Les Paul interview
Les Paul interviewed by Michael Fix, New York, April 2008
The word “legend” gets used rather indiscriminately in the music world, too often used as a lazy way to describe someone much admired, or someone who has simply been around a long time.
Guitarist, inventor, recording artist, television personality, pioneer in the evolution of the electric guitar, (and a genuinely nice guy), Les Paul is one of the very few people that fully deserves the description “legend.”
Born Lester William Polfuss in Waukesha, Wisconsin, in 1915, Les first picked up the guitar at age eight, and by 13 he was playing semi-professionally.
Since then, in a career spanning 80 years (and still counting!) he has achieved so much that a whole issue of Australian Guitar Magazine might just barely scratch the surface of this remarkable man and his career.
Here are just a few of the many honours bestowed upon Les Paul: inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame (1978), a Grammy Trustees Award for his lifetime achievements (1983). Inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in May 2005 for his development of the solid-body electric guitar. (In his acceptance speech, Les famously quipped: “…it’s a pleasure to be here…on earth”). In 2006, Paul was inducted into the National Broadcasters Hall of Fame. He was named an honorary member of the Audio Engineering Society. When Les turned 90, a concert featuring some of the world’s great players was arranged at Carnegie Hall, to honour Les and his achievements.
Although he never played rock'n'roll himself, his influence on contemporary music is remarkable. Is it possible to imagine today’s music without Les Paul guitars, multi-track recording studios, tape echo…?
I had the pleasure of performing with Les recently in New York City, where Les, who turns 93 this year, still plays two sets every Monday night at the Iridium Jazz Club on Broadway. As if the thrill of playing with him wasn’t enough, Les granted me an hour of his time to talk guitar for Australian Guitar Magazine.
So much is written about his achievements as an electric guitar innovator and recording pioneer, (and more; just type “Les Paul” into Google – you’ll see what I mean), that I decided to try to focus on Les Paul: the guitar player. As it turned out, it was difficult to separate Les the inventor from Les the player, the two go hand-in-hand.
Let’s go back to the beginning…
I was eight, it was in the 1920s and my first guitar was bought from Sears and Roebuck. It cost $1.98. I played other instruments, too. I started on the harmonica, then banjo. I learnt some piano.
How did you learn?
By listening to the radio, and later on, the movies. That’s how I saw other guitar players – in the movies. I didn’t have tuition. I listened to all types of music. There was a lot of country music on the radio in my town, called “hillbilly music” and later on, in the 1930s, I started listening to jazz.
Who was your hero?
Without a doubt, Eddie Lang (1902 -1933, considered one of the finest jazz guitarists of the era). I saw him in a movie and I wanted to be just like him.
Were you interested in electronics as a teenager?
Oh yes, I was always tinkering. About half my life was spent tinkering. Even then I wanted to record myself, and amplify my guitar. I did things like converting my mother’s radio into an amplifier, and using a telephone for a microphone.
I used to play the harmonica and guitar, and one time I was playing in the parking lot of a BBQ joint, and a guy told me “your harmonica is fine, but your guitar isn’t loud enough”. That got to me, so I got to thinking about how to make a louder guitar.
Were you consciously searching for sound?
Oh yes. I had a sound in my head that I was searching for…
Even as a teenager?
…Yes, even then! I worked hard to amplify the sound my mother was hearing. My mother would say “what you’re doing sounds good” and I said “well, I can’t hear it”, so I decided to design and build a recording machine so I could hear what she was hearing.
How did your playing develop from there?
At age 13, I was semi-professional, playing country music. A few years later I joined with Rube Tronson's Cowboys. I quit high school and found work with Wolverton's Radio Band in St. Louis, Missouri on KMOX. There was a time when I was “Rhubarb Red” playing country in the mornings, then Les Paul the jazz guitarist in the evenings.
In the 1930s, I worked in Chicago in radio, playing jazz. I made my first two records in 1936. I was still "Rhubarb Red", real hillbilly. As well as that, I played with (blues artist) Georgia White.
How were you able to get your playing to such a high standard whilst spending so much time with electronics?
Well, I used to divide my time. I’d get so interested in inventing something that I’d put most of my time into that, and the rest of the time, instead of practicing, I was actually playing. Sometimes I had three jobs at one time; I’d be playing a nightclub in Hollywood (corner of Sunset and Vine), I’d be there with my quartet, and then we’d break and head over the road to NBC, doing a broadcast with my trio, and then other times I’d be recording, so in a typical day, I didn’t have time to practice! And then I’d get so into inventing, that I’d just forget about practice.
Jamming – that’s another thing we did a lot of. Every night we’d make a point of going up to Harlem, or somewhere where there were great players, and we’d jam! That was important, ‘cause that’s where you learn. That’s the school of music.
The other thing was writing; I used write the broadcast shows.
You scripted your own radio and TV shows?
Yes I did! Sometimes I wouldn’t have time to write it, so I’d just talk over an idea, and we’d just ad lib. They came out ok. You can do a lot if you have to!
Your recordings with the trio – very high standard of musicianship!
Thankyou! We just tried to do what we thought was the kind of music people wanted to listen to, and dance to; something that would be saleable.
You covered a lot of ground, musically as well as travel.
Yeah, well, I was playing with big bands in the 1930s, and in the late '30s I moved to New York. In the '40s, I moved to Hollywood, and that’s where the Les Paul trio was formed. We played on Bing Crosby’s radio show. After that I recorded with Bing. We had a number 1 hit with "It's Been A Long, Long Time." I learnt so much from Bing; he is one of the most talented people I’ve ever met. We (trio) played with a lot of different people, and then we made our own recordings for Decca.
You were experimenting with solid body guitars at that time?
Oh, yes, that was already in the early ‘40s, that’s when I used solid piece of wood as a guitar, and added the body of an Epiphone so it looked like a guitar, and so you could hold it. The solid body solved two problems I had with hollow body guitars: feedback, and lack of sustain. And, of course, it was louder. You know, I love to play, and I love to invent.
In 1948 Les Paul and partner Mary Ford were seriously injured when the car in which they were travelling went off an icy road and rolled down an embankment. This crash potentially could have ended a promising career.
Tell me about the car accident…your arm was broken?
That was 1948, in Oklahoma, my right arm and elbow was shattered – broken in three places. The Doctors told me I wouldn’t be able to move it again.
You asked them to set it so you could play?
Yes, I asked the surgeon to set my arm at 90-degrees so I could still play the guitar. It took over a year to recover, but at least I could play. My arm was in a cast for about eighteen months. Mary broke her pelvis.
You’re famous for your work with Mary Ford…
We met in the '50s, we recorded in my home studio, married, and we had a lot hits! Mary’s voice is just so sweet. We had a great partnership. From 1953 to 1960 we had our own TV show called “Les Paul and Mary Ford at home”
In the early 1950s, Paul made a number of revolutionary recordings with his wife, singer Mary Ford, who played rhythm guitar. These records were unique for their revolutionary use of overdubbing, which he did by recording to a disc, and then bouncing from one disc to the other. Les would often record parts with the tape machine running at half speed, so that playback at normal speed would result in the guitar being an octave higher, and twice as fast. The couple's hits included "How High the Moon", "Bye Bye Blues", "The World Is Waiting for the Sunrise", and "Vaya Con Dios". These songs featured a multi-tracked Mary harmonizing with herself. This was the birth of multi-tracking. Paul also recorded Mary’s voice by placing the microphone very close to her, which gave the voice a much more intimate sound. Whilst standard practice now, it was a new technique at the time.
Between 1950 and 1954, the couple had 16 top-ten hits.
The couple later divorced, and Paul did not perform for a decade. Various ailments, including problems with his arm, an operation on a finger, and later, a burst eardrum resulting in permanent hearing loss forced Paul into semi-retirement.
You went into semi-retirement in the ‘60s…
By 1965, I was completely done playing – retired. It wasn’t till 1980, after my heart surgery, the doctor said to me “I want you to promise me that you will work hard.” I said to him “work hard? I thought that’s what got me in here!” He said “No – that’s what’s going to keep you going.”
I thought about it, and I took a piece of paper, drew a line down the middle and listed things I liked, and things I didn’t like. The things I liked were inventing and playing, so it was obvious that that’s what I should go back and do. It’s hard to go back after a layoff of 15 years, and by then the arthritis had set in so badly that it prevented me from playing my normal way, and I had to learn a new way to play.
So. I made up my mind to keep playing and keep inventing, and I’m still doing it!
Do you see yourself primarily as a guitar player, or inventor?
It just runs together, to me it doesn’t matter.
In the late '70s, Paul went back into the studio, recording the Grammy-winning album Chester and Lester with Chet Atkins. This album (along with the follow up Guitar Monsters) features the two greats in top form, chatting, joking and even laughing during recordings, obviously relaxed and having a wonderful time together.
The albums you recorded with Chet are incredible…so relaxed, and the playing is fantastic.
Oh, I love those albums, we had a lot of fun. Originally, Chet was going to play the violin and sing, and I was going to play the banjo and harmonica! When we got together in Nashville, I knew we were on the wrong track. I said to him “why don’t we just do what we do best and play our guitars?” Chet was a bit worried – he plays country, I play jazz, you know, maybe people wouldn’t like it so much. Anyway, I suggested we put a mic between us, and record us talking and fooling around. You know Chet has a great sense of humour, but he didn’t think it would work without an audience, but we had the band, and the guys in the control room, and some visitors would drop in, so we had about seven or eight people reacting to our dialog. Once we started recording we realized it was the right thing to do. It was a lot better than the violin and banjo!
After such a long break from playing, how did you prepare for the recording?
I just kept my hands in ice, or heat, and did the best I could. One of my fingers was in a brace – seriously! – I remember when we were up for the Grammy, I met Chet there, he saw my brace and asked me where he could buy one! I think he thought it was some new invention to improve your playing. I thought that was so funny.
Do you keep up with new players?
Oh yes, I’m still excited by music, you know there are so many great players out there.
Do you still practice?
I try to play every day, but you know, with the arthritis in my hands, it’s hard. I can’t play chords anymore, I can use only two fingers on my left hand. The way I see it, the arthritis challenges you, you either play, or you give up. Playing is like therapy for me.
Now, at age 92, you seem to be as busy as ever!
Well, let me give you an idea. Today I haven’t had a chance to pick up my guitar. Just as difficult now as it was back then. Too many things going on, too few hours!
Right now, we are doing stuff for the museum, I have to go back and make all the stuff work that I invented years ago! And that’s quite a challenge. We have a museum in Waukesha, where I was born, and a new one opening in Milwaukee.
Right now, I’m working on a hearing aid. I think people who are hard-of-hearing need a great hearing aid. There isn’t anything good enough. I’ve been working for close to 20 years perfecting the hearing aid, and I’ve improved it so much that soon, we should have a Les Paul hearing aid. I want to see that it gets out to people who can’t afford the high prices for hearing aids. That’s one of the nice deeds I want to do.
In conclusion, what advice would you give to young players?
Love your work, and work hard at it. You’ve got to develop your ear. Rhythm and ears, you’ve got to have both. You have to be dedicated, it’s a lifelong journey.
I don’t know any one player that can do it all. You’ve just got to play from the heart – be yourself. All the greats – Django, Wes Montgomery, Charlie Christian, Ella Fitzgerald, Benny Goodman, countless others – they all did their own thing. Everyone has a mentor – someone you admire that you want to be as good as – but after a while you have to create your own world.
You have to love your work. A plumber or butcher – when he’s done, he’s done. You don’t see him going home jamming, cutting up meat with his friends! It’s entirely different with music, when you are sharing it with someone else, you can’t wait to get there and jam.
Whatever you want to do: wish it, dream it, then do it! And…do it your way.