Thank You, Les Paul
Of the three of us, I have far less to say than either Ian or Alek about Les Paul’s monumental contributions. Hopefully, our friend Gerard over at House of Twang will have something to say in the coming days, too. Still, I know it is not an overstatement to say that Les Paul’s achievements bore directly upon all popular music in the second half of the twentieth century. They are indispensable still.
First, consider his role in developing the solid body electric guitar. Picture an acoustic guitar. Most of the energy from a plucked string goes into the hollow body, resonates, and becomes the audible note. That process requires a lot of energy, so the note cannot be sustained for very long.
Now picture an electric guitar. When it is not plugged into an amplifier, a plucked string is very quiet. The solid wood doesn’t provide a resonant chamber for the energy of the note to get “lost” in; as a result, the sounds can be sustained for a much longer duration than acoustic guitars allow for.
Of course, the nearly inaudible sound of an unamplified solid body electric is instantly rendered audible by – stay with me here – amplification. In order to amplify the sounds, electric guitars have microphones called pickups mounted onto them in roughly the place where the hole is found on acoustic guitars. Les Paul was, heh, instrumental in developing guitars that limited unwanted feedback, thereby channeling the sonic energy into sustained notes.
That’s a really, really fucking big deal.
But his innovation didn’t stop there. If you’re familiar with the movie O Brother Where Art Thou, you’ll remember the scene where the Soggy Bottom Boys first record Man of Constant Sorrow. The three singers and the guitar player huddle around a microphone and play their song live. The recording is limited to whatever music they are able to make together at one time.
Les Paul recognized that recording shouldn’t be limited to one moment’s worth of performance. He began to experiment by making one recording, then playing it back into a microphone while performing additional music at the same time. In other words, the result of playing one guitar at two different times was a recording that sounded like two guitars playing simultaneously.
In an instant, recorded music became an entity whose boundaries extended nearly infinitely beyond the simple capture of live performances. It’s what allowed Brian Wilson to create Pet Sounds. It’s why the late-period Beatles didn’t have to bother touring; nothing they could have done live would approach the layered complexity of their records.
Jesus Fucking Christ. He made music music.
It is not an overstatement to say that with these two innovations, though bolstered by the technical work of many other people over the decades, Les Paul gave rock music permission to exist.
There’s a void left behind by Les Paul’s death, but we all have so much more for his having been here at all.
Thank you, Les. You will be missed.