Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Celebrating the birth of a legend

Happy birthday, Lester William Polfuss.

Rock 'n' roll thanks you. Some of the best guitarists to come down the pike thank you. Players like Duane Allman, Jimmy Page and Jeff Beck, whose signature licks were perfected on the legendary guitar that bears your name.

The Gibson Polfuss.

Well, not really. Thanks, also, for changing your name to Les Paul, which has a nice ring to it -- just like the solid-body electrics you helped develop.

We are so past the simple age when Paul was recording jazzy folk classics like "Tennessee Waltz'', "Mockingbird Hill'' and "Vaya Con Dios'' with Mary Ford that it's sometimes hard to see him as a ground-breaking inventor and engineer of the electric guitar. But he was one of the true masters of guitar technology and its emerging electric sound.

They called Paul's original solid-body design, which he had been tinkering with since the late Thirties, "The Log'' because it was basically a slab of solid wood with pickups attached to it and a broomstick for a neck. You can view it today in the Smithsonian. Gibson didn't buy into Paul's idea until Fender beat them to the switch with the manufacture of Broadasters in 1948. After which, reportedly, a Gibson executive said "Go get that kid with the broomstick and sign him up.''

Any electric player worth his chops has experimented with techniques that Paul helped develop. He was a pioneer of multi-track recording and of techniques such as delay, phasing and overdubbing. And the guitars that Gibson began building with the name "Les Paul'' stamped on them became legendary. One of Neil Young's most beloved electrics is "Old Black'', a repainted '53 Les Paul Goldtop. Bob Marley took his Les Paul Special with him.

Here's a photo of Paul from a Milwaukee Brewers game last summer, celebrating his 93rd birthday. (He was born in nearby Waukesha.) Today he turns 94, and he's still the Man.


  1. He still plays a gig every Monday night at Iridium in NYC.

  2. And his "Chester and LEster" record with Chet Atkins is pretty sensational.