Today would have been Les Paul’s 96th birthday. Anyone lucky enough to have met the man or caught him onstage knows that the Legend of Les may have been monumental, and deservedly so, but was eclipsed in a moment by his personality.
He was just an awful lot of fun to be around. Les let his humor fly onstage, one moment making a blue joke about an attractive woman in the audience, and then turning to razz a player on the bandstand. He made musical jokes with the scoops, glissandos, and quirky pickup noises he’d pull from his instrument. He was as much a showman as he was an inventor, guitarist, and innovator. What seemed clear every time we saw him, even so late into his long lifetime, was that nothing made Les Paul happier than pushing boundaries. It’s no wonder that for the past half century, guitarists have explored and innovated while armed with a solid-body bearing his name.
We have many Les Paul stories to share here at TrueFire and hope you’ll share yours as well in the comments. While the rest of the world pores over his long and vaunted history, we thought you might enjoy hearing a bit of landmark guitar history straight from Les himself. These excerpts are from an unpublished interview from Feb 13th, 1995, conducted by HP Newquist during his tenure as Editor In Chief of Guitar magazine.
At the time, Les was playing a weekly gig in downtown New York City at a club called Fat Tuesday’s. This was before he moved the show uptown to the Iridium, where he was playing until he fell ill with pneumonia just a few weeks ago.
I was singing and playing guitar at a barbecue stand one weekend and I hooked up the telephone to my mother’s radio and created a PA system. That same weekend some guy in the crowd sent me a note saying he couldn’t hear the guitar. He might have been a critic of my voice [laughs], but he did me a favor as far as the guitar was concerned. I took our phonograph pickup — the needle — and jammed it right into the bridge of my guitar. Now instead of playing a record, it was playing my guitar.
Then I borrowed my dad’s radio and had two speakers for my show. With everything all put together, it looked like something out of Frankenstein. I turned them both up, and lo and behold, everyone could hear the guitar and my voice. And my tips went up [laughs]! Everyone was happy.
Well, I still had a problem, because the guitar with the needle would always feed back, and moving the speaker wasn’t the answer. The answer that first day was to get rid of my socks, towel, and everything I had with me, and stuff them into the guitar to kill the sound. The more I killed the sound, the better it got. Later on, I poured the whole guitar full of plaster of Paris until it was solid as a rock. That was the perfect answer, but it was so goddamn heavy I couldn’t lift it [laughs].
So I thought, what could I make a guitar out of that wouldn’t resonate? We lived across the street from the railroad, and I realized that railroad tracks are pretty sturdy. So I got a wagon and five other guys and we lifted a four-foot piece of rail that had been taken off the line and took it home in the wagon. When I put strings on it and put my homemade pickups on it, I realized it would do the job perfectly. My mother thought I was a genius — my brother thought I was insane.
Seeing it all in retrospect, Les’ mother and brother were both right. And we wouldn’t have had him any other way.
This post was written by Rich Maloof, who has a long history with TrueFire as artist, educator, and producer. Rich’s body of work as a published author and Editor in Chief of Guitar magazine has been distributed and translated internationally.