Les Paul – The Man Who Made Rock ‘N’ Roll Look Cool

There’s some dispute over who developed the first solid-body electric guitar. Les Paul – who died today at the age of 94 – and Leo Fender both designed models at around the same time, in the late 1930s.

Whoever did it first, the two together represented a monumental innovation. Pre-1930s, guitarists had to rely on hollow acoustic instruments: fine for intimate club gigs, but woefully inadequate for the recorded music revolution – and the age of rock ‘n’ roll – to come. Just listen to Robert Johnson recordings and you’ll see the problem that Paul and Fender solved.

Of course, Les Paul’s revolutionary ‘The Log’ ultimately evolved into the mass-market Gibson Les Paul, a design classic, and one of rock’s foundational, iconic images.

Slash with a Gibson Les Paul

Years ago, when I worked at ‘Total Guitar’ magazine, it became clear that there were two kinds of people in the world: those who lusted after Fender Stratocasters, and those who preferred Gibson Les Pauls. There was never any doubt in my mind which instrument had the edge.

A Strat is a weedy beast, adored by fleet-fingered posers such as Eric Clapton. The Les Paul, by contrast, is a rock instrument. It’s heavier, produces a thicker tone, and encourages musicians to sling it low on the body. All the coolest guitarists – Jimmy Page, Slash, James Dean Bradfield – have traditionally favoured Les Pauls. It is impossible to look un-cool when you’re playing a Les Paul, and that, ultimately, is the man’s legacy.

He achieved other things in his 94 years, though. Paul was also a studio effects pioneer – he was a major investor in Ampex, the company whose equipment made multi-track recording possible, and subsequently studio effects such as tape delay. It’s unlikely George Martin would have been able to make such sonic quantum leaps at Abbey Road in the ’60s, had Les Paul not been so pioneering in the ’50s.

Plus, of course, before he built guitars, he played them, astonishingly well. A jazz guitarist of startling fluidity, Paul played with Bing Crosby and Nat King Cole, as well as fronting his own trio, on NBC’s ‘Les Paul Show’ in the 50s. At a tribute concert in 2008, Slash, Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top, and Bon Jovi’s Richie Sambora all queued up to honour his skill.

Here he is in his prime: