More than anyone else, Les Paul launched the long reign of the electric guitar as the most important instrument in popular music.
By 1946, he boasted one of the best gigs in the business. Constantly in the studio and on the road, Paul fronted his own jazz trio and worked as a sideman for Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters, the top acts of the day.
However, his mother was not impressed. When she told him he sounded no different from other guitarists on the radio, Paul quit performing. He shut himself in his garage for nearly two years, working fervently to develop the musical chops and technical wizardry to distinguish himself from other players.
When he emerged, he sounded like no one else. On his first solo single— “Lover,” backed by “Brazil” (1948) — Paul played every part on guitar: percussion and bass, plus multiple melodies and harmonies. Until that point, musicians had recorded by playing together in the same room at the same time. Paul, however, became a time traveling one man band through the magic of multi-tracking, a new technology that allowed him to record and overdub up to eight different parts, sometimes varying tape speed to evoke unearthly effects. His guitar work on tracks like “What Is This Thing Called Love?” inspired legions of budding guitarists from the ’50s onward.
He also revolutionized vocal recording, as shown on tracks like “Tennessee Waltz” (1950) and “How High the Moon” (1951). Through overdubbing, Paul enabled his wife Mary Ford to supersede the sound of the Andrews Sisters by harmonizing with multiple versions of herself. He also pioneered “close miking.” Back then, singers generally stood well back from the microphone and blasted their vocals at stage volumes, but Paul positioned Ford just inches away from the recording device, allowing her to sing more naturally, creating a more intimate feel.
Overdubbing multiplied the duo into a guitar orchestra and a vocal chorus. They scored several huge hits, including “The World Is Waiting for the Sunrise” (1951), “Tiger Rag” (1952), “Vaya con Dios” (1953), “I’m a Fool to Care” (1954) and Hummingbird (1955).
Paul’s playing style and and recording methods quickly caught on and soon became standard in the recording industry. Ironically, the rock imitators he inspired soon crowded him from the charts. Guitarists like Jimi Hendrix and Eddie Van Halen long ago superseded him in technical ability. It no longer sounds eerie when crooners sing their own backing vocals — nearly everyone does it now — and the transfer from analog to digital recording has removed all technical limits on the number of tracks you can overdub.
But Paul did it all first. At heart, he was always equal parts inventor and musician. As a child, he tuned a wooden staircase in his home, dismantled and reprogrammed his mother’s self-playing piano, and twisted a coat hanger into a harmonica holder to free up his hands to play guitar.
Drafted in 1943, he served for the rest of the war with the Armed Forces Radio Network, where he first worked with luminaries like Crosby and the Andrews Sisters. Nat King Cole recruited Paul to play as a last-minute replacement for a 1944 Jazz at the Philharmonic performance in Los Angeles. Seven minutes into “Blues,” they start trading solos, and Paul’s electric guitar acquits itself admirably against Cole’s formidable piano.
Paul suffered for his art. In 1941, while tinkering with a homemade electric guitar, he electrocuted himself. A car wreck broke his right arm and ruined his elbow in 1948; he had doctors set the arm at a 90-degree angle so he could still play guitar. Arthritis began afflicting him in the ’60s. In 1969, a prank gone wrong blew out his eardrums, leading to an infection that robbed him of most of his hearing. Appalled by the poor quality of hearing aids, he spent the rest of his life tinkering with the devices to achieve higher fidelity.
Eventually, Paul developed a device that enabled him to multitrack in a live setting. He called it the Paulverizer, and like the musician himself, it must be seen and heard to be believed.