The Inventions1924 - 2009
Laboratory of the Genius
Throughout his life, Les Paul was curious, always eager to learn about new things. He was fond of saying that his childhood living room was his laboratory. He disassembled everything with moving parts, learned how they worked and modified them into new uses. As a youngster, Les experimented with a music roll on the family’s player piano by adding holes and covering other ones to create new sounds. He later dismantled the piano to see how it worked.
Each night when young Lester headed up the stairs to bed, he would play his, “wooden xylophone”, which is how he described the vertical planks along the stairs. Lester explained, “[There] was a problem. The xylophone was out of tune, so I had to tune it. I cut the bottom of the plank that was out of tune.” Les shared that his mother thought he was a genius for being able to “tune” the staircase.
To read about the evolution of Les’ solid-body electric guitar, click here.
Teen Red Hot Red’s inventions
Lester, by his teens known as “Red Hot Red,” wanted to play his guitar and both sides of his harmonica at the same time. Using a simple metal coat hanger and a bit of wood, Lester invented his flip-able harmonica holder.
Les’ basic design has been used by music greats such as Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, John Lennon and many more.
According to Les, the radio was the most important thing in his childhood home, because it connected his family to the rest of the country. While in junior high, he made his own crystal radio, a simple receiver that runs on power from radio waves that it receives via an antenna. A few years later, Les built his own radio station using a one-tube radio transmitter and extending the antenna to the roof so he could be heard throughout his neighborhood. Les was enthralled with radio, both the music and electronics. Years later, while living in New York, Les created another radio station to transmit his basement jam sessions.
School-age Lester was always performing at service clubs, schools and other venues. He was determined to record his music, so he could study his sound and improve it.
Les’ father, George, was part owner of one of Waukesha, Wisconsin’s earliest automobile dealership. With the help of Hooks, the chief mechanic at his father’s business, Les assembled a lathe using a flywheel from a discarded Cadillac, several endless belts from his dentist and other parts. Les could then emboss his recordings onto aluminum disks.
Lester made his first recording using a nail to record on the aluminum disk as he strummed a few chords on the guitar. Les was only 14 years old when he built this recording device, but it began a quest for sound he would continue his whole life. Lester’s first disk recording machine no longer exists, but he made the one pictured above in California. One of Les’ early lathes is on display at Milwaukee’s Discovery World.
To read about “Sound on Sound”, the culmination of Les’ journey through sound, click here.
By the time Lester took his first professional position playing on KMOX in St. Louis, he had improved his recording device so that Evelyn could record her son playing on the radio. In those days, there were fewer radio station, so it was possible for Evelyn in Waukesha to hear her son being transmitted from St. Louis.
Les spent much of 1948 in his Hollywood garage searching for a sound that would differentiate him from the growing number of guitarists using electric guitars. The next year, when Les was 33, his instrumental “Lover” introduced the world to his New Sound, a world of reverb, phase shifting, echo, slap back, over-dubbing, tape delay, close miking, sounds sped up and slowed down. Les had created the recording techniques that today’s recording artists use every day.
The Les Paulverizer
To explain his multi-level sound during live performances Les created the Les Paulverizer. His onstage gag became an actual black box remote control he attached to his guitar.The box allowed Les to access tape-recorded layers of songs as he and his wife Mary Ford performed the songs on stage.
Guitars, recording techniques, test equipment and more
Les spent his life experimenting and inventing. He invented experimental guitars and guitars. His early sound on sound evolved into the professional 8-track recorder. Les’ string tester that he dubbed “the Ding Dong” is on display at Milwaukee’s Discovery World as is his headless aluminum guitar. Les Paul’s life was one of chasing the perfect sound.
In the last decades of his life, Les Paul was working on improving hearing aid technology. The master of sound was dissatisfied with the hearing aids that he wore. Unfortunately, for all of us, Les moved past this world before he perfected hearing aids.
While Les is best known for the creation of the solid-body electric guitar, his influence and creations go well beyond that. Today his recording inventions are used every day in studios around the world.
“Once you achieve something, when it comes clear to you, then you’re saying, ‘Well, that’s easy…nothing to it,’ but getting there will keep you awake all night. It always comes back to the desire to find something out and being stubborn enough not to quit until you get where you want to go.”
“Mistakes are part of the musical process because they tell you what not to do, and sometimes they lead to something unique you couldn’t have discovered any other way.”