Thursday, August 13, 2009

Lester Polfus (1915-2009)

You may know him as Les Paul.

Even if you don't know about the man Les Paul, chances are you would know one of the most immediately recognizable guitar shapes in the world, the Gibson Les Paul solid-body guitar.

Les gained some fame as a radio performer with his guitar while still in his teens at the tail end of the 1920s. His stage name then was Rhubarb Red according to an interview in a book on electric guitars that I have.

All throughout his life he tried to perfect a good sounding solid body electric guitar.

He loved Gibson guitars, and went to the company head in the 1940s with a 4x4 inch plank of wood that formed the neck and center of the body of a self-made solid body electric guitar, but was turned away. The Gibson executive called his guitar a "broomstick." (That's a picture of "the Log" there, along with some sides he made to make the log look more like a real guitar.)

But a couple of years later, Leo Fender, another imaginative tinkerer and maker of amplifiers and lap steel guitars for the 1940s hawaiian guitar craze, set the music instrument making world on its ear with his solid body "Broadcaster" and "Esquire" guitars. Fender was sued because the Broadcaster name was too close to the "Broadkaster" set of drums that Gretsch was making at the time. Fender changed the Broadcaster name to Telecaster, and made a killing.

Gibson got the message that people were willing to buy solid body electric guitars and they went looking for "that kid with the broomstick," Les Paul.

Les Paul claimed he was involved in every detail of the design of the guitar that has born his name on and off since 1952, while Gibson people from that time said they basically designed it and would let him nit pick the design in a few details, but the end result was a guitar every bit as iconic as the Fender Telecaster and the Fender Stratocaster which appeared in 1954.

In 1957, Gibson put a new invention by one of their electrical engineers, Seth Lover, into the Les Pauls. This new invention was the "humbucker" pickup that contains twin coils of wire that resisted electrical noise from entering the guitar signal that plagued (and still plagues) Teles, Strats, and Les Pauls with "single coil" pickups.

It then took Eric Clapton and the British-made Marshall amplifiers in the 1960s to generate the classic rock guitar tone that has sold many thousands of Les Paul guitars and Marshall amplifiers.

The sound of a Les Paul guitar with humbucker pickups played through a Marshall amplifier with closed-back cabinets is my favorite musical sound.

I love the sound of guitars of all types, but the Les Paul/Marshall sound is by far my favorite.

Les Paul and his then wife, Mary Ford, another wonderful guitar player herself, topped the music charts with their lush guitar songs in the 1940s and 1950s.

Les Paul is responsible for creating multi-tracking still used in every music studio in the world, even home studios, to allow a guitar player, or singer, or drummer, to play track after track on top of themselves to create complex musical arrangements.

He was one of the first, if not THE first to use flanging, echo, and other effects to give extra dimensions to his guitar sounds. To this day, a HUGE market in the guitar world is in guitar effects electronics, most of which replicate Les Paul's early basic guitar effects.

As a young man, Les Paul had a arm crushed in a car accident, and he had the doctors set his arm bent in such a way as to allow him to play guitar when the cast came off. That arm never worked quite as well afterward, but since it was set for comfortable guitar playing, he was able to play guitar the rest of his life.

94 years is a good long life, and Les Paul was a very outgoing person who loved life.

Thanks Les, for some killer guitar tunes and for helping release the Gibson Les Paul into the world; my favorite guitar.

If you care to, you can learn a little more about Les Paul at Wikipedia.

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