The Man who helped to invent Rock ‘n’ Roll

"Up until that time the guitar was a wimp. It was just a very apologetic, sweet little instrument." – Les Paul, developer of the electric guitar.

Recently in New York City, LES PAUL, the father of multi-track recording and developer of the very first electric guitar was getting ready to play at the Iridium Jazz Club as he does often, when he was he was joined on stage by Slash, (the guitarist for Guns and Roses). Some of the admirers who drop in to jam with him from time to time include Paul McCartney of the Beatles, Jimmy Page from Led Zeppelin, and Eric Clapton. What you need to understand is that though the man they want to play with is 87 years old and has hearing aids in both ears, like the proverbial energizer bunny, Les Paul just keeps going. He has had many top ten singles on his own, and his former partner and wife Mary Ford comprised one of the most successful duos in the record business. Songs like, Brazil, (which featured six guitar parts, all played by Les). Begin the Beguine, Steel Guitar Rag, and Dark Eyes. Les also played on the Bing Crosby Philco Radio show in 1947.

At a young age, through experimentation, Les Paul invented two things that changed the face of modern music. The first was the electric guitar and the second was multi-track recording. If you ask any current musician, record producer or rock’n’roll star where they would be without these two important innovations in the recording of music, they would be the first to say there would be no Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, Beach Boys or Beatles. The simple fact is there would be no recording as it is today, with its distinctive guitar sounds. They just wouldn’t exist. I had the great honor of speaking with this musical genius, and here is a portion of our conversation.

David: I had heard that Buddy Holly had consulted with you about recording techniques. Who else have you influenced or given advice to on recording techniques?

LES: I think just about everybody in the business. Gee, it’s endless. It would be The Beatles, The Stones, Ray Charles, just about anybody, any studio, any engineers. It just seems we all have a lot to share. They’ll ask some questions. Maybe curiously, and maybe seriously they’ll ask some technical questions, as to ‘why?’ and it’s always exciting, it’s always new. It may be the particular question they ask I’ve heard a whole lot of times but it’s new to them when they ask the question.

David: Les. Could we hear a little bit about the Rangertone tape recorder and how you found out about recording in the first place?

LES: Oh Boy! That’s a wonderful question. Judy Garland and I had to fly from LA to New York to do a show with Paul Whiteman…At rehearsal, Judy and I are up there rehearsing our songs. And there’s a fellow trying to draw my attention…finally I walk over to him… and he said, "My name’s…Dick Ranger... I’ve got a tape machine…" And of course we jumped in the car after the broadcast and went over and saw a Magnetophone tape machine that they’d gotten out of Luxembourg. This was at the end of the war … And so I saw this tape machine. It was unbelievable. I knew that this was going to be the answer to a lot of our wishes, our problems… I immediately, as soon as I got back to LA called Bing and told him about it, and he said, "What?" He went through what we went through. And so we turned it over to Bing, and Grillo, his business partner, and they investigated the thing, and with he, Colonel Ranger, Jack Mullins and several others who also were in Luxemborg got the tape machine. It was introduced here in the United States under two names: One was Rangertone, and the other was AMPEX. From that moment on that I met Dick Ranger, I hired him… and he worked for me, till he passed on. I decided and invented the idea of sound on sound. I was very excited about it, because this was the first of multi-track recording…And when it got to 1953 I said to Colonel Ranger, "I got a better idea, of a multi-track machine, where we stack these one on top of the other and we align the heads in synch…Colonel Ranger said it couldn’t be done...I went over to Westrex … and they turned it down… so my friend Vern Carson and I, my good buddy, stood outside, and I said, "Well, I guess it’s not a good idea." He said, "you know when you and Mary came out here you had a round trip ticket. Did that include San Francisco?" so I said, "Yeah, I think it did." And he says, well let me borrow Mary’s, and you take yours and we’ll just jump on a plane here and go up and see Ampex and knock on their door and see what they think. "OK." We went up there. Within twenty minutes after we talked to the president of Ampex, they bought it. And Ampex multi-track machine was born. Just like that. And this has been the story of my life. When I came up with the idea of multi-track recording it was totally turned down by RCA, by Decca, and I went to Capitol, and they flipped out and said it was one of the greatest ideas… I went with Capitol and the rest is history. The same way with the guitar: I took the guitar to three or four different companies and they laughed at it. Including Gibson. They said, "The character with the broomstick with the pickups on it."

For ten years I kept taking it to them, and they kept turning it down. Then one day they called me and said, "Hey — you still got that log?" I says, "Yup" they said, "Will you bring it in?" So I brought it to Chicago and we made a deal.

David: Roughly 50% of Gibson’s guitar sales now are Les Paul models — you know that, don’t you?

LES: Well that makes me very happy, too. [laughs] Well, thanks again to the kids. Because the young generation – they‘re the ones that recognized that this is the sound they were looking for. Up until that time the guitar was a wimp. It was just a very apologetic, sweet little instrument. And it had to sit in the background because it didn’t have power. The whole idea was to plug that thing into the wall.

David: Les — wasn’t your first guitar a Silvertone that cost you $2.49?

LES: Just about, yep. When I got my first guitar I did a hysterectomy on that thing and made it into sort of an electric guitar, but it was terrible. It fed back and had all kinds of problems. And the last thing I did with that thing was fill it with plaster of paris, and try to get it so it wasn’t feeding back. There were a lot of other problems. So I went to a piece of railroad track and at the same time I went to a piece of wood — pine wood. I went to the two extremes. I says, "It’s going to be one or the other". This’ll be in the Hall of Fame where we’re making a whole room for the history of the recording machine and the Les Paul guitar. And as it went along, we just found that the railroad track - hands down was the way to go, so I ran to my mother and I said, "I got it!" And my mother shot that down in a hurry. She said, "The day you see Gene Autry on a horse with a railroad track — uh-oh." So that isn’t gonna work. But the idea was there, so when I went to Gibson with this thing in the finale M.H. Berlin said to me, "Do you like violins?" And I said, "I love violins" He was talking about the looks of a violin. "I think it’s the most beautiful instrument in the world. It’s the curves of the violin and every thing else. What a personal thing it is to hold. Well everybody takes a plank of wood and makes a guitar. Why don’t we make ours a little different? Why don’t we put the curvatures of the violin in there and make it a beautiful instrument." Oh boy oh boy — that just well - that hit home. So that’s what we did. So the instrument to this day, we don’t make any changes, because how pretty can pretty get?

David: Do you recommend a certain brand of strings to get that sound?

LES: It’s in the player, it’s not in the string at all… I can pick up a guitar, any guitar, and you can be standing outside of the room and say, "That’s Les Paul" And that goes for anyone that has their own distinct sound. It’s the way you feel, the way you play. It’s a gift.

David: Do you think your mother and father had a big influence on the fact that you’re so involved in music?

LES: My mother I owe an awful lot to, because although she didn’t force me to play the instrument, she encouraged me – in a very different way. We get a telephone in the house, and I looked at it, and next thing you know I got it all apart. I can remember: my brother is seven years older than me — so Ralph would say, "Hey Ma — kid’s got the phone apart in the living room!" and Mother would say, "Well, he’ll put it back together again. It’s OK." I took the piano apart. I did a hysterectomy on that thing. And again, my mother says, "Don’t worry about it, Ralph, he’ll put it back together again. He’s curious. He just wants to know." My brother — if it was a light switch - he threw it, and it went on, and that was the end of it. And I was different. I just wanted to know just what happened between turning that switch on the wall and the light comin’ on in the room. I wanted to know why.

David: Did you get that piano put back together?

LES: [laughs] Heck, I sure did! I wanted to make it into a Steinway or a Baldwin. I wanted to make it into a professional piano with a sostenuto pedal. And here I am nine years old. I’ve got these great ideas of doing this with a Kimball player piano. And so I rigged up the damnedest thing you ever could have imagined. But it worked. It worked! And when I got it together I guess my brother didn’t appreciate it – or my father — only my mother. I guess my mother was very proud of me because I could do those things. She would compliment me but she would never drive me. So I was never driven like maybe some of these kids that grew up in a suitcase because their mother or father were in show business. I just had a person that believed. I believe that it had a great bearing on me being comfortable at home…I never had to leave that house. It was a laboratory…there was no place to buy anything, so your main source was to build it. And I happen to be a person who’s just terribly curious about something - or just want it right. It could be classed as a disease, but I never thought of it that way… I always looked at work as a privilege. So this is the way I approach things is: that how lucky I am at 87 years old that I can go to work, make people laugh, make people happy, and they in turn can make me healthy and happy. It’s the greatest therapy in the world, is to be able to go to work, and enjoy your work. Now maybe if I was a plumber I couldn’t grab my wife and say, "Hey - I want you to go over and see this connection I made. Or a butcher, saying, "Watch how I can take this cleaver and cut this meat". He may not have that kind of a relationship that he can share this with. But with the guitar - you can share this. With a person from China that doesn’t speak a word of English. I never stop thinking about it.

Les Paul


Interviewed 4/02 © David Elliott, 2002



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