Interview - Fresh Air - Les Paul, Guitar Hero The man who gave us the electric guitar was more than just an insatiably curious tinkerer: He was a virtuoso guitarist and at one time a bona fide pop star, and he helped shape the sound of rock 'n' roll. Fresh Air remembers him with an archived interview from 1992.

Guitar Hero: Les Paul, 1915-2009

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This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, senior writer for the Philadelphia Daily News, sitting in for Terry Gross. Yesterday, the music world lost a true innovator.

(Soundbite of music)

(Soundbite of "The Les Paul Show")

Unidentified Announcer: It's "The Les Paul Show")

Mr.�LES PAUL (Musician): Hi. Hello, folks. Let's see. I've got my guitar. I've got my wife, Mary.

Ms.�MARY FORD (Singer): Hi.

Mr.�PAUL: And I've got a room just loaded with electronics. We've got some inventions here that make one voice sound like many voices and one guitar like many guitars. And by means of these six L6s and plugging them into this amplifier, why, we managed to...

Ms.�FORD: Well, why don't you grab a guitar and show the people what you can do.

Mr.�PAUL: All right. I've got a lot of ideas. Here we go.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr.�PAUL: Now that's one guitar. Now, if you want two, I just throw a switch.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms.�FORD: How about three?

Mr.�PAUL: Easy.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr.�PAUL: Now if you want four, switch.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms.�FORD: How about five?

Mr.�PAUL: It's a cinch.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr.�PAUL: Now, if you want six, here's a half a dozen - easy one.

DAVIES: Guitarist and inventor Les Paul died yesterday in White Plains, New York. He was 94. Les Paul has been called the Thomas Edison of music. He spent his life playing guitar, inventing guitars to play and inventing devices to record himself on.

He invented the solid-body electric guitar, over-dubbing, reverb and multi-tracking, innovations that helped make rock n' roll and modern recording possible. But Paul himself stuck mostly to jazz and middle-of-the-road pop. In the 1950s, he had several hits with his wife, Mary Ford, such as "How High the Moon," "Via Con Dios" and "Bye Bye Blues."

Les Paul began experimenting with guitar amplification in the 30s. He shattered his right elbow in a car accident in 1948. Once said it would be immovable, so he had it permanently set at an angle that would allow him to keep playing guitar. He was still performing as recently as this June.

Terry Gross spoke with Les Paul in 1992, when he was 76 years old. They started with his 1948 recording of "Lover," recorded in his garage, which he said was the first recording to combine all his inventions and recording techniques into one bag of tricks.

(Soundbite of song, "Lover")


Les Paul, welcome to FRESH AIR. So is that you playing all the parts?

Mr.�PAUL: Yes.

GROSS: Was this the first record that you over-dubbed on?

Mr.�PAUL: Oh, no. I started it in 1933. I started it in the 20s by punching holes in my mother's piano rolls, but I did it because the rhythm guitar player and bass player would go home, and I'd say darn it, I wanted to have them play "Lime House Blues," and I wanted to try something. And I'd say well, as long as they're not here, what I'll do is I'll play the bass, and I'll play the guitar, and you know, do that. But I never recognized that that could be such a tremendous tool.

GROSS: What was different on this recording of "Lover" from anything that you'd ever done before?

Mr.�PAUL: Well, the sped-up sound, the echo. The playing the bass line, making a guitar sound like a bass. This is the first time in history that anybody had ever done anything like that. And then to speed the guitar up and slow the guitar down, and you get all these different sounds by muffling your strings with your wrist, and these were all new things to be exposed to the world. And of course, I had my problems, because so many people weren't ready to accept it.

GROSS: So on "Lover," the high, fast, trebly sounds that we hear, that's a sped-up guitar?

Mr.�PAUL: Uh-huh, along with the normal guitar. The whole idea there is to be able to get octaves and to go an octave below and an octave above and to do all the harmony parts and everything, you know? And that was not the very first record I ever made that way, but like I say, that was the first one to come out. And that came out about a week after I had an automobile accident, where for two years, I was to be in the hospital, just in a basket.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr.�PAUL: Everything, everything I had was broken, and I was in bad shape for about two years. So I had a lot of time to think, and I unfortunately didn't have that many records in the can, so to speak. What I had are records that were completely done except for the last part, which was the melody. And the reason I left that melody off is I figured that every week that went by, I got better. And if I got better, why, I had newer ideas. And so I'd leave that last part off. And after the automobile accident, I had to do the next recordings in a cast, a body cast. And so with one arm fixed right up even with my face in air, the only thing I could move with my right hand was my thumb.

So I put a thumb pick on that, laid the guitar, and I had a rack built to hold the guitar horizontal, and it laid there flat. And I just stood up and played my part, and that's how I made the parts for the next four or five records.

GROSS: This might be the dictionary definition of obsessive.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr.�PAUL: Boy, I'm telling you, you learn in a hurry to live with the obstacles, and they can be overcome.

GROSS: Now, let me get to one of the hits that you had. Let's talk about "How High the Moon," which you recorded with Mary Ford, one of your big hits.

Mr.�PAUL: Thank you.

GROSS: Let's hear some of it.

(Soundbite of song, "How High the Moon."

Mr.�PAUL and Ms.�PAUL: (Singing) Somewhere there's music, how faint the tune. Where there's heaven, How high the moon. There is no moon above when love is far away, too, till it comes true that you love me as I love you.

Somewhere there's music, how near, how far. Somewhere there's heaven. It's where you are. The darkest night would shine if you would come to me soon. Until you will, how still my heart, how high the moon.

GROSS: How would you record Mary's voice to get that echo?

Mr.�PAUL: Well, that was something that - I spent two years trying to find out, find... I didn't want reverb like an empty room. I didn't want Carnegie Hall. I didn't want that sound. I said to my friend, very dear friend, he and his girlfriend - Mary was my girlfriend - and myself, and a fellow named Wally Jones. We were all sitting in a little tavern at Santa Monica and Western out in Hollywood. And Lloyd was arm-wrestling with me, and we had a pitcher of beer and some popcorn, and we're watching the fights on Friday night. And he pulled my arm down real easy, and he says Les, you're not concentrating. You're usually pretty rough to bring that arm down on.

And I said well, I'm thinking of that echo, and I said, I haven't figured it out. And he says, well, you're still worried about that thing? And I says, yeah, I need it. I need it, and I don't know how to get it. And he says, well, explain it to me again.

And so this night, Lloyd, I explain it to Lloyd again. I says picture that you're on the Alps. I say hello, hello, hello, hello, and I said I want it to repeat, and I want it to repeat, and I want the delay and the decay, I want to be able to vary it.

And lo and behold, he says to me, you mean like putting the playback head behind the record head? Oh boy, I threw $10 on the table, I said to Wally: Pay the bill and bring the girls, you know? And we left him with a $10 bill and the girls and the beer and the popcorn and the TV. We're gone, and by the time they got home, you could hear all over the neighborhood - hello, hello, hello, hello, you know?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr.�PAUL: And we'd found the echo, the disc(ph) delay.

GROSS: You know what I want to know? Why did you want to have echo with her voice?

Mr.�PAUL: Oh, that's interesting because the - I felt as though the - when you play the note dry, just dead, it just drops like a rock, and it ends right there, and a lot of times you'd like to have that note hang on after you've left it and go to the next note, and it's very similar to ambience in the room, the sound of a room, where it's enhanced by bare walls.

If I happen to be talking to you, and I happen to be in a very empty room, you could recognize that riding in your car, listening at home. You say, well, I can tell that these people are talking in a very empty room, or you can say they're talking in a phone booth, it's so small, or it's a very large hall.

So you have command over what you wish to do, and in this case I didn't want that note to say, hey, and just go on like Carnegie Hall. I wanted to go, hey, hey.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr.�PAUL: See? And now if you want, you put a little tail on it. You go hey, hey, hey, hey, hey, hey. You know?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr.�PAUL: And you know, it gives you such command of so many things, toys to work with it. Today they're not - I call them toys because the kids, they have all these little boxes that you can go in and buy in the store. When I was a kid and I visualized this thing, the reason I had to invent it is because you couldn't buy it in a store. If I wanted it, I had to make one.

DAVIES: Les Paul, speaking with Terry Gross in 1992. We'll hear more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

DAVIES: We're listening to Terry's 1992 interview with guitarist and inventor Les Paul. He died yesterday at the age of 94.

GROSS: I saw you about a year ago at Fat Tuesday's, a club in New York, where you play every Monday, and you sounded terrific.

Mr.�PAUL: Thank you.

GROSS: I understand that you have arthritis of the fingers. How do you play?

Mr.�PAUL: Well, that - after my heart surgery in 1980, they just said, well, you're going to have to do something else because you can't play, your hands are gone. And I only had a couple of fingers on each hand then. Now I have no fingers in the right hand that move. They're fixed and so there's no movement except at the knuckles, and in the left hand I only have two fingers, really one and a half because the first finger is half-frozen and painful.

What do I do? I just figured out that if I could do that, whatever I did then, I just figured out how to do that with two fingers, and so what I have done is I says, well, what I used to do with two hands and all my fingers, I'm sure it can be done, and lo and behold, it can be.

GROSS: So you've really taken the same approach to your body as you've taken to designing instruments and engineering equipment.

Mr.�PAUL: Oh, are you - you're great, you're great. Terry, you're great.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr.�PAUL: The key to that is, is that the same will, the same power that you have to destroy yourself, you can use to make yourself well. If you have arthritis, you just have to have an iron jaw, and you've got to go in there and not use any cop out that, well, I can't play anymore because of the arthritis. You just say there's a way. And I think that determination, I think that - and of course you have to have a lot of luck, and you have to have the right genes and all that jazz to go with it. But I think the bottom line is, is that if you want to hard enough, you can do it.

GROSS: What's your threshold for pain? How good are you with pain?

Mr.�PAUL: Oh, boy, I can tolerate pain. It's unbelievable what you can tolerate if you have that - again, if you have that attitude about it. First of all, you've got to think up and not down, and first of all, you don't think of work as a dirty word. You think of that as something that is a privilege.

When I was in the hospital and the doctor called me in the office and he says promise me you'll work hard, and I says, doc, I thought that's what put me in here, and he says, no, Les, he says, nobody died over overwork. Promise me that you'll work hard.

So I went upstairs and they wheeled me upstairs, and I asked the nurse for a piece of paper, and I drew a line down the center of it, and I put plus on one side and minus on the other, this one, that one, all the great things that we've done in my lifetime, and when it came to the end, I looked at the list, and it was overwhelming that the best time I had in my life was playing in a little nightclub.

Now, I'd given up the guitar in 1965 and says let the young kids have it. I've made my money, I'm going to get out and invent and go manage and record and go another direction, but forget the guitar.

This piece of paper in 1980 said to me I should go back and play the guitar. Where I was happiest was in a little club, an intimate nightclub. So when I got well, I marched into New York and I looked at all the clubs, and finally I find this club, and I said this is my club.

So I go to the manager, and he's 6'4", he's a big, tall guy, Scott, and I said, sir, I'd like to talk to you. My name is Les Paul. He says Les who? I says...

GROSS: No, no.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr.�PAUL: Yeah, yeah. Les Paul, and he says name sounds familiar. I says, yeah, I play the guitar and I'd like to come in and play in your club, and he says, well, what do you do? What kind of music do you play? And I says, you know, darn if I know.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr.�PAUL: I've never been able to put a handle on that one, and he says, well, what have you got? And I says, well, I've got a trio, and I'd like to come in here, and he says well, I don't think we're interested. And I says, not only that, I'd like to be in on a Monday night. He says we're not even open on Mondays. And he says no, and I says, but I'm willing to work for nothing. He says we're interested.

GROSS: Right.

Mr.�PAUL: So the bottom line was is that I made a deal with the boss, and he said I'll put you in for two weeks, and I'll take the door and part of the liquor and whatever. Went in there for two weeks and the audience reaction was tremendous, and it was loaded, and you couldn't get in, and it was just great.

GROSS: Are you still inventing? Are you still in the process of creating anything?

Mr.�PAUL: Oh yeah. Yeah.

GROSS: What are you working on?

Mr.�PAUL: We're working on a bass, a Les Paul bass. It'll be at the NAMM show next week. We're working on all kinds of things. I invented a thing for piano. I've got another thing for high blood pressure. I've got all kinds of things...

GROSS: Something for high blood pressure?

Mr.�PAUL: Uh-huh.

GROSS: Are you getting into the medical field now?

Mr.�PAUL: Well, it's just that...

GROSS: You need it.

Mr.�PAUL: Not that I need it. I saw that there was room for it in the medical world. There's a lot of things that you recognize - if you're lying in bed and you see a guy do something that's the hard way, and you say, you know, how come you're doing it that way? Well, the same thing applies to - it goes all the way back to - Terry, if I can really take you way back, it's the first time that my mother, in her home, had a radio, a Victrola, okay?

That's the gramophone, that's the phonograph, okay? And a player piano, and I'm sitting there with all these things, and I looked at it, and I says, you know, there's something interesting here. This piano, I can punch a hole in it wherever I wish and that note will come out, and I can slow it down or speed up and it doesn't change pitch, okay? It just gets slower or faster.

If I put my hand on a phonograph record, and I slow it down, the pitch changes. Why? And that's the key to the whole thing, that curiosity of that - you just asked that question, why, and you've got your life cut out for you.

GROSS: Well, Les Paul, I want to thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr.�PAUL: Oh, it's my pleasure.

DAVIES: Les Paul, speaking with Terry Gross in 1992. He died yesterday at the age of 94. You can see a slide show, listen to his music and hear more remembrances at I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.

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