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Les Paul - Musician, Inventor, and Sound Pioneer
Transcript of Les Paul - Musician, Inventor, and Sound Pioneer
Les Paul wasn't always Les Paul...
Lester William Polsfuss was
born on June 9, 1915 in
Les's father, George,
gave him the
because of his
Les loved music even as a small child.
He loved banging on pots and pans, cranking up the family's phonograph and listening to the radio.
Les also loved
with his mother's player piano.
Les was always
Les used every chance
he had to play but also
to take the harmonica
apart to see how it worked. Les carefully laid out the pieces so that he could remember how to put it back together.
Some workers were
digging up a road
near his house.
While they ate
lunch, one man
pulled out a
began to play...
Les was amazed!
In fact, Les was so excited
that the man gave
the harmonica to him. His mother
insisted on boiling the harmonica before
Les played it.
Boiling the harmonica gave it a unique sound that musicians who play the Blues still use today!
Around that same time,
Les began experimenting with
electronics, especially radios.
A friend of his showed him a crystal
radio he was making.
A crystal radio is a simple radio
that uses an antenna for power
- not a battery or a plug.
A radio station from Milwaukee
had its transmitter (a transmitter sends out radio waves) just outside of Waukesha. The person that ran the transmitter was happy to show Les how radio broadcasting worked.
In Junior High he started a band (maybe Wisconsin's first garage band!) and they played all around Waukesha. Les was known as "
Red Hot Red
" because of his bright red hair.
While performing at a local drive-in restaurant,
Les realized he would earn more tips if he could be heard by people who were farther away from him. He attached the microphone from his mother's telephone to a broom stick and attached it to a speaker from the family radio.
Next, Les worked on
making his guitar louder.
He attached the needle
and tone arm from his
to the bridge of his guitar.
is a thin piece of wood or
plastic that holds the strings above the
body of the guitar.
Even though the
quality wasn't very good,
Les Paul had made his
Les the Inventor.....
Les decided to create a machine to
record the music he was playing.
A flywheel from a car, a belt from a
dentist's drill and a nail were the
The nail cut grooves in an aluminum
disk in the same way a song was put
on a vinyl record.
Now Les could hear how he sounded.
Les invented things to help him be a better musician.
When Les was a teenager, radio stations played live music on the air. Because of his inventions, Les was soon able to play on the radio and in big theaters for larger and larger audiences.
One day, a band named
Rube Tronson and His Texas
As always, his mother was very supportive. She decided that the best decision for Les was to follow his dreams.
Les and his mother got on a bus to Saint Louis.
Once Les and his mother arrived, she got on the next bus going back to Waukesha.
One day in 1932, Les got a phone
call from his guitar friend Sunny Joe
Wolverton. He wanted Les to join him playing music on a Saint Louis radio station.
In Saint Louis, Les was a member of a hillbilly country music band called the Scalawags. Hillbilly music was the same type of music Les played as
Red Hot Red.
radio station did not like his nickname so Sunny Joe suggested the name
Les was having a great time playing shows all around Saint Louis. He was making $45 a week - that would be a little over $707 a week today! That money helped Les to buy his first professional quality guitar. It was a model L-50 that was made by Gibson, one of the most famous guitar makers in the United States.
, one of the
Here's Les with
playing the jug
Here's a close up
photo of the
grooves in a
Les made his own crystal radio. At night,
he stayed up very late and listened to
radio stations hundreds of miles away but
Les wanted to learn more!
Unfortunately, the Great Depression affected Les and the Scalawags. The radio station they worked for was having trouble paying their bills, so the Scalawags lost their job.
Before Les was able to take a bus back home to Waukesha, Sunny Joe got them a job in Springfield, Missouri as the Ozark Apple Knockers.
People loved listening to them play music and tell jokes on the radio.
Les Paul and
Soon Les and Sunny Joe were
hired to be radio musicians for one
of the largest, most popular stations
in Chicago (WBBM) and they were a hit!
In fact, they were so successful that they were making hundreds of dollars a week! This was even more amazing because so many people across America weren't making any money because of the Great Depression.
$200 in 1933 would equal over $3,500 today!
In Chicago Les was surrounded by some of the best jazz music in the world. Unfortunately, Joe wanted to go to Australia to play country music.
So, the two friends split up but they stayed friends for the rest of their lives.
Les decided to play jazz on the piano instead of the guitar and to be known as Les Paul.
After a while Les decided he would do better playing the guitar. Unfortunately, it was much harder for him to make a living playing jazz rather than country music. Les decided to play music as
during the day and jazz music as
He still was frustrated that his guitar couldn't be heard over other instruments. Les began working on one of his greatest inventions:
The Solid-Body Electric Guitar.
A guitar makes sound when the guitar strings vibrate. With an acoustic guitar, those vibrations get louder after they bounce around the guitar's hollow inside.
Check out this video of vibrating guitar strings that was taken from the inside of an acoustic guitar.
The guitar Les was working on didn't have a hollow inside, instead it used something called a "pickup."
The pickup sits underneath the strings and is made of a magnet that is wrapped with wire. The pickup turns the vibrations of the string into electricity. That electricity moves from the guitar through a cable that is then connected to an amplifier.
A speaker inside the amplifier makes the vibrations bigger and, as a result much louder.
Les was more interested
than ever in jazz music!
His group, the Les Paul
Trio, decided to move to
New York City.
While in New York, Les saw a famous bandleader named Fred Waring waiting for an elevator.
To get Fred's attention, Les and the
trio started to play one of its songs in the middle of the hallway.
Fred was so impressed that he invited them to go on the
elevator with him. An elevator
ride later, the Les Paul Trio had
a job playing with Fred's band,
the Pennsylvanians, on his radio
Les loved playing in New York
with Fred Waring's band and in
jazz clubs around the city but after three years Les wanted to move to California.
Unfortunately, about the same time
that he was planning to make the move,
Les got an electrical shock while he
was adjusting some equipment. It was
so bad that he almost died!
His hands were burned so badly and
he was is so much pain that he couldn't
play the guitar. California would have
Luckily, Les got a job in Chicago at two radio stations planning music and hiring musicians while his hands were healing.
Eventually, Les's hands healed enough
so he could play guitar again, so he
packed up his car and drove to Los
As soon as he arrived he put together a new trio and landed a job as musicians at the NBC radio stations.
Les Paul and His Trio were popular with the singers that performed on the radio and soon they had fans all over California. Les was even in a few movies.
All of this was great, but what Les really wanted to do was play with Bing Crosby, a singer (and movie star) who had the most popular show on the radio.
But he was going to have to wait because in 1943, Les was drafted into the army! Luckily, Les became a member of the Armed Forces Radio Service (recording music for people serving in the military). Even better, Les didn't even have to move out of his home.
A year later, Les was released from the army but continued to help the Armed Forces Radio.
Even though he went back to his job at NBC, he hadn't forgotten about his goal of playing with Bing Crosby.
Before his shows, Bing would always go into a studio at NBC to think about what was going to be happening and what he would say. At just the right time, Les and his band mates began to practice in that same studio. Bing heard them play and hired them on the spot!
Everything was going great for Les in Los Angeles. He loved his work and he had set up his own recording studio that was very successful. Soon his life would change again.
Les heard from his boss that they needed more performers on the radio. Les remembered that he used to perform country music as
. He also knew that one thing that could make his act even better was a great female singer!
A friend of his suggested that Les talk to a woman named Colleen Summers. Not only was her voice perfect but she was also a fan of Les and his music. The only problem was her name. It just did not sound country enough. Les decided to call her Mary Lou. Mary and Les became great friends.
While Les and Mary worked on their radio show, Les was also inventing. He was always thinking about how to improve music for himself and for other musicians.
He wanted a guitar sound that no one else had. Through trial and error Les discovered a guitar effect called delay. When delay is used, the note echoes even after you play it. Now, almost every guitar player uses delay.
Les also developed a way of recording music called "Multi-Track Recording."
This allowed Les to play the different parts of a song all by himself. It is done by having two or more recording machines. Les would record the first part on one machine. Then, he would record the next part on another machine. This could be done over and over until all the layers to a song were recorded. Today, multitrack recording is used by almost every musician.
Les' first song using what he called the new sound was "Lover." He took the song to a new recording company called Capitol Records. They were so impressed with the song and the sound that Les signed a recording contract that same day.
Many other musicians have worked with Capitol Records including The Beatles, Katy Perry, The Beach Boys, and Jennifer Lopez.
One day, Les and Mary were driving to California from Waukesha after visiting his mother. It was an extremely long drive - over 2,000 miles. Les was sick and to make matters worse, there was a snow storm. The roads were so slippery that the car slid off of a bridge and down a steep hill.
Luckily, Mary wasn't hurt too badly but Les was a different story. He had many broken bones. His right elbow was completely crushed and he had internal injuries. Doctors didn't know if Les would make it. Plus, if he did survive, he might lose his arm. How would he play guitar?
The doctors were able to save his arm by taking a piece of bone from his leg and putting it in his elbow. Les would not be able to bend his elbow so he asked the doctors to put his arm so he could play his guitar. He even designed a special stand that could hold his guitar for him while he was in a cast.. Even with his cast, Les was able to record more hit songs for Capitol. The New Sound was a success.
In 1949, Les received the gift of a lifetime from his friend Bing Crosby - a tape recorder called an Ampex 300.
Tape recorders were invented by the Germans during World War II. Bing was working with Ampex to develop tape recorders in the United States. Before that, recordings were done on wire but it was not dependable.
Les added a second recording head to the recorder from Bing and that was the start of multi-track recording machines!
On December 29, 1949, Les and Mary got married in Milwaukee, WI. but they were still very busy.
With all of their hit songs and live performances, Les and Mary experienced great success. One of the greatest successes was a song called "How High The Moon." Although it had already been recorded by other musicians, Les and Mary's version was different because of the multi-track recording.
It stayed on the Billboard chart for 25 weeks with nine of those weeks being #1!
Even with all their success, Les never stopped inventing. Les wanted to bring the layered sound to live performances. So he made the "Les Paulverizer" that allowed Les to turn on pre-recorded guitar and singing parts from his guitar.
With help from Gibson, Les developed a new electric guitar that (for the most part) filled his very high expectations. The Gibson Les Paul solid body electric guitar is still produced today and is perhaps one of the most prized guitars int he world.
The Les Paulverizer on top of an amplifier.
The Gibson Les Paul Solid Body Electric Guitar
In 1952, Les and Mary were offered their own TV show - "The Les Paul and Mary Ford Show."
They moved to Mahwah, New Jersey just outside of New York City where their home had rooms large enough for TV cameras. They not only had thousands of fans, but they also played for U.S. presidents and Queen Elizabeth in England!
Another of their hit song called "Vaya Con Dios." was on Billboard's Best Seller Chart for 31 weeks with nine of those weeks at #1!
Les kept trying to improve on his machines and techniques, especially multi-track recording. Before Les invented the 8-track tape recorder, musicians were never able to change once they had been recorded. It changed the way musicians made music and is still being used today.
In 1957, Les got his 8-track tape recorder to work the way he wanted. Musicians could finally record music and then go back and change it without changing the other parts.
This process is still used by musicians today!
In 1958 jazz music was losing its popularity. At the same time, the instrument Les had helped to develop also dropped in popularity. People were listening to folk music, which used acoustic guitars and Gibson was thinking about no longer making any electric instruments.
Then, a new age of rock music came with new musicians who viewed Les as a guitar legend. The Gibson Les Paul guitar became the favorite guitar of rock stars around the world.
In the early 1970s, Les was using hearing aids and his arthritis made it hurt for him to move his fingers. It was almost impossible for him to play the guitar.
During this time, a friend asked Les to play at a nightclub. Although he wasn't sure he was ready, he decided to try anyway.
Word got around that he was going to play. Many people showed up to see and hear Les. The show was so successful that he started playing more live shows again.
Around the same time, Les got a phone call from legendary guitarist Chet Atkins. Chet was the younger brother of Les' friend and bandmate Jimmy Atkins. Chet wanted to record an album with Les.
In 1976, the album "Chester and Lester" was released and became a huge success. It was so successful that it won a Grammy Award.
Les had a whole new group of fans and he was happy to be performing again.
In 1984, Les got a regular show at a club in New York City called Fat Tuesday's. Les' musician friends would come to play and hopeful rock musicians would come to watch and meet their hero.
In 1988, Les was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Then in 1996, Fat Tuesday's closed but the Iridium Jazz Club gave him a regular show. He played there for more than 12 years until he was over 94 years old.
Les playing at the Iridium at age 93
Many museums from all over the world asked Les for some of his guitars and inventions.
A permanent exhibit called "Les Paul's House of Sound" opened in 2008 at
Milwaukee's Discovery World. In 2013 the Waukesha County Museum opened a permanent exhibit titled "The Les Paul Experience."
Other Les Paul exhibits are at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland and at the Mahwah Museum in New Jersey.
Up until the end of his life, Les did what he loved most - sharing his music and changing how people heard and made music forever.
In 2009 at the age of 94, Les died from pneumonia. People from all over the world celebrated the life of one of the most important individuals in the history of music.
Les is buried in Waukesha next to his mother.
Today, Les' legacy remains in his recordings and inventions. When you listen to any song today you will hear the effect Les Paul had on the world.
Because of Les Paul, the music of today and how we listen and perform is changed forever!
Les Paul is perhaps best known for having his name on one of the world's most popular guitars. But he was much more than that! He was a....
Les Paul played music and invented ways to make sounds he imagined. He is the only person to be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the National Inventors Hall of Fame.
He wanted to know
how things worked.
He loved trying to
figure out how
electricity and machines
worked and that led him
to invent many things.
Most of the time, Lester's mother responded to his dismantling of family objects by simply saying, "Leave Lester alone. He needs to figure out how things work."
When Les was about 11, he ordered his first guitar from
the Sears & Roebuck catalog.
Soon, he taught himself how to play some chords. A chord is when two or more musical notes are played at the same time. Then, Les made his first invention! Using a metal coat hanger, Les made a special holder for his harmonica.
This invention was unique because it allowed him to flip the harmonica over using his chin while his hands played the guitar!
A tone arm holds the
needle that reads the record
as it spins on the turntable.
As a teen, Les built his first solid body electric guitar with a two-foot piece of rail from a railroad. Les loved the sound he was able to get on the rail but as his mother pointed out, it would be hard for a cowboy to sit on a horse with a guitar made from a piece of railroad! Les remembered this guitar and expanded on the idea when he was older.
With the tape recorder, Les could record a new part for a song at the same time he was listening to a part he already recorded. It made the multi-track recording process he had discovered before work even better! Les and Mary recorded new music in many unusual places. Sometimes even in a hotel room or hallway!