Les Paul is practically synonymous with the word electric guitar, or solid-body electric guitar, but many people haven’t heard his virtuosic guitar playing. Also, he was much more than that! He made many pioneering advances in multi-track recording, including the development of the first commercially available eight-track recorder, the Ampex 200. His first invention was actually as a pre-teen! The neck-worn harmonica holder is still used by musicians who wish to play harmonica hands-free while they accompany themselves on guitar. His delay and echo effects that he developed were part of his signature sound, and in addition to his unique, virtuosic playing, made him a sought-after producer. His first hit, for Bing Crosby was “It’s Been a Long, Long Time”, and went to the top of the charts. He had some hits with the Andrews Sisters, before teaming up with his wife, Mary Ford. They had a long string of hits including “How High the Moon”, “Sitting on Top of the World”, “Bye Bye Blues” and “Vaya con Dios” which hit no.1.
Listening to his instrumental classics like “Lover” and “Carioca”, it sounds like a small ensemble or a band doing an arrangement. But in fact, the only instrument played is the guitar! He invented a device that repeated parts he played, and also altered their pitch. The pitch would be lowered to imitate Bass guitar, or raised to deliver the bird chirping or harpsichord-like sound that became one of his signatures. He eventually built it into his guitar, allowing him to expand his sound in live performance. Most of his hits come from this time (1946-1961).
Though their style fell out of favor by 1961, there are some tracks that have a timeless quality and do not sound dated at all. One of these is “I’m a Fool to Care”. In addition to Ford’s beautiful voice, again the guitar-only accompaniment sounds like a full band. On this track and others you may think you’re hearing bass and drums, but it’s just guitar! Another recording technique, also utilized by Bing Crosby was close-miked lead vocals. With the microphone in close proximity to the singer, the sound is much more relaxed, as the singer isn’t required to strain their voice. This was a new alternative to the previously predominant microphone placement further away which required theatrical-style vocals.
Les Paul’s style of playing and recording techniques were primary influences to legendary guitarists like Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page, to name only a few. He was the godfather of Steve Miller, whose father was the best man at his wedding to Ford. He gave Miller his first guitar lesson as well. Recommended albums are hit collections of Les Paul & Mary Ford, Les Paul Trio recordings, “Les Paul NOW”, and his collaboration with Chet Atkins, “Chester and Lester”. Chet’s older half-brother Jim was in Paul’s first trio, and he actually gifted Chet his first professional guitar.
It is pretty amazing how Les Paul is a name so identifiable with the electric guitar , yet his virtuosic playing was largely overlooked over the last forty years of his life, despite an active performance schedule.