Les Paul, but don’t forget Leo Fender

The Guitar and The Man

The Guitar

Being an armchair musicologist, I have to make a comment on the passing of Les Paul.

In the writeups the newspapers have been publishing, the emphasis is on Les Paul the man endorsing the Gibson Les Paul guitar. This is really a side-note, a footnote, to a brilliant career as an inventor and as an incredible performing and recording musician.

What nobody seems to mention (this week) is that, while Les Paul developed his own solid-body guitars and playing style (which was very important), he really had not much to do with production-model solid-body electric guitars that were sold to the public and stoked the rock revolution. That distinction goes to California inventor (and non-musician) Leo Fender (1909-1991), who started mass-producing Fender Broadcaster guitars in 1950. It is clear from the record that Gibson’s first Les Paul guitar in 1952 was their reaction to the Fender Broadcaster.

Fender was the Henry Ford of the guitar business. He designed an instrument that was easy to build and service, which could be mass-produced with great efficiency, and which was inexpensive. He designed the manufacturing process itself. He also was influential in the area of electric guitar amplifiers and amplification technology in general. And, most importantly in my mind, he invented the electric bass guitar (Fender Precision and Jazz models), which on balance was even more successful than the electric guitar itself, and more influential in more styles of music.

Gibson’s Les Paul guitar was what Gibson did best; they didn’t want to compete in Fender’s space; they wanted to create a luxury instrument with old-world hand-crafted detail, made from premium, expensive materials. Les Pauls were ornate, while Fenders were very plain and efficient. Now, fortunately, Gibson developed a sound with the Les Paul that was unique and extremely successful and influential. But you must not forget that the Fender line (Broadcaster, Esquire, Telecaster, Stratocaster) sold in tremendous numbers and was a huge success, starting in 1951, while the Gibson Les Paul line was not successful at all, commercially, until the late 1960s, more than 15 years later.

The Man

This weekend I’ve had a wonderful time learning about him.

First, I went to iTunes and bought his original recordings of “Lover” (12 overdubbed guitars direct to lacquer disc in 1947), and with Mary Ford, “How High the Moon” and “Sittin’ On Top of the World” (some of the very first 8-track multitrack tape recordings, and amazing, amazing pop music besides).

Then I found a circa-1990 interview with Terry Gross on “Fresh Air” that’s about 20 minutes long, and is on the NPR web site.

Finally we are Netflix subscribers, and I watched “Les Paul: Chasing Sound”, the 2007 documentary, 90 minutes long, which is available for streaming over the Net if you are a subscriber.

In addition to multi-track tape, this guy conceived of and invented echo in the recording studio, or what we now call tape delay. For several years he had the sound in his head. He had a hard time explaining it to other musicians. But he felt compelled to invent a machine that could create it, and he did. Just amazing.

And Mary Ford is under-rated, way under-rated. She was an amazing pop singer and a musical vocal genius in her own right, when paired with her husband Les Paul. She revolutionized the way singers perform in the recording studio, and the way that engineers and producers record singers, forever. All that, and she was breathtakingly beautiful in a ball gown; go look for the press kit photos and album covers. It’s a shame she’s overlooked today.

Les Paul (fueled by his professional relationship with Bing Crosby) is pretty much the history of recording studio engineering in a nutshell, in one person. He was the messiah of the recording business and its application to art.

I was talking with Michelle Moog-Koussa on Les Paul’s influence, and I said, “His influence was even more profound than Dr. Bob Moog’s. Les Paul was both a tremendously successful and influential performing musician and a supremely important inventor. It would be like having Keith Emerson and Robert Moog in one person.”