Thursday, August 13, 2009


While driving down a crowded street, the news was blandly announced over the radio: Les Paul has died at the age of 94. Suddenly, I found it necessary to pull over and have a bit of a cry.

Not that tears are necessary, I guess. After all, 94 is a pretty good age, and he remained active until the end. And no once could have lived a more productive life--single-handedly changing the soundscape of the twentieth century is, after all, no small achievement.

It's not just that Paul's invention of the solid body electric guitar made the very existence of rock and roll possible, or his development of multi-tracked recording, without which (to name only one example) The Beatles' brilliant studio albums would never have been possible, or his discovery of how feedback, delay and reverb could be musical techniques in and of themselves--well, okay, it was all these things. But more, it was how in Paul's hands the guitar became a primary instrument, the primary instrument, of the coming musical revolution. Sure, there were great guitar players before him, but nobody else could coax the range of sounds Paul could from his Gibson. Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly, George Harrison and Eric Clapton, Richard Thompson and Jimmy Page, Frank Zappa and Pat Metheny, Thurston Moore and Tom Morello--hell, everybody who ever picked up an electric guitar owes a debt to Les Paul that they can only pay back by making it sing like he could.

Here's one of Paul's most famous recordings, How High The Moon, which shows his astonishing technique on his chosen instrument, but it's also a great showcase for his brilliant production techniques. He didn't just multi-track the vocals of his wife, Mary Ford, but experimented with putting the microphones in different spots while recording her, transforming her voice--good, but not great--into the sound of angels. (I particularly like the wordless "Aahh-aahh-aahh" in the middle of Paul's solo, ringing like a force of nature.) This is, essentially, the same process used to make contemporary pop tarts like Britney Spears and Miley Cyrus sound better through amplifiers than they do in real life. Which means Les Paul's legacy lives on in not so good ways as well, but let's not blame him for that.