: feedback, as the acoustic body no longer resonated with the amplified sound, and sustain, as the energy of the strings was not dissipated in generating sound through the guitar body.
Les Paul and “the Les Paul”
Paul’s innovative guitar, “The Log”, built in 1939, was one of the first solid-body electric guitars.(Leo Fender also independently created his own solid-body electric guitar around the same time and Adolph Rickenbacher had marketed a solid-body guitar in the 30s). Gibson Guitar Corporation designed a guitar incorporating Paul’s suggestions in the early fifties, and presented it to him to try. He was impressed enough to sign a contract for what became the “Les Paul” model (originally only in a “gold top” version), and agreed never to be seen playing in public, or be photographed, with anything other than a Gibson guitar.
The arrangement persisted until 1961, when declining sales prompted Gibson to change the design without Paul’s knowledge, creating a much thinner, lighter, and more aggressive-looking instrument with two cutaway “horns” instead of one. Paul said he first saw the “new” Gibson Les Paul in a music store window, and disliked it. Though his contract required him to pose with the guitar, he said it was not “his” instrument, and asked Gibson to remove his name from the headstock. (Others claimed that Paul ended his endorsement contract with Gibson during his divorce, to avoid having his wife to get his endorsement money.) Gibson renamed the guitar “Gibson SG” (which stands for “Solid Guitar”), and it also became one of the company’s best sellers.
The original Gibson Les Paul guitar design regained popularity when Eric Clapton began playing the instrument a few years later (although he also played an SG and an ES-335). Paul resumed his relationship with Gibson, and endorsed the original Les Paul guitar from then on (though his personal Gibson Les Pauls were much modified by him — Paul always used his own self-wound pickups and customized switching on his guitars). To this day, various models of Gibson Les Paul guitars are used all over the world, by both novice and professional guitarists. A less expensive version of the Les Paul guitar is also manufactured for Gibson’s lower-priced Epiphone brand.
On August 13, 2009, Les Paul died of complications from pneumonia at White Plains Hospital in White Plains, NY. His family and friends were by his side.
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