The Electric Guitar1925 - 1952
Lester William Polsfuss best known as Les Paul, the inventor of the solid body electric guitar, was born in 1915 in Waukesha, Wisconsin, a small city 20 miles west of Milwaukee.
Radio was brand new and young Les would stay up all night listening to guitar players on his crystal radio. After saving enough money from his newspaper route, he bought his first guitar so he could replicate the sounds he heard on the radio.
As a teenager, known as Red Hot Red, Les regularly performed his guitar and harmonica at a local drive-in restaurant. He was convinced his tips would increase if the people in the back of where he was playing could hear him so he amplified his voice by mounting the mouthpiece from his mother’s telephone on a wooden broom handle and wiring it to her radio. That worked fine until he was handed a note from someone in the back, “Red, your voice and harmonica are fine, but your guitar’s not loud enough.”
After that Les decided to amplify his guitar by taking the tone arm off his father’s phonograph, jamming the needle into the guitar bridge, taping the arm in place and wiring it to his father’s radio. Les had his first electric guitar. But the guitar didn’t sound like Les wanted. He wanted to hear just the strings vibrate and not the guitar, so he filled it with rags and socks along with a tablecloth but that didn’t work. Next he tried filling it with Plaster of Paris, a clay-like substance that pretty much “ended that guitar.”
Les found his next inspiration across the street from his home at the railroad tracks. He and his friends collected a 2-foot piece of discarded rail and with the microphone from his mother’s phone and a guitar string stretched the length of the rail, Les could hear just the string vibrate and the sustain went on forever. Though usually very encouraging to Les, his mother pointed out the Rail was not a practical guitar.
To read more about Les the Artist, click here.
Les was in New York in 1941 and his guitar-playing career had taken off but he was haunted by the beautiful sound of his rail guitar. He had friends at the Epiphone factory who let him have access to their guitar-making equipment on Sundays when the factory was closed. Les worked tirelessly on creating an electrically amplified guitar that didn’t have feedback and provided volume, tone and sustain that he could control.
Les took a 4 x 4 piece of pine and strung it like a guitar, added his homemade pickups, a bridge, a Virola tailpiece, strings and the neck of an Epiphone Broadway guitar. He got the sound he wanted and called it “the Log”.
When he took the “Log” to a nightclub to play, the audience was unimpressed. Les was determined and so he then took an old Epiphone guitar, sawed it in half and gave his Log Epiphone “wings” so it would look more like a guitar. He then took the Log with wings to the same nightclub, played a few tunes and the audience couldn’t stop talking about the “new sound.” Les concluded, “People hear with their eyes.”
Les was so confident after that with his “Log” guitar that he took it to show some of the Epiphone executives, but they weren’t interested. He later took his invention to Gibson, where they laughed and called the Log “a broomstick with pickups.” It took another ten years for Gibson to accept the idea of a solid body electric guitar. In 1951, Gibson called Les and worked closely with him to design and build what has become the Gibson Les Paul solid body electric guitar. The first models were sold in 1952, and remain one of the top selling guitars in the world.
At the same time that Les was trying to convince Gibson to build the solid body electric guitar, he was performing across the country. He was playing his favorite guitar, the Cheapie, a Gibson L5. This was the first guitar on which Les installed a second pickup, and he always preferring playing it, until his family of “klunkers” came along.
Les had three klunkers. He got his first klunker in 1941, the same year he invented the Log. Once Les got the sound he wanted on klunker #1 he left it as his benchmark, but he continued to experiment with klunker #2 and #3. The klunkers were terribly valuable to Les because they had trap doors in the back, which made it easier for him to modify the guitars. Les recorded many of his early gold records using his klunkers. He and his wife Mary Ford played the klunkers until Les signed his contract with Gibson.