Les Paul: The rock'n'roll pioneer who didn't play rock

The guitar Les Paul put his name to made rock'n'roll possible. Ironic, as he intended it to be a jazz instrument

There are so many ways Les Paul's epitaph could be written – he could be remembered as the pioneer of multitrack recording, the godfather of the electric guitar, and the figurehead behind rock'n'roll's development, from John Lee Hooker to the Beatles, the Rolling Stones to the Sex Pistols and Guns N' Roses.

But the irony is that Paul only acquiesced to playing rock when he'd reached his 90s. Paul's 1951 hit duet with Mary Ford, How High the Moon, was one of the prototypes for rock'n'roll, but when Elvis exploded, Paul and so many other jazzers were left on the shelf.

When, after several years of urging, he persuaded Gibson to make an expensive guitar bearing his name, Paul was merely thinking about giving jazz and country a warmer, deeper and more sustained sound – and yet it was the brutalisation of the design classic, the distortion meted out by John Lee Hooker and the electric blues pioneers, that led to it being embraced by everyone from Keith Richards to the Sex Pistols' Steve Jones, and Paul McCartney to Slash.

Paul would later recall that he began developing the solid-body electric guitar when, as a teenage hillbilly singer called Rhubarb Red, he was passed a note at a barbecue-stand hop informing him his guitar was too quiet. When Paul turned it up, he quickly realised solidity was the solution to avoid feedback, and that filling the body with tablecloths and dirty socks didn't really do the job, nor did plaster of Paris. Wood was the answer, he concluded, and took a piece of railway sleeper, and a telephone earpiece to use as pick-up, and linked it to his mother's radio. A creation known as "The Log" was born.

The Log might have been the first solid-body Spanish guitar, but the Fender and Rickenbacker came out before the Gibson Les Paul emerged in 1952. Paul had only managed to get his idea produced because he'd become a household name with a national TV show. The Gibson Les Paul was reassuringly expensive, its neck based on a mandolin design from the 1890s and incorporating "humbucker" pickups to avoid the kind of buzzing made by Fender Telecasters, along with other pleasing aesthetics.

Les Paul's involvement in Ted McCarty's final design, the book 50 Years of the Gibson Les Paul claims, didn't stretch much further than choosing its gold colour to make it look expensive and black because "it makes your fingers appear to move faster" and "looks classy – like a tuxedo".

So while Les Paul was more directly responsible for inventing overdubs, multitracking and electronic delay and reverb gizmos, the guitar with which his name will be forever associated was more of a front, a big-name endorsement.

It wouldn't be fully recognised until Keith Richard, Pete Townshend, Eric Clapton and Peter Green brandished the classic in the 60s. By then Gibson had changed its design and no longer produced Les Pauls. Spurred on by BB King and other bluesmen, the British blues musicians forced the guitar back on the market (Gibson relaunched the standard in 1968 after an eight-year gap), and made the 2,000 remaining goldtop and custom models change hands for extortionate amounts. It's down to Clapton and co, and successive generations of guitar heroes leading right up to Green Day's Billie Joe Armstrong, that the burnished warmth of the Gibson Les Paul created a distinct sound, as opposed to that of the more caustic Fender.

From (I Can't Get No) Satisfaction to Sweet Child O' Mine, the legacy of Les Paul lives on, even if things turned out quite differently to how the Django Reinhardt and Bing Crosby acolyte envisaged. Still, all lovers of warm, dense, solid tones should raise a toast to Les Paul.


Owen Adams

The GuardianTramp

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