A memorial to Les Paul outside Iridium in New York City.
by Christopher Walsh.
Les Paul, a name familiar to all in the worlds of audio recording, the electric guitar and rock n’ roll, passed away August 13 at the age of 94. Until June, he had been performing at his regular Monday night engagement at the Iridium Jazz Club in New York.
As the inventor of the solid-body electric guitar and a pioneer in multitrack recording–and other recording equipment and techniques–Paul’s influence cannot be overstated. “Les Paul is generally acknowledged as the inventor of modern multitrack recording,” summarizes John Fry of Ardent Studios in Memphis. “He had a custom-made 8-track, 1-inch tape recorder with synchronous replay on each track many years before similar machines became commercially available. He pioneered the recording methods and techniques that would become normal operating practice in commercial studios worldwide. Add to this his invention of the solid-body electric guitar, and his creativity as a musician and producer, and he paved the way for decades of studios, engineers and producers.”
“I’m not sure that any of us would be sitting here without his contribution to the music world,” considers engineer/producer Joel Hamilton. “What didn’t the guy start? What can’t be traced back to that guy that trillions of people hold dear? If recording is the new guitar, he had his hand in both. Les Paul is on both sides of what used to feel like a pretty high fence.”
“If he had ‘only’ been a successful recording artist, that would’ve been enough,” says producer David Cole, who worked as a staff engineer and producer at Capitol Studios in the 1970s and ’80s, where Paul helped design the famous subterranean echo chambers. “But he also was an innovator, inventor and inspiration to many generations. He left some mighty big footprints to follow.
“I never met Les,” Cole adds, “but I certainly recorded many of his guitars, played by some great musicians who were all influenced by him: Kid Rock, Steve Miller (who Les taught a few guitar chords at an early age) and Bob Seger, who has his signature sunburst Gibson Les Paul on more than one album cover. It’s an unmistakable sound.”
“I only met Les Paul once and the memory will last a lifetime,” relates producer/engineer Joe Chiccarelli. “Certainly I’ve known his name and history ever since I coveted his signature guitar at the age of 13. After having been professionally involved in making records for 20 years, I had the pleasure of meeting him not too long ago at a MusiCares event. Needless to say, it was a thrill. I introduced myself and told him of my production/engineering background. I thanked him and told him that if it wasn’t for him, I most likely wouldn’t have a career in music. Obviously his early use of multitrack recording has built careers for many of us, certainly not to mention the electric guitar.
“He was as kind and humble and inquisitive as anyone could possibly be,” Chiccarelli adds. “I shared with him my love of Capitol Recording Studios and the live reverb chambers, [of] which he had involvement in the design. I also told him of the version of “How High The Moon” I produced for Jane Siberry and Carlos del Junco. He was so excited and eager to hear it. Upon receiving it, he sent an email saying how much he loved it and felt it was a respectful take on the original, but loved the freshness we brought to it. Such a generous man. I subsequently went to see him perform at the Iridium on several trips to New York City, marveling at his unique style and his love for playing. Today, as well as many more days to follow, I begin to double track the guitars of my current recording project. I certainly will remember him, his kindness and all his contributions, as I stare at the guitar that bears his name.”
“He not only pushed the science, but challenged the business side to think outside the box as well,” says Cole. “My tenure at Capitol Records was rich with the history of his influence. We treasured the echo chambers he helped design and, to this day, they are still in high demand.
“But arguably,” Cole adds, “his biggest contribution was the electric guitar–the sound that rocked the world, changing the face of pop music forever.”