Guitar Legend And Innovator Les Paul Dies The guitarist and inventor who helped bring about the rise of rock 'n' roll and multitrack recording died of complications from pneumonia Thursday at a hospital in White Plains, N.Y. He was 94.

Guitar Legend And Innovator Les Paul Dies

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


And finally this hour, a tribute to guitar master Les Paul. He was best known for the electric guitar that bears his name. He was also a star in his own right as a musician and a pioneer in multitrack recording. Les Paul died today of complications from pneumonia one week after his 94th birthday.

NPR's Tom Cole has this appreciation.

TOM COLE: Les Paul was first and foremost a musician. His understanding of music, and especially the guitar, enabled him to dream about electrifying his instrument and recording it in layers. But he could play.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. JEFF BECK (Musician): It's like a butterfly. It's just lightning speed, but accurate and musical.

COLE: That's Jeff Beck, who's done some pretty fierce picking on his Les Paul, from a promotional CD released to celebrate his hero's 90th birthday.

Mr. BECK: I used to sit there and drool over how he did things, you know, just hitting the notes and letting three fingers peel off each of the strings. He could do amazing things there. He had it all.

(Soundbite of music)

COLE: Les Paul started on the harmonica as a kid in his hometown Waukesha, Wisconsin. He was born Lester William Paulfuss, and he was a born entertainer. At the age of eight, he was making money, as he told me in 1996.

Mr. LES PAUL (Musician): I would go out there and stand on a table, play at the Kiwanis Club and make $5 singing cowboy songs, playing the harmonica. But my love, my love was with Earl Hines and Coleman Hawkins.

COLE: Jazz players that he'd heard on the radio. Paul moved to Chicago and landed his own radio shows, playing country in the morning for one station and jazz at night for another.

Mr. PAUL: When I heard Fats Waller, when I heard all these other great players, I knew that jazz is where I'd like to go. And do you know, I dropped from $1,000 a week as a country singer down to $5 a week as a jazz player.

COLE: And that was Les Paul's conundrum - and the arc of his career: popular entertainer or musical innovator? Performer or tinkerer? His father was an auto mechanic and some of that must've rubbed off. Paul traced it back even further.

Mr. PAUL: Back to when I was in my crib and the train went by, and I says, when that train reaches that speed, my bay window is moving, mom.

COLE: Les Paul delighted in telling stories of his discoveries. He took the diaphragm out of a telephone handset and wired it to his radio to make his voice come out of the speaker. He made his own disc cutter out of a Cadillac flywheel. In 1941, Paul constructed his famous log, as it was called - a four-by-four piece of lumber with strings and a pickup.

While others were also experimenting, it was his first solid body electric guitar. It didn't go over so well. So he continued working on it at the same time he was experimenting with something called Sound on Sound.

(Soundbite of music)

COLE: Paul would record a guitar part onto a disc - then play that part back while playing a second part along with it - and record them both onto a second disc. He'd repeat the process over and over. The Les Paul sound was born.

(Soundbite of music)

COLE: Les Paul got his first tape recorder from Bing Crosby and went to the Ampex Corporation, which had been working with the Navy on developing multiple track data recording. Paul's musician's ears told him he could use it for something else.

(Soundbite of song, "The World is Waiting for the Sunshine")

Ms. MARY FORD (Musician): (Singing) Dear one, the world is waiting for the sunrise.

COLE: In 1949, Les Paul married singer Colleen Summers. He changed her name to Mary Ford. And in the home studio Les built, they created million-selling records. The radio show they did from home ran for seven years, but there was a downside to success. Mary wanted more of a home life. Les was obsessed with music. They divorced. Then paradoxically, Les retired from the business for 10 years. He made his comeback in 1974 with an old friend, Chet Atkins.

Mr. PAUL: You see that red light, Chet? Don't get it confused. That means we're on the air.

COLE: The record they made together won Les Paul his first Grammy.

(Soundbite of music)

COLE: A decade later, at the age of 69, Les Paul began performing regularly at a New York jazz club.

Mr. PAUL: All my life I was torn between being commercial and playing jazz.

COLE: It was a gig he kept almost until the end, playing well into his 90s, when arthritis slowed the lightning fingers. But for him the most important thing was connecting with an audience.

Mr. PAUL: I never go to my dressing room. I go right off that stage and I go over and talk to them at the bar, at the tables. I think the most important thing to do is to get out there and do what you were put on this earth to do. And I know mine was to love the guitar and play it and it be with other people.

COLE: And that's how Les Paul should be remembered.

Tom Cole, NPR News.

BRAND: Les Paul died today. He was 94 years old. You could hear more Les Paul recordings and interviews with him at the new

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. PAUL: Chet, that's the first time I knew you weren't the greatest.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. PAUL: Let's go back and play again, Chet.

Mr. CHET ATKINS (Musician): All right.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. PAUL: Look at this one.

(Soundbite of music)

Copyright © 2009 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.