Les Paul Interview
by Michael Cochran, Courtney Grimes,
and Rick Landers.
by Michael Cochran, co-author of
Les Paul -- In His Own Words, by
Les Paul and Michael Cochran
the grandson of immigrants in 1915,
Lester William Polfuss exhibited an
inborn Germanic talent for analytical
thinking at a precociously early age.
Coupling an insatiable curiosity about
the world around him with a natural
flair for showmanship, his inventiveness
and musical abilities merged with the
advent of electronics and the birth of
jazz to launch and maintain a
spectacular career that now spans
three-quarters of a century.
After beginning his career at 13 as
Red Hot Red, he met his primary guitar
mentor, the multi-talented Sonny Joe Wolverton, becoming Rhubarb Red and
achieving wide success as a country
performer on radio while still in his
teens. Further inspired by jazz greats
of the day, he introduced Les Paul as a
new persona in 1934 and became the
primary force in popularizing the
electric guitar, bringing it out of the
rhythm section and into the spotlight as
a lead instrument. In the late '40s, he
achieved his signature "New Sound," and
with wife Mary Ford unleashed a string
of hit records that forever changed the
way music was recorded and heard.
The guitar techniques perfected
during his playing prime introduced
stunning innovations still copied today,
while his contributions to audio
recording technology and the electronic
processing of sound blazed new trails
that have since become super highways.
Through it all, what Les Paul has always
done is take every resource available
and integrate it with his own ideas to
produce unique innovations. Taken
together, the enduring influence of his
unique contributions to recording
technology, instrument design and
American popular music are unsurpassed
by any other single individual. He is
the man who changed the music, and truly
the godfather of modern electric guitar.
Note from the
Iridium Jazz Club
We at the Iridium Jazz Club in New
York City join guitar and music fans
everywhere in wishing Les Paul all the
finest on his 90th birthday! Les's
regular Monday night appearances at the
club, since April, 1995, have attracted
devoted fans from all over the world.
World-class musicians like Paul
McCartney, Keith Richards, Tony Bennett,
Steve Miller, George Benson, Pat
Metheny, Jeff Beck, Slash, and countless
others, have come to pay homage to this
music icon. The Iridium is pleased and
honored to have presented the great Les
Paul for the past 10 years. We now look
forward to the next 10.
- Ron Sturm, owner,
Iridium Jazz Club
Birthday Tribute to the Ultimate Guitar
Legend, Les Paul
by Courtney Grimes,
of the greatest musicians of all time is
celebrating his birthday this week. Les
Paul, father of the electric guitar and
multi-track recording, will be turning
90-years-old on Thursday, June 9th.
Beginning as a professional musician
before he was even 20, Les Paul worked
for the Armed Forces Radio during World
War II, and afterwards began working
with NBC Radio.
By 1952 Les Paul was not only the
most popular guitar player in America,
he was also a leading innovator in
guitar and electronics design. He had
been experimenting with electric guitars
for as long as there had been electric
guitars. He had once mounted a guitar
string on a railroad tie to confirm his
belief that a solid-body guitar would
maximize sustain, and he had
incorporated a mini-railroad rail - a
4"x4" piece of pine - into the body of a
homemade solid-body electric guitar he
nicknamed "The Log."
had approached Gibson in the '40s with
his ideas for a solid-body electric
guitar, but Gibson was already leading
the industry with arch-top electric
guitars. Furthermore, Gibson had always
been very conservative when it came to
aligning with artists. In 50 years, only
two players had their names on Gibson
models: Nick Lucas, an early guitar star
and crooner whose "Tip Toe Through the
Tulips" was the biggest record of 1929,
and Roy Smeck, a multi-instrumentalist
so talented he was nicknamed "The Wizard
of the Strings."
In the early '50s, when the solidbody
guitar first became commercially viable,
Gibson designed an instrument that would
change the image of the solidbody
electric from a simple plank of wood to
an elegant, stylish piece of art. Such a
guitar would be a radical move for a
traditional company like Gibson, but
Gibson had been founded on the radical
mandolin and guitar designs of Orville
Gibson back in the 1890s. This new model
would have the same carved-top contours
that had set Orville's instruments apart
from all others.
the new model almost ready for market,
Gibson approached Les Paul, the obvious
choice to help launch it. Les was
already intimately familiar with the
unique characteristics of a solidbody
electric guitar. And he was at the top
of his career. His 1948 hit, "Brazil,"
featured six guitar parts, all played by
Les in a virtuoso demonstration that
would eventually earn him recognition as
the father of multi-track recording.
When he combined his guitar and
electronic talents with the vocals of
his wife Mary Ford, the result was
gold-two million-selling records in
1951, "Mockin' Bird Hill" and "How High
The Les Paul Model, as it was
originally called, has changed little
since its debut in 1952. Except for an
updated bridge and humbucking pickups,
the Les Paul Standard of today is still
the same guitar. The Les Paul has been
the driving force behind many changes in
popular music. It powered the blues rock
sound of the late '60s and the southern
rock of the late '70s. By the '90s the
Les Paul was providing signature sounds
for every genre of rock, from
alternative to metal.
The legend known as Les Paul
continues to play on with his signature
Gibson Les Paul guitar. Paul still
mesmerizes the crowds every Monday
evening at the Iridium Jazz Club in New
York and plans on celebrating his
upcoming 90th birthday with music,
laughter and good friends, with a
tribute concert being held at Carnegie
Hall on June 19, 2005.
* * *
by Rick Landers.
Are you still tinkering with
Gibson guitars, like the new Digital Les
Paul: I have two or three different
experimental models. We go in there and
we work on altering those ideas and in
many cases go in different directions.
One minute we're over here, the next
minute we're doing something completely
different. But it's interesting because
you are producing so many things you
couldn't do with analog. We're switching
the sounds, not so much the tone of the
instrument. And when things seem
impossible, it's back to grade school,
soldering, re-developing - always
building. I've been working with the
digital Les Paul guitar since its
infancy and experimenting in many
directions. It's something I enjoy.
They must be much different
from the first guitar you played.
LP: My first guitar came from
Sears & Roebuck and I believe it was
$3.95. When I got it I took it into the
dining room and through the swinging
door into the kitchen. Mother was in the
kitchen and I took it out of its
shipping box and one of the strings went
"twang". She said, "Les, you sound great
already!" That was a great line!
Was she musical?
LP: Yes. She played the piano
and she would play a lot of blues. Mom
and my father were getting a divorce and
she would sit at the piano and cry. She
had the blues.
She was very aware of what was going
on and also what was commercial and what
wasn't commercial. So I had a person
unknowingly guiding me.
She was an asset to me because she'd
say, "You need to put your foot here or
you do this there or right here smile."
Or she'd say "Do this or that!" She was
always thinking about how it would look
on stage. She knew when it was good too.
She knew when there were right notes and
At what point did you decide
the guitar needed to be amplified?
When I got my first guitar my fingers
wouldn't go to the sixth string so I
took off the big E and played with just
five strings. I was only 6 or 7. I used
my mother's radio as a PA [public
address] system. I'd take the
telephone, the speaking part, and take
those two leads off and lead them into
the radio and the sound would come out
of the speaker.
Later, I was at a barbecue stand
half-way between Waukesha and Milwaukee
and people loved it when I first played
on stage. I was at this barbecue stand
playing and one car drove up and there
was a fellow in a rumble seat. He wrote
a note to the car hop for me that said,
"Red, your voice and harmonica are fine,
but your guitar's not loud enough."
And that was the beginning?
LP: Well, that guy started me
thinking I've got to find a way to make
the guitar louder. And when I did, I ran
smack into the problem of feedback. So,
I filled the guitar with tablecloths,
dirty socks -- I tried everything! And
then I took that out and filled it with
plaster of Paris. That was better, but
it still wasn't the answer. So, in
ruining the guitar, I decided once and
for all to find the best piece of wood
I wanted something very dense,
something that would sustain long and
more pieces of wood that would be soft,
sweet, for more of a mellow sound. I
tried two of them. I first tried a piece
of railroad track, about
two-and-a-half-feet long, strung a
string across it, down the length of the
rail and then put the earpiece of the
telephone under the string. And lo and
behold, I put it into my mother's radio
and out came the sound of the railroad
I ran into my mother and told her and
she said, "The day you see a cowboy on a
horse with a railroad track..." [Laughs].
So, it didn't take me long to get off
the railroad track.
It had to look like a guitar?
LP: Yes! So, I said, "Now I
need to take a piece of wood and make it
sound like the railroad track, but I
also had to make it beautiful and
lovable so that a person playing it
would think of it in terms of his
mistress, a bartender, his wife, a good
psychiatrist -- whatever. The guitar
became so much part of me, it became
what I loved the most and lo and behold
I found that it would do the same thing
around the world.
You also moved into the world
of recording, eventually inventing
LP: The first thing I did was
tune in the radio and hear cowboys
singing. I became interested in not only
him singing and playing the guitar, but
the clock ticking, his breathing, his
fingers sliding on the strings, the hum
of the transmitter. I started to become
hooked on the sound in many ways and I
wanted fidelity, like when you're parked
underneath a transmitter at a radio
station. I would actually go out to the
station on my bicycle with my crystal
phone and ear phones and sit under the
transmitter so I could hear everything
that was going on in the room. You could
hear everything that was happening in
the room. And of course, that gave me a
whole new outlook and the next thing I
was doing was building a recording
machine, so that I could record and hear
what I was doing and capture that same
What was your role in
developing multi-track recording and how
did people react?
LP: My role started at the
very beginning. I went to three
different tape machine companies, but no
one thought it was feasible until I met
with Ampex. They just jumped on it. They
were so excited they put staff on it
immediately while another project was
underway across the hall. It ended up
that two inventions were born at
practically the same moment, both of
them involving or using the same
machinery. They were the first color
tape machine and the first multiple
sound recorder, each complementing the
other and using similar equipment.
I was involved deeply with my dream,
which was multi-track recording, that
started in 1953 and finished in 1956.
So, it took a lot of hard work. We flew
the 8-track machine back to Ampex three
times before we finally go it up and
then we did some big modifications and
made so many changes that the fellow who
worked with me became the vice president
of Ampex. It's ironic, but they found
that the guys I had working here were
more on top of what was going on. We
were working closely together and we
were many years ahead of Ampex.
When it came out on the market it
took the industry maybe five years to
figure out what they were going to do
with it because, for some reason, they
limited their vision to, "Where do we
find another Les Paul and Mary Ford?"
They weren't thinking, "Where could
we add an Artie Shaw part or a Benny
Goodman, or another voice?" - or all the
different things you could do with
multi-track other than what Les Paul and
Mary Ford were doing.
It was amazing to see how slow they
were! But, once they got the hang of it
and Motown got it and Atlantic Records
got it, Tommy Dowd and the rest of them,
when they got it, it was a Godsend
because it really alerted the world to
the potential of multi-track recording.
How did your partnership with
Mary Ford begin?
LP: Well, Mary and I were
going together for five years. She was a
guitar hippie and she followed me around
from city to city. Boy, I was the round
wheel. She thought that there was no one
who played like me or sounded like me.
It was about five years when I decided
that I was going to do something with my
group. I was going to add a vocalist.
So, Mary and I were in New York and I
was with Paramount and we were sitting
down figuring out who would be a great
singer. We had Rosemary Clooney, Doris
Day and Kate Starr. Anyway, I picked
Doris Day as the girl who was going to
be my singer. At the last minute I
backed out and said, "No, I don't think
so." And Mary said, "What are you going
to do, sit up there sing and play
figured I needed to think of somebody,
somewhere. But, it never got to me until
later when one night I was playing at my
brother's and father's tavern and my
brother forgot to hire a bass player.
Mary had been following me around for
five years. So, I told her that she
should know what I play so she could
play. I'm not playing up there alone! It
was then and there that I decided I'd
have Mary sing something. She sang
church songs and a couple of hillbilly
songs. So, I got her doing that and
that's when the light lit!
I turned to my dad and he was shaking
his head, "No!" and I was shaking my
head, "Yes!" My dad said that I was a
roughneck and she was so delicate, you
two will never make it together! We did.
We met in '45 and we married the day
before New Years, the last day of 1949.
A lot of people may not know
about your involvement with the creation
of the electric bass guitar.
LP: I came up with the
electric bass in the early 1930s when
Everett Hull came into a little saloon
called the Warm Winds, a little bar in
Chicago, and he walked up to the bar (he
didn't own Ampeg yet and he later owned
Bass-Amp and Guitar-Bass) and he asked,
"What the hell are you guys talking
I was talking about my ideas for a
solid-body guitar with no f-holes and
all that stuff, made with a solid piece
of wood. So, he's listening and we're
drinking. I told him, "What you
ought to do is make an electric bass!"
And he did.
And, with his great sense of humor,
Hull made an electric bass that had a
seat and license plate on it that he
"drove it to work"! [Laughs] He
had a great sense of humor! What
happened was one night he came home
drunk and pulled the neck off his bass
when he was parking. He ended up
incorporating the parts into his
automobile and would drive the thing to
Of course, later he went into
business making the first electric bass
where you shove a mike up into the bass.
It sounded pretty good. So he ended up
developing my suggestion.
You've been involved with so
many musical firsts -- what's this about
your idea that gave us Alvin and the
The Chipmunks would never be here if it
wasn't for me. One night, I was with my
friend Howie, who I didn't even know was
Howard Hughes, I only knew him as Howie.
Well, Howie was always busting my chops.
I was playing at this jazz joint called
the Club Rounders and Howie asked, "How
you doing playing at the Upholstered
Sewer" Later, we went to get a hot dog
and we went by this studio and I knocked
on the door and the guy inside says,
"Can't you see the light's lit? Who are
you anyway?", and Hughes said, "This is
Howie," I said, "I'm Les Paul." The guy
behind the door said, "The Les
Paul?" and I said, "Yep," and he then
said, "Well, come on in!"
So, I went in there and he's trying
to make a recording of a bunch of guys
singing and I said, "Why don't you do it
this way?" And I took one of them and
worked it up and they liked it and it
was the first one to come out as the
Chipmunks. That was in the late 1950s I
think. And since that time he would
always stop a date if he saw me, he'd
cancel the date. He'd say, "Come back
another day. Book another day, my friend
He always felt like he owed me a
million dollars. Very few people know
this story, I've rarely told that story.
A lot of people that know me know about
it, but I've never told the press about
it. I just forget a lot of things.
Tell us some of the highlights
of your performing career.
LP: Oh, my goodness. Playing
for Franklin D. Roosevelt was one of the
highlights. After finishing with Fred
Waring and his 65 Pennsylvanians, we had
a big gigantic show at the White House.
Following that we had the great
privilege of going down and speaking
personally with the President. When it
was my turn to get an autograph, he gave
me a pack of cigarettes and then he
said, "Mr. Les Paul, would you be kind
enough to play for my kids and the rest
of us at a private party downstairs
after this thing is over?"
So, that was one of my highlights --
that particular day. That night was a
big, big, big thrill!
with Bing Crosby - I don't think anybody
could have a greater privilege than
working with somebody as big and
powerful as Bing Crosby. He was just
great. And there were many other
thrills, such as playing with Django
Rheinhardt. In 1946, Django went
electric after he heard me playing with
my band. He hid for three years to learn
bebop. I told him not to and so did
Eddie Lang. It ended up not being a good
idea for him.
I think I've played with every great
guitar player that there is -- on the
stage with me where we're actually
playing together. So many. There are a
million more memorable moments - playing
the London Palladium and for many
Presidents. So, I've had many great
experiences. And playing with Judy
Garland -- it's an endless list, all
different. Something was always
happening and it's still the same -- no
It was a great pleasure playing with
Count Basie just before he died. Talking
about him, he'd just lift his left hand
and take one finger and hit one note. It
was the best damn note I ever heard.
It's not how many notes you play, you
just have to play the right ones! Like
Freddie Green pumping a great rhythm.
Let me tell you a story about Bing
Crosby. I never rehearsed and went in
cold. Well, one night Sinatra was with
us. He worshiped Bing, but was deathly
afraid of him like a dog with his tail
between his legs. He even bought a pipe
and hat to be like Bing. Bing was the
Well, Bing and I were in the bathroom
standing next to each other [chuckles]
and he asked me if the kid [Sinatra] was
any good. I said, "He's pretty good,
Bing." Later, I was between Bing and
Frank when they were singing and there
was a low note that Sinatra couldn't hit
and he got nervous. Bing looked him
straight in the eye and said to Frank,
"Is this what you're trying to do?" and
easily hit that low note! Nobody was as
good as Bing Crosby.
I understand that you're
working on a hot new rock CD with some
There's a whole slew of them: Eric
Clapton, Jeff Beck, Santana, Richie
Sambora, -- it just goes on and on. All
my friends are great, great, great
players and great songwriters. The
album's "finished", but Jimmy Page may
do it too. We're waiting to hear from
him to see if he's cleared to do it.
These are great things and it's great
The great licks, they changed them
and put them into rock. The actual
playing is very familiar to me. What
wasn't familiar is the change in the
sound and how they were mixed all
together and the way they were played -
the rhythm sounds or how they use drums
-- I didn't use drums like this.
After this rock album, we want to do
a bluegrass album where I'll play with
the very best bluegrass guitarists of
all time by dubbing them in with me!
Then we'll do a blues and a jazz album
with the greatest guitarists. That's
going to be a big charge! It will be
hard because half of my fingers are
arthritic, frozen stiff, no movement and
so I play more with my hand from the
first knuckle. I don't play that many
How did you and your jazz
friends react to rock 'n' roll when it
arrived on the scene?
We were kind of upset about it -
Sinatra, Nat King Cole - all of us. I
thought I was out of a job when rock
came in. We were told to change and to
be less traditional. They used three
chords, and not the right chords, and
buried the singer! It was another world
that you entered into with a riff and
rode it, and you needed to turn it up
500 watts to get the sound right. It was
rebellion, having something to say with
a new beat. They wanted "How High the
Moon" with a new strength!
The rock people wanted adventure,
wanted to move cavities in their body,
wanted to move your navel. There was
this gal who called me who had been in a
car crash. She told me she had figured
out the music thing. She was a
paraplegic and said when she was laying
on her back and rock musicians hit
certain notes, the sounds moved her
innards. That's when she figured the
music sounded really good!
I did meet Stevie Ray Vaughan. He was
great! I talked to him twice here in New
York. I didn't know him when I first met
him, but he talked about us playing
together. We didn't though, but if we
had I'm afraid I would have been in big
trouble. He was a hell of a fine player!
What's the best band you've
ever played in?
LP: The band I'm in now. We
have four and it's the right size. Five
gets in the way. It's different with a
small group. They're the greatest.
Looking back on your life, what
are some of the things about which
you're most proud?
Well, I'm proud of sound-on-sound. I was
the innovator, the creator of that and
that's where you take one tape machine
and you can record over and over on one
piece of tape and make multi-track
recordings like we did on "How High the
Moon" and "Lover." That was a big thing.
Delay and echo were other big ones,
and phasing and flanging were very
important. It wasn't tape delay, it was
disk delay first and today it's digital
delay. Delay has been used in so many
ways. If you're in the U.S. and talk to
someone on the phone who's in Iraq,
you'll experience sound delay. It isn't
long, but the sound has to go to a
satellite and back -- it's used for
everything. So I'm proud to have that be
something I invented. Same with the
multi-track recording that's used in
many of the flight programs to get to
the moon - to see my ideas used for all
of those things, I feel terribly proud
of it, that I was given the privilege to
think of it.
You are now an inductee of the
Inventors Hall of Fame. Your thoughts on
I think about Edison and all the
things he did. If the honor went to
Edison, I mean look at his [recording]
cylinder and the first light bulb.
That's something! He was a scientist,
but we think of him as a gadgeteer. It's
odd for me to think that I'm an inductee
with inventors like the Wright Brothers
and Goddard. My God almighty!
Personally, I'm not sure I deserve it,
you know, for a hunk of railroad track
Les Paul guitars have been
around since 1952, with countless sold
-- if you could have only one, which one
would you choose?
The one I'm playing. It happens to
be a Les Paul Recording and it's not the
most popular one of the Les Paul line
for many reasons. But that particular
guitar is the type of guitar that gives
me the sound that I want without any
equalization and all the problems you
have with all the other guitars -- with
all the voodoo stuff on them. I don't
have any of that. I just go right into
the port and do my thing and we just
make the album. There's no equalization
at all. Nothing.
It's a 1971, a brown one. I also have
a black one that was one of the first
prototypes made of what they call the
recording guitar due to its low
impedance device. The black one's so
good that I'm afraid to take it down to
the club because if I leave it on that
stool it would be gone in a minute. You
know, when I was in Chicago they'd take
a jack to the lid of the car trunk. I
lost many guitars that way - stolen.
They should do it more with
And I don't know of a guitar player
that has only one guitar. They're never
happy with one. I'm never happy with
just one of them. I woke up and ended up
with six, even if you can only play one
at a time!
And, of course, the competition
between the wife and the guitar is
What did you think when you
first saw Leo Fender's Telecaster?
LP: Well, I called Gibson and
told them that they'd better get off
their duff because Leo is going ahead
with it. Told them they'd better find
out what's going on in this world and
Gibson agreed because I'd seen it first
hand and thank God Gibson agreed. The
rest is history.
Did you like the Telecaster
when you first saw it?
You get a chance to play it?
LP: I've never played a Fender
though Leo gave me one of the first
ones. He gave me one with no serial
number and no model name on it. It just
had his name on it, you know, Fender.
What was your relationship with
Leo Fender and did you ever consider
yourself in competition?
Leo was a dear friend. We shared our
ideas a lot and we talked about them.
He'd come into "the backyard" - it was a
great place because I had a recording
studio. Most of the people that I
recorded were cowboys, country and
western bands, and the electric guitar
was the perfect thing to have in there.
Leo was interested in two things: a
good amplifier and a good guitar. And
where would you get a better opinion
than from guitar players, who could tell
you what was wrong or what improvements
were needed? What's better than being at
a recording spot and hearing the
complaints so you could rectify them?
But all of us were in different worlds.
I was in the Gibson world and I'd be
talking to Gibson. Paul Bigsby was with
Leo once and he was looking at my
vibrola and said, "I'm going to make one
of those." So, Bigsby went in that
Leo's beliefs and my beliefs were
terribly similar. We just had different
ideas about the sounds we wanted to
create with this thing. They're both
great. I have no qualms saying that.
Whether it's Fender or Gibson, my God,
they both came through with flying
Let me tell you about Freddie
Gretsch. He was a good friend and I told
him I had another friend who I wanted
him to meet. So, I introduced Freddie to
Chet Atkins. [Laughs] And you
know what? Chet asked, "Fred who?"
They'd never heard of one another until
I introduced them!
Do you have any favorite
LP: No, I don't play the
acoustic. I played them when I was with
the Service, with the Armed Forces in
Hollywood Band. Sometimes I would play a
Gibson L5 when I played in the
orchestra. I play acoustic very rarely.
And I got to the point where I didn't
want to go near them. I leave Freddy
Green to Freddy Green.
If you could go back and time
and give some advice to the young Les
Paul, what would you say?
I would say how lucky I was in my life.
I'd tell anyone young to first be
prepared! I set my sights high and with
determination. If you believe in
yourself you need to only reinforce all
your dreams. People need to raise their
sights. I was able to get everything I
set out to do. I have to thank somebody,
someone, this act that has been given to
me is bigger than I am.
What's been the highest
compliment you've ever received?
LP: It's coming up! I'll be
celebrating my 90th birthday at Carnegie
Hall! It seems eerie. At 90, I'm first
glad to have my health. A lot of my
friends are now gone and it's hard to
explain - going on to where, I don't
know! I'm glad to just wake up! My first
project of the day is to get to the
bathroom [laughs], that's my
Every night I play at the Iridium is
just great. It's wonderful playing for
the people and meeting the young and the
old. And it's great to still play guitar
in America where there are no rules. I
was once in Spain and came down with the
runs, the heaves, and a Spanish doctor
came up to my room to take care of me.
Well, he saw my guitar picks on my
dresser and asked what they were for and
I told him they were to play the guitar
and he started to close his bag and
leave the room saying, "That's not the
way to play guitar!" He was going to
Thank you, Les, for a great
LP: Was that okay?
* * *
Les Paul's FX Pedals
by Rick Landers.
Before his performance at the Iridium
Jazz Club, I got a peek at Les Paul's FX
pedal setup, a photo of which you'll see
below. The pedals, from left-to-right as
they would face him, are: Chromatic
Tuner (TU-2); Super Chorus (CH-1);
Digital Delay (DD-3); Tremolo/Pan
(PN-2); another Digital Delay (DD-3);
and an Equalizer (GE-7). All pedals are
by BOSS. In addition to the pedals, his
FX holder contained a pair of
sunglasses, electrical tape, a pair of
pliers, screwdrivers, white out, and an
extra guitar strap.
* * *