Me And My Guitar: Legendary Musician/Inventor Les Paul Dies at 94

09/13/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Today, music has lost one of its great pioneers, Les Paul, who died of complications from pneumonia in a White Plains, N.Y. hospital. A lot of musicians and engineers owe a lot to his genius and creative vision, and what he introduced to guitar playing and the recording process is precious and timeless. He is most famous for conjuring the solid-body electric guitar in the fifties that practically invented rock 'n' roll, but his innovations of the instrument began in the thirties with "the log," which was not much more than a piece of lumber that encompassed the neck, bridge, and area for an electric pick-up, the wood attached to a hollow-body Epiphone. Although Adolph Rickenbacker and Leo Fender also introduced their own electric guitar variations, it was Les Paul who was approached by the Gibson Guitar Corporation on a model the company built basically using the inventor's designs. That model became the legendary Gibson Les Paul and traditionally was manufactured with a "gold top" (front surface), and it was adopted by many rock musicians, including Eric Clapton. His style of playing has been mimicked by everyone, especially his use of trills, riffs, and guitar echo and delays, and he even gave Steve Miller his first guitar lesson.

Les Paul also experimented with the recording process, employing an "overdub" method, meaning recording a part "on top" of another while listening to the original or earlier take. His 1948 Capitol Records single "Lover (When You're Near Me)" with its b-side "Brazil" is the first release employing this technique, and the pair not only featured overdubbing, but they also employed speed variations. Amazingly, the record was made using acetates as this was prior to "reel-to-reel audiotape" recording. That drove him to his next invention, the "multi-track" tape recorder (Ampex having produced the original mono machine) that stacked or layered "channels" of tape to accommodate the capturing of multiple performances. He started the process by putting an extra playback head on the Ampex 200 machine that prompted the company to develop two-track and three-track tape recorders. Years later, Les Paul paid Ampex to create the first eight-track recorder, the new process dubbed "Sel-Sync" or Selective Sychronization.

With his wife Mary Ford, Les Paul recorded a number of hits for Capitol, including the classics "How High The Moon" and "Vaya Con Dios" that featured Les on guitar and Mary harmonizing with herself, almost Andrews Sisters-style, closely-mic'd for a very intimate effect. With his wife and rhythm player Eddie Stapleton, he hosted NBC's The Les Paul Show radio program in 1950 on which he not only played music but also dabbled with introducing electronics such as "The Pulverizer" that "multiplied" any audio played through it. The show evolved into the Listerine-sponsored The Les Paul & Mary Ford Show for television, over which he had total control of both the audio and film elements.

Though things basically ramped down for Les after the fifties, one of that later period's highlights is his teaming-up with his old friend Chet Atkins in the seventies for the Grammy-winning Chester & Lester and also Guitar Monsters albums on RCA Victor. And his "duets"/"tribute" album Les Paul & Friends: American Made World Played earned him two Grammy Awards in 2006. Other career awards have included his 1978 induction into the Grammy Hall of Fame, his 1983 Grammy Trustees award, and in 1988, he was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame by Jeff Beck. He also received honors from the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2005 and the National Broadcasters Hall of Fame in 2006. With all this acclaim and the legacy he leaves behind, though Lester William Polsfuss is gone, it's a bit impossible for him to ever be forgotten.

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