The Gibson Sunburst Electric Guitar Invented by Les Paul
On June 9th 1915, just outside Milwaukee, in Waukesha, Wisconsin Lester William Polsfuss was born. Later generations would know him as Les Paul. He started out playing the banjo and later mastered the guitar. Like many children, he was intensely curious about how things worked and was constantly taking them apart.
Les, however would figure out how they worked and tinker with them. He took apart the family player piano and began modifying the rolls to create new music. As a teenager, he went by the nickname of “Red Hot Red”. He wanted to play his harmonica at the same time as his banjo so he combined a small piece of wood with a cleverly bent coat hanger and created a device that worked – and even allowed him to play both sides of the harmonica. John Lenon, Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen have all used the same design.
Radio was a central force in his life – by the time he finished high school, he had built his own transmitter and was broadcasting to the neighborhood. He was also fascinating by recording technology. It was still 1929. The depression hit hard. Wax cylinders were not stable enough and vinyl recording equipment was impossibly expensive. So Les leveraged his dad’s position at the local car dealership and finagled enough parts to create a device that recorded on an aluminum disk. He was 14 years old at the time!
The year before that, at thirteen (1928), he was a semi professional musician playing harmonica and banjo and harmonica in a country group. Soon after he would join the Rube Tronson’s Texas Cowboys and then Wolverton’s Radio Band based in St. Louis, Missouri, on KMOX.
In 1934 Les Paul moved to Chicago and performed mainly sessions on the radio. In 1936 he released his first two studio based records. On one he was credited as an blues accompanist for performer Georgia White and the other recording bore his earlier nickname, ‘Rhubarb Red’. Soon after, he adopted his famous name and infamous jazz playing guitar style. By 1937 Les Paul formed a trio with percussionist and bass player, Ernie Darius Newton and Chet Atkins older half brother, guitarist and singer Jim Atkins. In 1939 the trio arrived in New York and began a residency gig on Fred Waring’s radio show in Pennsylvania.
Many of the recording concepts in use today were created by Les Paul. In 1945, living in Hollywood, Les was friends with BIng Crosby. Crosby gave him a state-of-the-art Ampex reel to reel tape recorder and Les promptly took it apart, figured out how it worked and improved on it. The biggest thing he changed was to add a second recording head – thus creating a multi-track tape recorder – the first in existence. He expanded the concept later to go up to eight tracks. Les’s tinkering allowed him to pioneer a host of effects that are still used today – though today, they’ve all been computerized. Sound on Sound (only possible because of his second recording head), Tape Delay (again, only possible because of his second recording head), Phasing Effects, Multi-track recording, etc.
Along with his solid guitar, it was these inventions that made possible the birth of Rock ‘n’ Roll. Bing Crosby frequently financed Les Paul’s acoustic experiments.
He wasn’t happy with the sounds that acoustic guitars made – any wonder, given his experiments with recording and multi-track. Les Paul’s first electric guitar he called the “Log”. In one of his teenage experiments, he had taken a two foot section of discarded rail track and rigged it up with a tensioned wire and a microphone. He considered the sound perfect – but it was a bit heavy and limited to work as a stage instrument. The idea stuck with him though. In the 1930’s Adolph Rickenbacker had produced a solid body guitar which would later be developed into a semi acoustic hollow body guitar. In 1941, Les was in New York and had access to the Epiphone guitar factory on Sundays where he could tinker. It was there that he created the Log. The actual guitar was just a 4×4 with a neck and frets. That didn’t look right, so he cut up an Epiphone guitar and stuck wings on the sides of the log to give it a guitar shape.
The Epiphone executives weren’t interested in his creation and Gibson thought it would be too expensive to produce. An entire decade was to pass before Gibson took interest. In 1946 Leo Fender created his own version, the Telecaster Tobacco Sunburst electric guitar. Finally, after years of trying, Gibson reached out to Les and collaborated with him to create the first solid body electric guitar – the Gibson Sunburst Electric Guitar. The first ones came off the line in 1952, became a best seller – and you can still buy one today for a thousand to three thousand dollars.
The agreement and contract that Les had with Gibson Corporation meant that the guitarist would only be photographed and perform with a Gibson Les Paul electric guitar. The Patent and Trademark office in the U.S. gave Les Paul Patent number 3,018,680 for an Electrical Musical Instrument in 1962 for his Gibson endorsed guitar.
Les Paul continued to experiment in the recording studio with a track called Lover (When You’re Near Me) in 1948 for Capitol Records. This track marked an amazing breakthrough with his multi-track recording techniques. Les Paul recorded eight separate guitar parts, some at double speed and some at half speed, overlaying each track onto acetate disks. When all eight were played back, the sound was as if eight different guitarists were playing together at the same time. This was the first time that this had ever been done. This invention lead him to work on the worlds’ first eight track recording deck with Ross Snyder. This reel to reel tape recorder with special effects like over dubbing and echo was manufactured by Ampex. He made variations of these machines with two track and four track recorder versions called the Sel-Sync (for Selective Synchronization).
At the beginning of 1948 Paul had a near fatal car accident that shattered his right arm and elbow. Surgeons insisted that his arm would have to be re-built in a set position, which took a year and a half to complete. The guitarist demanded that his arm should be set at a ninety degree angle. An angle that would still allow him to continue to play the guitar. Watch the video and notice his right arm.
Les Paul married Virginia Webb in 1938, they divorced in 1949 – the same year that he married Iris Colleen Summers who was a country and western singer with the Gene Autry. Later she changed her name to Mary Ford. The couple would later divorce in 1962 due to their heavy work load and touring pressures. Throughout the 1950’s Les Paul and Mary Ford recorded together and went on to sell millions of records. Their notable hits were; Bye Bye Blues, How High The Moon and The World Is Waiting For The Sunrise. The multi-track recording technique that Les Paul had perfected, enabled Mary Ford to record numerous harmonizing vocal arrangements, for them to be synchronized and played back at the same time as one seamless track.
After 1952 and his Gibson contract, Les Paul always performed with his personalized Les Paul electric guitar. It was a Gibson ‘Recording’ model, the body was a solid single piece of mahogany that he had customized and modified over the years and added a Bigsby vibrato to. He also invented a black box that was fixed to his on stage guitar that he called his ‘Les Paulverizer’. This box enabled the guitarist to create many sound effects on stage, it enabled him to play a guitar lick and play it back over and over, creating a loop effect. Another effect was a tape delay that created the illusion of sound as if various other guitarists were playing at the same time, when in fact there was only one playing.
In 1967 Les Paul recorded an album with Chet Atkins, Chester and Lester, called ‘Les Paul Now’ recorded for London Records. Les Paul was actively performing and playing live throughout the 1980’s right up until his death in 2009. He played every Monday night at the Iridium Jazz Club, on Broadway in Times Square, New York City. He played with his trio, guitarist Lou Pallo, pianist John Colianni and bassist Nicki Parrott. An amazing achievement for a man who suffered from permanent hearing loss, arthritis and had heart bypass surgery after having had a heart attack.
Les Paul’s contribution to the music industry was regularly recognized by countless award bodies and prestigious institutions. Guitarist Jeff Beck inducted Les Paul into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1988. The Mix Foundation in 1991 created an award called to honor the people that have set the extraordinary standards of excellence in creating and recording audio called the Les Paul Award. The National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2005 inducted him for his contribution to solid body Sunburst electric guitar developments. The following year in 2006 he was named an honorary member by the Audio Engineering Society and inducted into the National Association of Broadcasters Hall of Fame.
In 2005 part of his 90th birthday celebrations included a tribute concert at Carnegie Hall in New York City where Les Paul was given a commemorative guitar from Gibson Guitar Corporation. Steve Miller, Jose Feliciano and Peter Frampton and other contemporary vocalists and guitarists performed at the celebrations. The Rock guitarist Steve Miller was taught how to play guitar by Les Paul. He is Godfather to Miller after his father was best man at his wedding to Mary Ford in 1949.
Still at the age of 90 in 2006 he received two Grammy Awards for his Les Paul & Friends: American Made World Played album. He had already received a lifetime achievement award, called the Grammy Trustees Award in 1983. Les Paul made a biographical documentary film called Chasing Sound which was released on DVD in HD in 2007. It documents the life of the guitar superstar legend and tells his rags to riches story. From Waukesha his home town, to Chicago, then Nashville, on to Hollywood and then his induction into the National Inventors Hall of Fame.
In November 2008 a tribute concert was held in Paul’s honor at the State Theater in Cleveland Ohio, where Les Paul received the American Music Masters award from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
In 2009 August 13, at the age of 94, Les Paul passed away due to pneumonia and added complications. He had been ill for some time. Known as the ‘Wizard of Waukesha’, he was buried at Prairie Home Cemetery in his home town of Waukesha, in an open area that visitors can visit and pay tribute to. The list of guitarists who owe so much to Les Paul goes on and on.
The genius will be remembered for his contribution to music and the art of recording. He also pioneered various ground breaking guitar playing techniques and styles like; chord sequences, fretting, timing, trills and licks. All of which continue to influence contemporary future guitarists. The Les Paul Gibson Sunburst electric guitar carries the name of a genius that is more than a brand name, it is the symbol of one mans life quest for perfection in a Sunburst electric guitar.
The legend and guitar icon will live on and continue to inspire and influence new and established musicians for many years to come. The life goal of Les Paul was simply, ‘to make people happy’. It’s fair to say, whatever music style you favor, Les Paul achieved his goal.