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 guitarists of the present day. He recorded with his wife Mary Ford in the 1950s, and they sold millions of records.
Among his many honors, Paul is one of a handful of artists with a permanent, stand-alone exhibit in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He is prominently named by the music museum on its website as an "architect" and a "key inductee" with Sam Phillips and Alan Freed. Les Paul is the only person to be included in both the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the National Inventors Hall of Fame.
Les Paul was born Lester William Polsfuss in Waukesha, Wisconsin, to George and Evelyn (Stutz) Polsfuss. His family was of German ancestry. Paul's mother was related to the founders of Milwaukee's Valentin Blatz Brewing Company and the makers of the Stutz automobile. His parents divorced when he was a child. His mother simplified their Prussian family name first to Polfuss, then to Polfus, although Les Paul never legally changed his name. Before taking the stage name Les Paul, he also performed as Red Hot Red and Rhubarb Red.
At the age of eight, Paul began playing the harmonica. After trying to learn the piano, he switched to the guitar. It was during this time that he invented a neck-worn harmonica holder, which allowed him to play both sides of the harmonica hands-free while accompanying himself on the guitar. It is still manufactured using his basic design. By age thirteen, Paul was performing semi-professionally as a country-music singer, guitarist, and harmonica player. While playing at the Waukesha area drive-ins and roadhouses, Paul began his first experiment with sound. Wanting to make himself heard by more people at the local venues, he wired a phonograph needle to his guitar and connected it to a radio speaker, using that to amplify his acoustic guitar. As a teen Paul created his first solid body electric guitar using a 2-foot piece of rail from a nearby train line. At age seventeen, Paul played with Rube Tronson's Texas Cowboys, and soon after he dropped out of high school to team up with Sunny Joe Wolverton's Radio Band in St. Louis, Missouri, on KMOX.
Paul moved to Chicago in 1934, where he continued to perform on radio stations WBBM and WLS. He met pianist Art Tatum, whose playing influenced him to stick with the guitar rather than original plans of taking on the piano. His first two records were released in 1936, credited to "Rhubarb Red", Paul's hillbilly alter ego. He also served as an accompanist for a few other bands signed to Decca. During this time he began adding different sounds and adopted his stage name of Les Paul.
Paul's guitar style was strongly influenced by the music of Django Reinhardt, whom he greatly admired. Following World War II, Paul sought out and made friends with Reinhardt. When Reinhardt died in 1953, Paul paid for part of the funeral's cost. One of Paul's prized possessions was a Selmer Maccaferri acoustic guitar given to him by Reinhardt's widow.
Paul formed a trio in 1937 with rhythm guitarist Jim Atkins (older half-brother of guitarist Chet Atkins) and bassist/percussionist Ernie "Darius" Newton. They left Chicago for New York in 1938, landing a featured spot with Fred Waring's Pennsylvanians radio show. Chet Atkins later wrote that his brother, home on a family visit, presented him with an expensive Gibson archtop guitar that Les Paul had given to Jim. Chet recalled that it was the first professional-quality instrument he ever owned.
Paul was dissatisfied with acoustic-electric guitars and began experimenting at his apartment in Queens, New York with a few designs of his own. Famously, he created several versions of "The Log", which was a length of common 4x4 lumber with a bridge, neck, strings, 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. These instruments were constantly being improved and modified over the years, and Paul continued to use them in his recordings long after the development of his eponymous Gibson model.
In 1945, Richard D. Bourgerie made an electric guitar pickup and amplifier for professional guitar player George Barnes. Bourgerie worked through World War II at Howard Radio Company making electronic equipment for the American military. Barnes showed the result to Les Paul, who arranged for Bourgerie to have one made for him.
While experimenting in his apartment in 1941, Paul nearly succumbed to electrocution. During two years of recuperation, he moved to Hollywood, supporting himself by producing radio music and forming a new trio. During this time, he was remembered by factory workers as a frequent visitor to the Electro String Instrument Corp. shop on Western Avenue in Los Angeles, where he observed production of Rickenbacker brand guitars and amplifiers.
He was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1943, where he served in the Armed Forces Radio Network, backing such artists as Bing Crosby, The Andrews Sisters, and performing in his own right.
As a last-minute replacement for Oscar Moore, Paul played with Nat King Cole and other artists in the inaugural Jazz at the Philharmonic concert in Los Angeles, California, on July 2, 1944. His solo on "Body and Soul" is a demonstration both of his admiration for and emulation of the playing of Django Reinhardt, as well as his development of original lines.
Also that year, Paul's trio appeared on Bing Crosby's radio show. Crosby sponsored Paul's recordings. They recorded together several times, including "It's Been a Long, Long Time", which was a No. 1 hit in 1945. Paul recorded a few albums for Decca Records in the 1940s. He was enamoured by The Andrews Sisters, who hired his trio to open for them during a tour in 1946. Their manager, Lou Levy, said watching Paul's fingers while he played guitar was like watching a train go by. Their conductor, Vic Schoen, said his playing was always original. Maxine Andrews said, "He'd tune into the passages we were singing and lightly play the melody, sometimes in harmony. We'd sing these fancy licks and he'd keep up with us note for note in exactly the same rhythm...almost contributing a fourth voice. But he never once took the attention away from what we were doing. He did everything he could to make us sound better." In the 1950s, when he recorded Mary Paul's vocals on multiple tracks, he created music that sounded like The Andrews Sisters.
In January 1948, Paul shattered his right arm and elbow in a near-fatal automobile accident on an icy Route 66 west of Davenport, Oklahoma. Mary Ford was driving the Buick convertible, which plunged off the side of a railroad overpass and dropped twenty feet into a ravine; they were returning from Wisconsin to Los Angeles after visiting family. Doctors at Oklahoma City's Wesley Presbyterian Hospital told Paul that they could not rebuild his elbow. Their other option was amputation. Paul was flown to Los Angeles, where his arm was set at an angle—just under 90 degrees—that allowed him to cradle and pick the guitar. It took him nearly a year and a half to recover.
The Gibson Les Paul, one of the world's most popular electric guitars, was inspired by Paul's "Log".
Paul's innovative guitar, "The Log", built after-hours in the Epiphone guitar factory in 1940, a 4" × 4" chunk of pine with strings and a pickup, was one of the first solid-body electric guitars. Paul Tutmarc of Audiovox Manufacturing Co. built a solid body electric bass in 1935 and Adolph Rickenbacker had marketed a solid-body guitar in the 1930s. In 1941 he created a prototype instrument, known as the Log, which he fashioned from a four-foot wooden board. Paul A. Bigsby had built one for Merle Travis in 1948 and Leo Fender also independently created his own (the Fender "Esquire," a single pickup model) in 1948. Although Paul approached the Gibson Guitar Corporation with his idea of a solid body electric guitar in 1941, it showed no interest until Fender began marketing its Esquire; this later had a second pickup added and became known as the Broadcaster. (The Broadcaster was renamed the Telecaster in 1952.)
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. Problems with the strength of the body and neck made Paul dissatisfied with the new guitar. This, and a pending divorce from Mary Ford, led to Paul ending his endorsement and use of his name on Gibson guitars until 1966, by which time his divorce was completed. At Paul's request, 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 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 Gibson Les Paul guitar from that point onwards. His personal Gibson Les Pauls were much modified by him: Paul always used his own self-wound pickups and customized methods of switching between pickups 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 manufactured for Gibson's Epiphone brand.
Paul continued to seek technical improvements, although they were not always successful commercially. For example, in 1962 Paul was issued US Patent No. 3,018,680, for a pickup in which the coil was physically attached to the strings. One of Paul's innovations became somewhat successful; unfortunately, it was not to his benefit. In the mid-1940s, he introduced an aluminum guitar with the tuning mechanisms below the bridge. As it had no headstock, only string attachments at the nut, it was the first "headless" guitar. Unfortunately, Paul's guitar was so sensitive to the heat from stage lights that it would not keep tune. This style was further developed by others, most successfully Ned Steinberger.
In the 1940s Paul was unhappy with the way his records sounded. He felt that his sound was not different from anyone else's. This reality struck him when his mother complimented him on a song she had heard on the radio, when in fact she had heard George Barnes, not Paul. Paul experimented with his playing techniques through the 1930s and 1940s, and played in private for many years before demonstrating his ideas. He eventually put his own sound into a Bing Crosby song, "It's Been a Long, Long Time," which was a number one single in 1945. During a post-recording session talk, Crosby suggested that Paul try building his own recording studio so he could produce the sound he wanted. Paul started his own studio in the garage of his home on Hollywood's North Curson Street. The studio drew many famous vocalists and musicians who wanted the benefit of his expertise. In his studio, he experimented with different techniques, including microphone placement, the speed of the track, and overdubbed recordings that had clarity that had not been seen before in this type of multitrack recording. People also started to consider his mixed recording technique and tools to be actual instruments that were just as important to the production of music as other, more common instruments. The home and studio were moved to Pasadena at some point after Paul no longer owned the home.
In 1949, he was given one of the first Ampex Model 200A reel-to-reel audio tape recording decks by Crosby. Capitol Records released a recording that had begun as an experiment in Paul's garage, entitled "Lover (When You're Near Me)", which featured Paul playing eight different parts on electric guitar, some of them recorded at half-speed, hence "double-fast" when played back at normal speed for the master. ("Brazil", similarly recorded, was the B-side.) This was the first time that Paul used multitracking in a recording, though he had been shopping his multitracking technique, unsuccessfully, since the 1930s. His early multitrack recordings were made with acetate discs. He would record a track onto a disk, then record himself playing another part with the first. He built the multitrack recording with overlaid tracks, rather than parallel ones as he did later. By the time he had a result he was satisfied with, he had discarded some five hundred recording disks.
He built his own disc-cutter assembly, based on automobile parts. He favored the flywheel from a Cadillac for its weight and flatness. Even in these early days, he used the acetate disc setup to record parts at different speeds and with delay, resulting in his signature sound with echoes and birdsong-like guitar riffs. When he used magnetic tape, he could take his recording rig on tour with him, even making episodes for his fifteen-minute radio show in his hotel room. He later worked with Ross Snyder on the design of the first eight-track recording deck (built for him by Ampex for his home studio.)
Electronics engineer Jack Mullin had been assigned to a U.S. Army Signal Corps unit stationed in France during World War II. On a mission in Germany near the end of the war, he acquired and later shipped home a German Magnetophon (tape recorder) and fifty reels of I.G. Farben plastic recording tape. Back in the U.S., Mullin rebuilt and developed the machine with the intention of selling it to the film industry.
Within a short time, Crosby had hired Mullin to record and produce his radio shows and master his studio recordings on tape. Crosby invested US$50,000 in a Northern California electronics firm, Ampex. With Crosby's backing, Mullin and Ampex created the Ampex Model 200, the world's first commercially produced reel-to-reel audio tape recorder. Crosby gave Les Paul the second Model 200 to be produced.
Les Paul invented Sound on Sound recording using this machine by placing an additional playback head, located before the conventional erase/record/playback heads. This allowed Paul to play along with a previously recorded track, both of which were mixed together on to a new track. This was a mono tape recorder with just one track across the entire width of quarter-inch tape; thus, the recording was "destructive" in the sense that the original recording was permanently replaced with the new, mixed recording. He eventually enhanced this by using one tape machine to play back the original recording and a second to record the combined track. This preserved the original recording.
In 1952, Les invented the flange effect, where a sound phases in and out in harmonic tone. The first example of this can be heard on his song, Mammy's Boogie.
Les Paul bought the first Ampex 8-track recorder in 1957. Rein Narma built a custom 8-channel mixing console for Les Paul. The mixing board included in-line equalization and vibrato effects. He named the recorder "The Octopus" and the mixing console "The Monster". The name "octopus" was inspired by comedian W. C. Fields who was the first person Les Paul played his multi-tracked guitar experiments to. "He came to my garage to make a little record (in 1946)," Les recalled. "I played him the acetate of 'Lover' that I'd done. When he heard it, he said, 'My boy, you sound like an octopus.'"
In the summer of 1945, Paul met country-western singer Iris Colleen Summers. They began working together in 1948, during which time she adopted the stage name Mary Ford. They married in 1949.
Their hits included "How High the Moon", "Bye Bye Blues", "Song in Blue", "Don'cha Hear Them Bells", "The World Is Waiting for the Sunrise", and "Vaya con Dios". The songs featured Ford harmonizing with herself, as well as Les Paul's multiple guitars. After 1954, rock-and-roll drove most artists of Paul's generation from the charts and the duo's hits dried up.
Like Crosby, Paul and Ford used the now-ubiquitous recording technique known as close miking, where the microphone is less than 6 inches (15 cm) from the singer's mouth. This produces a more-intimate, less-reverberant sound than is heard when a singer is 1 foot (30 cm) or more from the microphone. When implemented using a pressure-gradient (uni- or bi-directional) microphone, it emphasizes low-frequency sounds in the voice due to the microphone's proximity effect and gives a more relaxed feel because the performer is not working as hard. The result is a singing style which diverged strongly from the unamplified theater-style singing that is heard in the musical comedies of the 1930s-40s.
Paul had hosted a 15-minute radio program, The Les Paul Show, on NBC Radio in 1950, featuring his trio (himself, Ford and rhythm player Eddie Stapleton) and his electronics, recorded from their home and with gentle humor between Paul and Ford bridging musical selections, some of which had already been successful on records, some of which anticipated the couple's recordings, and many of which presented re-interpretations of such jazz and pop selections as "In the Mood", "Little Rock Getaway", "Brazil", and "Tiger Rag". Over ten of these shows survive among old-time radio collectors today.
The show also appeared on television a few years later with the same format, but excluding the trio and retitled The Les Paul & Mary Ford Show (also known as Les Paul & Mary Ford at Home) with "Vaya Con Dios" as the theme song. Sponsored by Warner Lambert's Listerine mouthwash, it was aired on NBC television during 1954–1955, and then syndicated until 1960. The show aired five times a day, five days a week for only five minutes (one or two songs) long, and therefore was used as a brief interlude or fill-in in programming schedules. Since Paul created the entire show himself, including audio and video, he maintained the original recordings and was in the process of restoring them to current quality standards until his death.
During his radio shows, Paul introduced the fictional "Les Paulverizer" device, which multiplies anything fed into it, such as a guitar sound or a voice. It was Paul's way of explaining how his single guitar could be multiplied to become a group of guitars. The device even became the subject of comedy, with Ford multiplying herself and her vacuum cleaner with it so she could finish the housework faster. Later, Paul created a real Les Paulverizer that he attached to his guitar. The invention allowed Paul to access pre-recorded layers of songs during live performances so he could replicate his recorded sound on stage.
In 1965, Paul went into semi-retirement, although he did return to the studio occasionally. He and Ford had divorced at the end of 1964 after she got tired of touring. Paul's most recognizable recordings from then through the mid-1970s were an album for London Records/Phase 4 Stereo, Les Paul Now (1968), on which he updated some of his earlier hits; and two albums comprising a meld of jazz and country improvisation with guitar virtuoso Chet Atkins, backed by some of Nashville's celebrated studio musicians, Chester and Lester (1976) and Guitar Monsters (1978), for RCA Victor.
Paul began suffering from arthritis in the mid-1960s. As he got older, the condition worsened, and in his final years he lost much of the use of his right hand except the ring and pinky fingers. In 1969, he began to lose his hearing. He had difficulty tuning guitars properly due to his ears "misinterpreting" pitch. Frustrated with the quality of most hearing aids, he set to work designing his own and was still at the job when he died. He once joked that "Audio engineers and musicians are the two kinds of people that hearing aid manufacturers fear the most."
He played at slower tempos with a large pick that was easier to hold. In 2006, at the age of 90, he won two Grammy Awards at the 48th Annual Grammy Awards for his album Les Paul & Friends: American Made World Played. He also performed every Monday night with guitarist Lou Pallo, bassist Paul Nowinski (and later, Nicki Parrott), and guitarist Frank Vignola and for a few years, pianist John Colaianni. Paul, Pallo, and Nowinski performed at Fat Tuesdays and at the Iridium Jazz Club on Broadway.
Composer Richard Stein sued Paul for plagiarism, charging that Paul's "Johnny (is the Boy for Me)" was taken from Stein's 1937 song "Sanie cu zurgălăi" (Romanian for "Sleigh with Bells"). In 2000, a cover version of "Johnny" by Belgian musical group Vaya Con Dios that credited Paul prompted another action by the Romanian Musical Performing and Mechanical Rights Society.
Les Paul married Virginia Webb in 1937. They had two children, Russell (Rusty) (1941–2015), and Gene (Les Paul, Jr. born in 1944), who was named after actor-songwriter Gene Lockhart. After getting divorced in 1949, he married Mary Ford (born Iris Colleen Summers). The best man and matron of honor were the parents of guitarist Steve Miller, whose family was from Milwaukee. Paul was Miller's godfather and his first guitar teacher. They adopted a girl, Colleen, in 1958 and their son Robert (Bobby) was born the following year. On November 30, 1954, they lost a daughter who was born prematurely and died when she was four days old. They divorced in December 1964.
Paul was a resident of Mahwah, New Jersey.
In 1995, Paul established the Les Paul Foundation, which was designed to remain dormant until his death. The mission of the Foundation is to honor and share the life, spirit and legacy of Les Paul by supporting music education, engineering, and innovation as well as medical research.
On August 12, 2009, Paul died of complications from pneumonia at White Plains Hospital in White Plains, New York. After hearing about his death, many musicians commented on his importance. Slash called him "vibrant and full of positive energy", while Richie Sambora called him a "revolutionary in the music business". The Edge said, "His legacy as a musician and inventor will live on and his influence on rock and roll will never be forgotten." On August 21, 2009, he was buried in Prairie Home Cemetery, Waukesha, Wisconsin.
In 2007, he was given the National Medal of Arts from U.S. President George W. Bush.
He was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame (2005) for his development of the solid-body electric guitar. He was also inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame (2005), the Big Band & Jazz Hall of Fame (1990), the New Jersey Inventors Hall of Fame (1996), and the New Jersey Hall of Fame (2010). In 1988, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame by guitarist Jeff Beck, who said, "I've copied more licks from Les Paul than I'd like to admit."
Two of his songs were entered into the Grammy Hall of Fame: "How High the Moon" and "Vaya Con Dios". In 1976, he and Chet Atkins received the Grammy Award for Best Country Instrumental. In 2005, he won Best Pop Instrumental for "Caravan" and Best Rock Instrumental for "69 Freedom Special."
In 1983, he received a Grammy Trustees Award for lifetime achievement. In 2001, he was honored with the Special Merit/Technical Grammy Award, which recognizes "individuals or institutions that have set the highest standards of excellence in the creative application of audio technology," a select award given to masters of audio innovation including Thomas Alva Edison, Leo Fender, and Beatles recording engineer Geoff Emerick. In 2004, he received an Emmy Lifetime Achievement Award in Engineering and a Lifetime Achievement in Music Education from the Wisconsin Foundation for School Music.
In 1960, he and Mary Ford received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
In 2009, he was named one of the top ten electric guitarists of all time by Time magazine and two years later the eighteenth greatest guitarist of all time by Rolling Stone magazine. During the same year, his name was added to the Nashville Walk of Fame.
In July 2005, a 90th-birthday tribute concert was held at Carnegie Hall in New York City. After performances by Steve Miller, Peter Frampton, Jose Feliciano and a number of others, Paul was presented with a commemorative guitar from the Gibson Guitar Corporation. Three years later, at a tribute concert at the State Theater in Cleveland, Ohio, he received the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's American Music Masters Award. On June 9, 2015, a yearlong celebration of Paul's 100th birthday kicked off in Times Square with performances by musicians including Joe Bonamassa, Jose Feliciano, Neal Schon, and Steve Miller, a memorabilia exhibition, and a proclamation from the Les Paul Foundation declaring June 9 as Les Paul Day.
In June 2008, an exhibit showcasing his legacy and featuring items from his personal collection opened at Discovery World in Milwaukee. The exhibit was facilitated by a group of local musicians under the name Partnership for the Arts and Creative Excellence (PACE). Paul played a concert in Milwaukee to coincide with the opening of the exhibit. Paul's hometown of Waukesha, Wisconsin, opened a permanent exhibit titled "The Les Paul Experience" at the Waukesha County Museum in June 2013. The exhibit features artifacts on loan from the Les Paul Foundation. A self-guided tour of Les Paul's Waukesha was created by the Les Paul Foundation.A peaked at #2 on Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs charts
Paul was also a prolific composer. Some of the songs he wrote were "Song in Blue", "Cryin'", "Hip-Billy Boogie", "Suspicion", "Mandolino", "Magic Melody", "Don'cha Hear Them Bells", "The Kangaroo", "Big-Eyed Gal", "Deep in the Blues", "All I Need is You", "Take a Warning", "Mammy's Boogie", "Up And At 'Em", "Pacific Breeze", "Golden Sands", "Hawaiian Charms", "Mountain Railroad", "Move Along, Baby (Don't Waste My Time)", "Dry My Tears", "I Don't Want You No More", "Doing the Town", "Les' Blues", "No Strings Attached", "Subterfuge", "Lament For Strings", "Five Alarm Fire", "You Can't Be Fit as a Fiddle (When You're Tight as a Drum)", and "Walkin' and Whistlin' Blues".