It was probably inevitable that the mainstream media would focus on Les Paul’s connection with the solidbody electric guitar, in some cases almost implying that he invented the electric guitar. The average evening news viewer has little concept of multi-track recording, but can easily understand what an electric guitar is, and that the model used by Slash and Jimmy Page bears the name of this old chap who just died.
I just wish they’d try a *little* harder. Yes, he had an important role in electric guitar development, but how many of us actually play guitar or listen to electric guitar music? His role in studio technology, however, was absolutely pivotal, and we all own LPs, CDs or MP3s of music created in professional multi-track studios. It’s these recordings, not the electric guitar, that owe their existence to Les Paul.
My own experiences match this. My first electric guitar was a very cheap copy of a Gibson Les Paul and I did own a Tokai Love Rock (a well-respected Japanese replica of a classic 50s LP) for about three years until I sold it last month, but I’ve spent far, far more of my life playing guitars with a direct line of descent from Leo Fender’s inventions. My appreciation for Les Paul is founded almost entirely on his other work, and the best way I can explain it is this…
Like many guitarists who spend more time practising in their bedroom than gigging with bands, I very quickly developed an interest in recording my own playing and, most importantly, being able to overdub, to hear me-as-a-band. When I started playing, consumer four-track machines (using cassettes) were already becoming popular, but they were way out of my budget, so I waited all through school, through university, through the unemployment that followed until I could buy a multi-track machine (a Tascam eight-track).
And you know what? When I come to take stock of my life and look back on the most significant moments, that first multi-track recording experience will be one of them. Certainly in my life as a musician, nothing has compared with the moment when I listened back to one of my first proper recordings, hearing the interplay between parts that had previously only existed in my imagination. It’s the closest thing to Harry Potter magic I’ve ever experienced, and I have Les Paul to thank for making that possible and affordable so early in my lifetime.