Les Paul: The Innovative Thinker Who Changed Music

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Les Paul: The Innovative Thinker Who Changed Music

An interesting part of invention is that it is essentially limitless. Rather than being confined to a single process or discipline, invention is instead multifaceted and a necessary part of every industry.

When inventors of any background apply creativity and critical thinking to their work, they often find that their results help generate even more new ideas. For National Inventors Hall of Fame® (NIHF) Inductee Les Paul, his invention of the solid-body electric guitar was just one of many lifelong contributions to the music industry.

 

Musical Roots

Paul was born as Lester William Polsfuss in Waukesha, Wisconsin, on June 9, 1915. From a young age, he took piano lessons and taught himself to play the harmonica, guitar and banjo. He often made modifications to his instruments, crafting a harmonica holder as well as constructing his own recording machine as a teenager. By his twenties, he was moving between cities like Chicago, New York and Los Angeles to play in bands and on the radio. It was in Chicago in 1934 that he began performing jazz music as “Les Paul,” a name he would keep musically and professionally for years to come.

 

Innovations in Sound

As Paul continued his musical career, he became more interested in the craftsmanship of building guitars and how different designs could produce new sounds. Throughout the 1930s, electric hollow-body guitars had become popular, though Paul found them unsatisfactory. He believed a solid-body model could produce a better sound with reduced feedback and improved sustainability for notes and chords.

Building off a prototype he designed in high school, Paul created a more advanced version of the solid-body guitar in the early 1940s that he called “the Log.” Working odd hours in the Epiphone instrument factory in New York, he built his new prototype from a 4” x 4” piece of wood and an Epiphone guitar neck. After testing the guitar at a nightclub and making modifications, he found that listeners were receptive to the new sound and wanted to hear more.

When Paul approached Gibson Guitar Corp. with his designs, he was initially rejected and told that there was little interest in anything but hollow-body electric models at the time. However, once Fender (a rival guitar company) began producing its own solid-body guitars, Gibson returned to Paul with an endorsement deal that asked him to promote the instrument and allowed him to provide some input on the design. In 1952, Gibson launched the “Les Paul,” which became a signature model recognized by musicians across the world and that is still used today.

Paul’s innovative streak did not end with the success of his solid-body electric guitar. He continued to invent throughout the rest of his life, becoming a pioneer in music recording and producing. He introduced the industry to breakthroughs such as sound-on-sound recording, overdubbing, reverb effects and the use of echo chambers, and he even designed his own multi-track tape recorders. Paul’s contributions were definitive in creating the blues-rock sound of the 1960s and ‘70s, and his work continues to influence today’s musicians.

 

Learn More

To learn more about the inventors and inventions who have changed our world, visit our Inductee portal.

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