The news reports will be full of accounts of his invention of "the Log"–a 4×4 length of wood strung up with steel strings that eventually morphed into the instrument that bore his name. Some may remember the TV commercial…

The news reports will be full of accounts of his invention of "the Log"–a 4×4 length of wood strung up with steel strings that eventually morphed into the instrument that bore his name. Some may remember the TV commercial…

(I can’t even remember what it was for) with the young punk kid looking contemptuously at the old guy giving him a tip on playing a certain lick. When he realizes he has been played under the table and asks for the old guy’s name. He replies "It’s on your guitar." The kid looks puzzled, looks at the guitar and the light of recognition goes of but by the time he turn around, Les is walking out the door.

Associate Press Story on Less Paul: 1915-2009

I was fortunate enough to see Les Paul play twice–once in Nashville with FOH publisher Terry Lowe (who saw him play FOUR times-the dog) and one with a group of music types at the club Iridium in NY where Les played for many years. even at 90 years old at that Nashville gig he had most of the chops he had as a young man. At the Iridim gig a few years earlier he had pretty much all of them along with a wicked sense of humor. Two members of his trio were survivors of testicular cancer and he actually joked about the number of testicles on stage. "And it ain’t six…" And he swore like a dock worker. Funny funny guy.

But the thing that will always stick with me was from that same Nashville trip. At bigger trade shows (this was a trip to Summer NAMM), Sony always does a pre-show dinner for us magazine types. The idea is to get together, break bread and talk about anything that is not business. They have done some cool things, including a harbor cruise in NY one year. But I don’t always make the dinner. In fact I miss it more often than I make it just because I tend to arrive in town late the night before the show after the dinner is over.

This time, Howard Sherman who set most of these events up gave me some inside info and told me i really did not want to miss it because Les Paul was going to be the special guest. I almost missed it still but got there just in time and hustled over to the hotel restaurant where the event was being held.

I thought we were going to hear Les play so was a bit taken aback when i walked in and there was no bandstand set-up or even a guitar amp. We sat at one long table and ate and talked and finally as dessert was being served Mr. Paul walked into the room. No idea how i got so lucky, but the seat directly across from me was unoccupied.  (OK, it wasn’t luck. It was probably the fact that some of the other editors were not exactly fond of me at that point after reading a few of my rants about how the trade mag industry had become the publishing equivalent of a whorehouse.) Anyway, he sat directly across from me.

There was no agenda. He was basically there for a meet and greet. But that meet and greet lasted for a few hours as he sat and told stories about the business and how technologies and gear we have all come to take for granted originally came to be. He told us how the original tape recorder was found in a bombed out building in Germany by an American officer who brought it home and brought it to the attention of of AMPEX who reverse engineered it.

But the thing I will never forget is how he told us about looking at the recorder and thinking "I wonder what would happen if a put another record head on it." Knowing that AMPEX would never let him do something like that to such an expensive and fragile piece of equipment he came up with a "workaround."

"I called and told them I had burned out a head and needed a new one," he told us. The new head arrived, Les put it on the machine and did some tinkering and–viola!–multi-track recording was born. The technology that allowed records like Pet Sounds and Sgt. Pepper to exist and that eventually led to the digital recording we all use today to to make a record of every show we mix. We expect the ability to put 96 tracks of audio on a laptop computer but all of that comes from Les putting a second head on a tape machine. In other words doing something that no one had ever envisioned and using a piece of gear in a way that would have horrified the engineers who made it.

And to me, as great as an artist as he was, that is the real legacy of Les Paul. No, not multi-track recording although that is huge. It is that spirit of discovery and curiosity that makes someone say, "I wonder what would happen if…"

As i write this I guarantee there is some young guy out on some tour or doing some theatre show looking at a piece of technology, trying to solve a problem and asking that very same question. Or it’s a kid in a garage somewhere. Or maybe it’s you.

The willingness to take chances that no one else would have even considered. The willingness to fail spectacularly and piss off the powers that be in the process. That is the spirit that moves us forward. That is the attitude that drives great results. And that is the real legacy of Les Paul.

"I wonder what would happen if…"


“I am deeply touched by the passing of Les Paul who I first met in 1959.  As a guitarist, composer, electronic innovator and inventor, he was beyond genius and there was none other like him. He was a true musical gift from God to the world and spent his life honoring that gift. I proudly play my Les Paul guitars every night on stage and never forget the moments we shared. – Randy Bachman


 

Originally posted 2009-08-13 22:03:07.