Les Paul, Guitar Pioneer, Dies at 94

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By CAINE O’REAR

Les Paul, the virtuoso musician best known for his innovations involving the solid-body electric guitar, died Thursday in White Plains, New York, due to complications from pneumonia, Gibson Guitar Corporation said. He was 94.

Paul’s pioneering design for the solid-body became the template for Gibson’s Les Paul model, first released in 1952.

“Without Les Paul, we would not have rock and roll as we know it,” Terry Stewart, president and CEO of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum, said in a statement. “His inventions created the infrastructure for the music and his playing style will ripple through generations. He was truly an architect of rock and roll.”

A native of Waukesha, Wisconsin (b. 1915), Paul began performing as a honky-tonk guitarist in his early teens. In 1934, he moved to Chicago, where he played hillbilly music under the stage name “Rhubarb Red.” During that time, Paul also began making waves as a jazz guitarist, playing in the vein of Django Rheinhardt.

During the late 1930s, Paul began constructing his own electric guitar. “I was interested in proving that a vibration-free top was the way to go,” he once said. “I even built a guitar out of a railroad rail to prove it. What I wanted was to amplify pure string vibration, without the resonance of the wood getting involved in the sound.”

Paul recorded a string of hit songs in the 1950s with his wife and singer Mary Ford, including “How High the Moon,” and “Vaya Con Dios.” The couple divorced in the mid-1960s, but Paul continued to record, earning a Grammy in 1976 for the instrumental album Chester and Lester, recorded with Chet Atkins.

Paul also made significant contributions in multi-track recording and guitar effects.

Up until mid-June 2009, the father of the electric guitar was still performing his weekly gig at the Iridium Jazz Club, in midtown Manhattan.

American Songwriter spoke with Paul in January 2009. When asked how he stayed active at age 93, the maestro replied: “I have health problems, and have had a lot of accidents and things. But, probably the greatest part about it is that every time you get knocked down, you still have to find the will to get up and do it again.”

Paul is survived by his three sons Lester (Rus) G.  Paul, Gene W. Paul and Robert (Bobby) R. Paul, his daughter Colleen Wess, son-in-law Gary Wess, long time friend Arlene Palmer,  five grandchildren and five great grandchildren. A private funeral service will be held in New York. A service in Waukesha, Wisconsin will be announced at a later date. Details will follow and will be announced for all services. The family asks that in lieu of flowers, donations be made to the Les Paul Foundation, 236 West 30th Street, 7th Floor, New York, New York 10001.

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  1. i am saddened to hear the news of Les Paul’s passing. it was inspiring to find out that he was responsible (and took responsibility) for the making OF the making of music–a genuine dedication to his craft. i will carry his commitment through my musical works. RIP Les Paul.

  2. It was a solemn day for me and my family hearing of Les Paul’s passing. I had the great opportunity to see Les Paul in 2000 at the Iridium Club, an evening I will always remember.

    My grandfather was a guitar player and one of the first to play with an amplifier. He was inspired by Les Paul and it was said that he even received lessons from him in Los Angeles back in the 40’s. I don’t know how true that was but I would like to go on believing that. I even had a chat with Les Paul that evening at the Iridium Club on that very thing, of course he couldn’t remember, but he lived in LA at that time.

    I now play the guitar and my Gibson Les Pauls are my favorites. Thanks for everything Les Paul and God Bless you!

    Greg Andrade

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