Les Paul: inventor of rock’n’roll

Les Paul, inventor of the electric guitar and multitracking technology, has died aged 94. His career was a unique blend of musician and inventor. His performing career started at the age of 13 and by the early 1950s he was the greatest jazz guitarist of his generation. The Les Paul Trio, which included his wife Mary Ford, produced such hits as ‘Tennessee Waltz’, ‘Mockin’ Bird Hill’ and  ‘How High The Moon’.   He won a 1977 Grammy with Chet Atkins for the album Chester and Lester.

As an inventor, he was a pioneer in the development of the solid-body electric guitar which made the sound of rock and roll possible.  He is credited with inventing or discovering many recording innovations including overdubbing, delay effects, phasing effects, and multitrack recording. His innovative talents extended into his playing style, including licks, trills, chording sequences, fretting techniques and timing, which set him apart from his contemporaries and inspired many of the guitarists of the present day.

Last year Ed Pilkington wrote in The Guardian that, ‘the life of the man is nothing less than a history of modern American music, from the hillbilly of his boyhood, through country music and jazz, into the era of radio and TV broadcasting’. He quoted Les Paul as saying, ‘before we came along the guitar was an apologetic wimp – the weakest, most unimportant guy in the band. As soon as we put a pick-up on him, and a volume control, he became the king’. At the time of the article, Les Paul was still performing every Monday night at the Iridium jazz club in Manhatten.

In their excellent book, What Was The First Rock’n’Roll Record?, Jim Dawson and Steve Propes make ‘How High the Moon’, released in 1950, one of their 50 candidates for the honour because:

It was the first major hit to use overdubbibg, speeded-up tapes and other gimmiks; it also featured the first distinct ‘rock’n’roll’ guitar solo….

The first stereophonic (two-track) rel-to-reel tape recorder wouldn’t be available till 1954, but that didn’t slow down Les Paul.  He simply rigged up the mono recorder that Bing Crosby had given him with both a playback and a recording head, thus allowing him to accompany himself…on his modified Epiphone guitar.  The tape would run past the the playback head, so that Paul could listen to it and play along with a new guitar line; a split second later, that part of the tape which he had just played ran past the recording head…In this way Les Paul could use the same tape over and over, building layers upon layers of guitars…Mary’s voices received similar treatment, so that they shimmered above the guitars. Despite the layering, her harmonies were clear and distinct, because Paul violated the recording industry principle that vocalists should stand two feet away from the microphone; he positioned Mary inches from the mike to pick up every sigh, every breath. In retrospect it is Les Paul’s guitar solo and his coda that really distinguish How High the Moon’. Nearly every solo by Danny Cedrone of Bill Haley and His Comets refers to it. Cedrone’s striking work on ‘Rock the Joint’ and ‘Rock Around the Clock’ is almost an echo of the Les Paul style.

Les Paul & Mary Ford: How High the Moon (U.S. TV, 1950s)

Les Paul: How High the Moon (live, 2007)

What Was The First Rock’n’Roll Record?: Jim Dawson and Steve Propes’ 50 candidates

1 Jazz at the Philharmonic: Blues, Part 2 (1944)
2 Joe Liggins: The Honeydripper (1945)
3 Helen Humes: Be-Baba-Leba (1945)
4 Freddie Slack : House Of Blue Lights (1946)
5 Big Boy Crudup: That’s All Right (1946)
6 Jack McVea: Open The Door, Richard (1946)
7 Lonnie Johnson: Tomorrow Night (1948)
8 Wynonie Harris: Good Rockin’ Tonight (1948)
9 Bill Moore: We’re Gonna Rock,We’re Gonna Roll (1948)
10 Orioles: It’s Too Soon To Know (1948)
11 John Lee Hooker: Boogie Chillen (1948)
12 Arthur Smith and the Crackerjacks: Guitar Boogie (1948)
13 Stick McGhee: Drinkin’ Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee (1949)
14 Jimmy Preston: Rock The Joint (1949)
15 Louis Jordan: Saturday Night Fish Fry (1949)
16 Professor Longhair: Mardi Gras In New Orleans (1949)
17 Fats Domino: The Fat Man (1950)
18 Muddy Waters: Rollin’ and Tumblin’ (1950)
19 Hardrock Gunter: Birmingham Bounce (1950)
20 Hank Snow: I’m Movin’ On (1950)
21 Ruth Brown: Teardrops From My Eyes (1950)
22 Arkie Shibley: Hot Rod Race (1950)
23 Les Paul and Mary Ford: How High The Moon (1951)
24 Jackie Brenston with His Delta Cats: Rocket 88 (1951)
25 Dominoes: Sixty Minute Man (1951)
26 Johnnie Ray with the Four Lads: Cry (1951)
27 Clovers: One Mint Julep (1952)
28 Bill Haley and the Saddlemen: Rock The Joint (1952)
29 Dominoes: Have Mercy Baby (1952)
30 Lloyd Price: Lawdy Miss Clawdy (1952)
31 Hank Williams: Kaw-Liga (1953)
32 Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thorton: Hound Dog (1953)
33 Big Joe Turner: Honey Hush (1953)
34 Clyde McPhatter and the Drifters: Money Honey (1953)
35 Crows: Gee (1953)
36 Big Joe Turner: Shake, Rattle, and Roll (1954)
37 Royals/Midnighters: Work With Me, Annie (1954)
38 Chords: Sh-Boom (1954)
39 Bill Haley and His Comets: (Were Going To)Rock Around The Clock) (1954)
40 Robins: Riot In Cell Block #9 (1954)
41 Elvis Presley, Scotty and Bill: That’s All Right (1954)
42 Penguins: Earth Angel (Will You Be Mine) (1954)
43 LaVern Baker and the Gliders: Tweedle Dee (1954)
44 Johnny Ace: Pledging My Love (1954)
45 Ray Charles: I’ve Got A Woman (1954)
46 Bo Diddley: Bo Diddley (1955)
47 Chuck Berry: Maybellene (1955)
48 Little Richard: Tutti Frutti (1955)
49 Carl Perkins: Blue Suede Shoes (1956)
50 Elvis Presley: Heartbreak Hotel (1956)

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