Music and technology lost an innovator Thursday 8/13/2009, when Les Paul died at the age of 94 in New York. Although he was a musical artist in his own right with more than 40 full-lengths and compilations to his name, it is the guitar that bears his name that has changed the sound of music as we know it.
In 1939, the late, great Les Paul built “The Log,” one of the first solid-body electric guitars, using not much else besides lumber, a pickup and his wits. That experiment eventually metamorphosed into the Gibson Les Paul in the ’50s, and in the ’60s it went viral after Eric Clapton popularized the model. According to legend, Clapton played the Les Paul exclusively with Cream, and even used it to lay down his blazing solo for The Beatles’ immortal “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” before handing off the ax to George Harrison for good.
Although Clapton later switched to the Fender Stratocaster, the Les Paul nevertheless gained no shortage of superstar adopters. Probably the most famous of these disciples is Led Zeppelin legend Jimmy Page, whose sunburst model is practically inseparable from the band’s sonic legacy. Same goes for the virtuoso Jeff Beck, who bought his first Les Paul in 1959 and starred, like Page and Clapton, in The Yardbirds.
“It had a deep powerful sound,” Beck recalled in Tony Bacon’s 50 Years of the Gibson Les Paul, “and you could use it to imitate just about anything — violin, sax, cello, even a sitar.”
But the ax’s popularity extended well beyond that decorated power trio of triumphant guitarists.
Although accounts vary, Bob Marley reportedly took his to the grave. ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons searched forever for a backup for his 1959 Les Paul Standard nicknamed “Pearly Gates,” but could never find one. Gibson has given Gibbons, Beck, Marley, Slash and other guitarists signature series Les Pauls; Joan Jett became the first woman to land one in June 2008. The list of guitarists saying goodbye to Paul on Gibson’s online memorial is long and lauded.
But that’s just guitars. Paul is also responsible for helping innovations like overdubbing, multitrack recording and delay and phasing effects into being. In the end, his mark on rock and tech could live on long after those he influenced have passed on to the great gig in the sky