Thursday, August 13, 2009

Fab Reich Guest Blogger, Danny Dodge, Remembers Les Paul

by Danny Dodge

Les Paul June 9, 1915 – August 13, 2009

The guitar is a strange and beautiful thing. First born out of strings across a frying pan shape, it has evolved into an icon on power, rebellion, self-worth, and style. People have lived for it, died for it, and sold their soul for it. It's a sinful thing and an instrument of God, and on these accounts has thrived into a culture all its own. As in any culture, there are leaders. Lords of the revolution. For the guitar, there was one prominent figure that stands out.

Lester William Polsfuss, or better known as Les Paul, was just a brat when he heard the guitar for the first time. In the late 20s, the craze was Hawaiian guitar. It was exotic, sexy, and the slide guitar sound that carried its popularity was other-worldly. Who knew what made Hawaiian music so popular. Perhaps it was the limited experience of seeing other far places that led to the desire of breathing that cool pacific air on a sandy beach of clear waters. Perhaps it was the gentleman's fantasy of docking with his fellow Naval comrades and finding himself having a mysterious encounter by bonfire light with a young native island girl. Whatever it was, it sold records, and when Les Paul heard those records he didn't think of anything but that beautiful moaning six-string sound. Though, not without criticism, was he. He wanted it louder because, in his own words, "More volume, meant more tips" and that's what becomes most important down on the Wisconsin street corners where you'd find him. Using a phonograph needle and parts of a telephone, he electrified his acoustic "depression box" (as it was commonly referred to, at the time). He loved the sound but felt it could be better. Living next to a railroad he examined the materials used to make the railways and thought of what the guitar would sound like made out of a solid frame as opposed to the soft wood. He thought perhaps steel would do the trick. Though, this would be a short-lived dream after his mother told him "who's ever seen a cowboy playing a strip of railroad?"

Cut to Fullerton, CA in the late 50's where a tv repairman, Leo Fender invested in and created the first solid-body guitar. This invention prompted competition. One rival being a company called Gibson. Many of them began experimenting with what Les Paul dreamed up decades prior. When Gibson recruited Les to go forth with the ideas that had been stirring all this time, go forth he did. What came out was the Log. An instrument that was merely that. A hunk of wood with guitar strings, a neck, a pickup and a bridge. When others saw this, they were puzzled, so Les Paul put a makeshift body around it to disguise it as just an ordinary guitar and let the sound speak for its self... and it spoke in volumes. The signature Gibson Les Paul guitar is still, to this day, one of the most consistently sold guitars on the market.

This triumph rocketed him and his musical better half in career and in life, Mary Ford, into the public eye. Just in the span of 1950 to 1954, they had 16 top ten hits, numerous television appearances, commercials, and radio features. The Les Paul sound was permanent and his name was etched into history forever.

It's a great sadness to see him go today but it's a pleasure to think of how much he accomplished. Rest in Peace, Les Paul.

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