Fail, fail, fail, fail, succeed

Les Paul

Fuck me – where do I even begin?

Maybe with an incomplete, ad hoc list of innovations? Before I get started, I’ve been listening to some of his old recordings from the late 1940’s to early 1950’s and they are just breathtaking in a way that, as a musician and producer, leave me feeling positively giddy. The impact this guy had on music is impossible to overstate – he was so ahead of his time, so vibrantly creative, that he literally changed global culture in ways that are still reverberating. Genius is an overused word, but I’m afraid it’s legitimately called for here. So let’s take a moment, shall we?

Without a doubt his biggest contribution to recorded music was the invention of multi-track recording. The really astonishing thing about this is that he didn’t initially implement his idea with tape machines, because, although early prototypes existed, Les didn’t yet have access to them. So what did he do? He figured out a way to pull it off with acetate discs! For a real mindfuck, check out his version “Lover” from 1948. If you listen to this, don’t be lulled by the first minute – at about 1:07 in the fireworks start! I cannot imagine what this must have sounded like to people at the time, it still sounds impressive.

Overdubbing onto discs of course meant he had to play each part as close to perfect as possible, because any mistake meant he would have go back and start the whole process over. He said it took over 500 discs to get it right. On this recording, he also innovated the concept of recording parts at half speed, so when he then played them back at full speed they were an octave higher, which he then doubled at full speed – so that these new parts now sounded like they were an octave down. Again, this was on discs with no synchronization! WTF!!

Before we get off multi-tracking, we have to jump ahead 3 years and listen to his 2nd biggest hit, “How High the Moon” with his wife Mary Ford. Now we have vocal overdubbing and copious use of delay and reverb – in 1951! This was done on tape, and you can hear how he has continued to develop and refine the concept. His use of “ear candy” would be further developed 35 years later by Trevor Horn as an effective arrangement technique – “Owner of a Lonely Heart” by Yes is a great example.

Of course he was a pioneer in his use of the electric guitar – when he was in high school he “experimented with using a phonograph needle wedged into the instrument as an electric pickup, attached to a wire plugged into a radio at the other end.” By 1933 he was playing electric guitar in big bands and on the radio, and in 1941 invented the prototype for what would become the Les Paul solid body guitar. These innovations were neither recognized as legitimate nor celebrated at the time, on the contrary he took a lot of heat for his ideas. He responded by not giving a fuck – he had shit to do! Let’s not forget Les was a ridiculous idiosyncratic virtuoso who influenced virtually every electric guitar player that followed him. It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to hear his influence on Jeff Beck…

I could go on an on about this guy, but let’s just end by saying I’m both awed and grateful for what he gave us. If any of this piques your interest, do yourself a favor and fall down the YouTube rabbit hole of Les Paul. Try to imagine the culture on which he was dropping these bombs and prepare to have some fun.