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Les Paul and the invention of multitrack recording

Looking back on the genius of Les Paul, as featured in this month's Genius!4 magazine

Most musicians rely on others with more technical knowledge to help them achieve specific sounds and effects. Les Paul’s early fascination with electronics gave him the skills to not only build the first solid-bodied guitar but also develop many of the techniques that formed the backbone of modern music recording, including multitracking, overdubbing and tape effects.

Born Lester William Polsfuss in 1915, Les Paul, as he became known, was able to play not only the guitar, the instrument that made his name, but also the banjo and harmonica by the time he was 13. A year earlier he became interested in electronics after seeing a boy he knew in his hometown of Waukesha, Wisconsin, winding a wire coil for a crystal set radio. Among his earliest experiments was dismantling the family radio set and turning it into a PA system for his guitar.

After starting out in local semi-professional country and western bands, Paul moved to Chicago when he was in his late teens and eventually took over the house band of radio station WJJD in 1934. Two years later he formed the Les Paul Trio, which started to play jazz during the early 1940s, when the guitarist moved to New York.

While his fame as a musician grew, Paul continued to experiment with electronics. In 1941 he built the first prototype solid-bodied electric guitar, which he nicknamed ‘the Log’. This formed the basis of the instrument that he would later present to the Gibson Guitar Corporation. Initially marketed as the Les Paul rather than under the Gibson name, the guitar was recognised for its ‘hot’ pick-ups and sustain, which appealed to the emerging generation of rock guitarists in the 1960s and ‘70s.

In 1943, after being discharged from the Armed Forces Radio Service, Paul and his trio began working with one of the biggest singing stars of the time, Bing Crosby. It was the crooner who encouraged Paul to build his own recording studio, which he did in his garage. It was there that he first started experimenting with multiple track recordings using acetate discs and two cutting lathes. The first result of this work was the instrumental Lover, released in 1948.

The disc-lathe technique was cumbersome and time-consuming but once again Bing Crosby stepped in. Crosby owned one of the first magnetic tape recording machines in the US, which had been brought over from Germany, where the technology was developed, after the war. The singer was interested in the machine as a way to efficiently record his radio show so he wouldn’t have to perform it live, thereby leaving his evenings free.

Crosby invested in the commercial development of tape recorders by the Ampex Corporation. He gave Paul the second Ampex Model 200A reel-to-reel tape machine to be produced, and encouraged him in his development of multi-track tape recording. Using this technique, Paul recorded a series of hit singles with his then wife and musical partner Mary Ford (born Iris Colleen Summers 1928, died 1977) that established sound-on-sound recording, now known as overdubbing, double-tracking and electronic echo.

Among these recordings was the 1951 hit How High The Moon, which showcases Paul’s use of emerging technology. While superficially a jaunty country-swing ditty, the recording takes on a greater dimension through double-tracking Ford’s ringing vocals, making it still sound fresh, groundbreaking and not a little strange today.

By 1957 Paul was working with an eight-track machine, which gave him flexibility to produce more tape-based effects. He also experimented with speed manipulation – what we now know as vari-speeding – close-miking and feedback.

Among Paul’s later innovations was a black box fitted to his guitar that allowed him to record and play back different elements of a tune live, creating a multi-layered sound from just one instrument, something that is now the stock-in-trade of modern artists such as Ed Sheeran.

Paul continued to play and develop new electronic techniques into the 21st century. He played every Monday night at the Iridium Jazz Club in New York up until his death in 2009 at the age of 94.

While his profile may have faded over the years, his influence on guitarists such as Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton, Pete Townshend, The Edge and Slash is undeniable. And his genius for innovation and invention lives on, not only in his own recordings but those of all artists who followed. 

Read the latest Genius! here.