Les Paul and Epiphone hit the first note of a musical revolution
Every March, Epiphone celebrates the anniversary of Mr. Les Paul's first masterpiece, "The Log"--a solid body guitar that he built from Epiphone and Gibson guitar parts at the Epiphone factory in New York City in 1940. To a younger generation, The Log looks more like a piece of folk art than a revolutionary instrument. And although we now know Les was not alone in imagining--or building--a solid body guitar, it was Les who fully envisioned the practical uses of an electric guitar that could not only "sustain for days" (as he liked to say) but was light, compact, easy to carry, sleek, easy to play, and could be heard for miles. Les would cut many hits with The Log as well as other similarly rough-hewn versions. Today, the original resides at the Country Music Hall of Fame, a fitting place for an artist who identified with country music fans as much as he did jazz fans.
Les was a dynamo of energy in his lifetime--arranging, inventing, and breathing music. There doesn't seem to be a single big moment in 20th century pop music culture that he did not participate in or help spark
One look at Les' "Log" guitar is evidence enough that Mr. Paul was not a craftsman by nature. But he taught himself to become a luthier--albeit a practical one--while working at night at the Epiphone factory on 14th Street in New York, sometimes accompanied by founder Epi Stathopoulo. The solid body instrument he dreamed, sketched, sawed, and pieced together at Epiphone would be the only tool he needed to become a household name in the 1950s. And today "The Log" continues to influence modern music and the do-it-yourself spirit of rock 'n' roll.
Unlike Leo Fender (with whom Les was close friends), Les Paul was a working musician, a colleague of Django Reinhardt, Freddie Green, and Charlie Christian, as well as Paul Bigsby and grand archtop makers John D'Angelico and Charles Stromberg. Les might have seemed like a wizard to the outside world, but to fellow players and inventors, Les was also an outstanding entertainer. And nothing--including electrocution, car wrecks, or world war--could stop him for long.
The Wizard of Waukesha
Lester William Polsfuss was born June 9, 1915 in Waukesha, Wisconsin, and showed an early love for music and experimentation. He started playing harmonica at the age of 8. As a teenager, he took up guitar, fashioning a homemade holder so he could play both at the same time. He performed country & western hits of the day and experimented with amplifying his acoustic guitar by wiring a phonograph needle near the bridge and connecting it to a radio speaker. Les dropped out of high school and continued performing on radio first in St. Louis, and then eventually moving to Chicago, where he made his first recording for the Montgomery Ward label (credited to his alter-ego, Rhubarb Red).
In Chicago, he changed his name to Les Paul and formed a trio with Jim Atkins, Chet Atkins' older brother, and bassist Ernie Newton, (who eventually moved to Nashville and performed with Hank Williams in the early 50s). The Les Paul Trio relocated to New York in 1938 to seek their fortune. "We tossed a coin," Les told the Country Music Hall of Fame, "'Heads' was New York and 'tails' was Los Angeles." The trio soon won an audition on Fred Waring's popular radio program and quickly earned a following among guitarists in the city. With the success of the radio show and a little money in his pocket, Les continued his quest to create a guitar that could "sustain for days" without feedback.
The Log: Plugging in at the House of Stathopoulo
Epi Stathopoulo's factory and showroom were located at 142 West 14th Street in a seven-story beaux-arts style building near Little Italy. The showroom was a meeting place for all the best jazz players in the city. "I knew Epi Stathopoulo and the Epiphone people very well and loved their instruments," Les recalled in Les Paul, In His Own Words, "and knowing them as I did, it was no problem to get permission to use their machinery and equipment on Sundays, when the place was shut down. Working on Sundays, I took a length of 4x4 pine, put an Epiphone neck on it, wound a couple of homemade pickups, and mounted them on the wood. Then I added a bridge and Vibrola tailpiece, strung it up, and I had The Log. It was crude, but when I plugged it into an amp, it worked."
"I was looking for volume, tone, and sustain that could be controlled, still chasing the idea that started with stretching a guitar string over a section of railroad rail," continued Les. "The thing that grabbed me about the early experiment was how the string vibrated and sustained almost indefinitely when anchored to the solidity of the steel rail, with no feedback whatsoever."
Les first debuted his new creation at Gladys' Bar in Sunnyside in 1940. Recalling that first gig with The Log to the Country Music Hall of Fame, Les said the crowd at Gladys' took no notice. "We played great and it sounded great. I was flying up and down the neck. Nothing: no response. They couldn't care less. So I thought, hmm. Then I went back to Epiphone and sawed an old archtop in half and braced the halves to The Log. I went back the following week to Gladys'--same musicians, played the same song--and everybody loved it. That's when I learned people listen with their eyes!"
Guitar players around the country first took notice of Les' confident tone and chops when he backed up Bing Crosby on "It's Been A Long, Long, Time", a massive wartime-inspired hit, and the first pop record to prominently feature an electric guitar. Still seeking a chart breakthrough under his own name, Les hired Iris Colleen Summers to sing with his trio on the recommendation of Eddie Dean and Gene Autry in 1946. Les and Ms. Summers soon fell in love. Together they invented the stage name "Mary Ford" and began experimenting with Les' new idea of multi-track recording, accomplished by transferring multiple takes of voices and guitars between two cutting lathes. They married and settled in Los Angeles, working out of a homemade studio in their garage, and signed a recording contract for Capitol Records on the recommendation of Nat King Cole. Now the only thing they needed was an original sound to get people's attention. Enter The Log.
The Log, The Klunker, and the Moon
In a garage in the back of their small house near Hollywood, Les and Mary began recording with new fervor, trying to develop original recording techniques that would match the unique tones of Les' various homemade solid body guitars, primarily The Log and the Klunker--both made with Epiphone parts, necks, and bodies. Still inspired by the memory of his boyhood visit to a Jimmie Rodgers' recording session and natural echo of Rodgers' voice on record, Les began to experiment with sound-on-sound recording as a way to make he and Mary "sound" like a big band.
Acting as a sort of recording/ping pong champion/deejay, Les would first record himself playing rhythm guitar onto disc cutter #1. He then transferred that recording to a second disc cutter all the while tapping a rhythm on his strings so disc cutter #2 recorded both the original rhythm part and the live tapping. Les would continue that process back and forth but each time adding a different part: rhythm, solos, bass, and Mary's lead vocals and harmonies. It was labor intensive, but the results were startling and soon Les and Mary were topping the charts. However a new invention would have an immediate effect on both Les' sound and the future of the recording industry.
"In 1949, Bing Crosby brought an Ampex 300 over to my house in LA, where I was then living," Les told Sound On Sound. "He asked me to go out into the front yard and help him get it out of his trunk, and then once I did that and the machine was indoors he said, 'Well, have fun,' and left. So, there I was, busy recording to disc, and I looked at the machine and all of a sudden the light went on--what if I put a fourth head on this machine? I took a piece of paper and a pencil, I drew it out, and I went to Mary and I said, 'Forget hanging up the laundry, forget the whole thing. Lock the place up, we're leaving. I've just found a way to record without needing the garage or a recording studio. I can do the whole thing anywhere that we wish to record.' All I needed was a fourth head on that mono 300 deck."
Les' breakthrough with sound on sound came in 1951 when his revolutionary remake of the pop standard "How High the Moon" went to #1 on the Billboard singles chart. Part pop, part jazz, part country, and all out-of-this-world, "How High the Moon" featured Les' vertigo-inducing guitar runs and Mary Ford's supersonic harmonies, carefully constructed using Les' heavily modified custom-made Ampex 8-track tape machine. And how long did this masterpiece take to create?
"I would say less than an hour," Les recalled to Sound on Sound. "You see, I was so into it and so free, having played so much, that I'd just press the button and go. And Mary was absolutely super. I'd tell her what I wanted and that's what she'd put down. If I wanted her to sing a three-part harmony or whatever, that's the way it was done... I knew what I was doing, and so as fast as I could rewind that tape we were ready to lay the next parts down."
Les had been thinking of reworking "How High the Moon" for months and the duo had honed in on a precise arrangement on the road. When they were ready to record, all Les needed was a homemade mixer, an early Lansing loudspeaker, and a solitary RCA 44BX ribbon microphone. Working from the duo's new home studio in New Jersey, they made history in less time than it takes most engineers to refresh their Pro Tools rig.
"People rave about the sounds of those early records on the Capitol Box set," said Les. "Some of those were made with the Log and some of them with the Epi (Bread Wrapper Guitar). And for the longest time that's all I used."
The Log, the Klunker, and all of Les' other Epiphone-driven guitar experiments eventually inspired Gibson to make the Les Paul Goldtop. Built in collaboration between Les and Gibson President Ted McCarty, the Les Paul became a truly revolutionary instrument when it was first released in 1952. Virtually every major artist of the '50s at one time or another owned a Les Paul, including Muddy Waters, Carl Perkins, Freddie King, John Lee Hooker and even future acoustic guitar great Doc Watson. Buddy Holly and Duane Eddy's first guitars were Les Pauls. It was modern, classy, familiar, and strange all at the same time. And, it was loud!
Although Gibson embraced Les' guitar design and success, in their earliest promotional ads, Les was often seen playing his converted Epiphone Log or Klunker. "What they did was say: 'What can we do to get you off the Epiphone?' And I said well... there was a plate on the Epiphone... pry it off and put a Gibson decal on there. And that made them happy. And I said when you can make a guitar like that, then I will drop my Epiphone. And I kept that up until finally they made the solid body guitar... and I said ok, we'll go with it!"
In 2003, our own modern day "Herb Sunshine" Dr. Epiphone (a.k.a. Will Jones) spoke with Les in Nashville at a party to celebrate the 10th anniversary of Gibson Custom. At age 88, Les' mind was still sharp, full of mischief, and appreciation for his long friendship with Epiphone.
Les, first off let me thank you for your time and for all you have done for music! My first question however is about The Log: I understand you built it on the weekends?
Yes, that's right I built the guitar at the Epiphone factory on Sundays when they were closed. I had the run of the place, did what ever I wanted.
So, the Log was made from a 4"x 4" piece of wood and Epiphone parts?
That's right. I used a 4"x 4" piece of pine and Epiphone body parts for wings and an Epiphone neck. I made the pickups myself.
The original headstock on the Log was Epiphone?
Yes, when I signed on with Gibson later on they changed the name on it.
Did Epi and the boys at Epiphone support your experiments?
They all thought I was crazy. Hell, Gibson thought I was crazy.
So how well did you know Epi Stathopoulo?
I knew him very well, we were good friends, very good friends. I knew all those guys at Epiphone real well. Years after when Epiphone went down, we all stood around and held hands and cried. I told Mr. Berlin at Gibson he should buy out Epiphone. Keep the name going, 'cause they always made damn fine guitars and had a real good name with players. You know I had several Epiphones that I have played over the years and I loved them.
What was Epi's personality like? Was he as funny as you?
No, he was pretty serious most of the time. He had a good sense of humor, but he was a serious man for the most part.
So what do you think of today's Epiphone products, especially the Les Paul's from Epiphone?
They are damn fine instruments, I swear by them! People can buy one of my guitars no matter how much money they have. A kid can get an Epiphone and have something worth something, not a hunk-of-junk like the other brands. He can learn well on one and have it and play it the rest of his life. Epiphone is meeting standards of quality like Gibson, which I am proud to see. I tell you they are damn fine instruments!
Any words of wisdom today to the young folks out there just getting started on guitar?
Just that they need a good guitar like an Epiphone so they won't get discouraged; so they will practice and work hard and enjoy their music.
The Real Deal!
In April 2015, Epiphone luthiers visited the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville, Tennessee to document Les Paul's original Log guitar. Photographer Don Mitchell captured the visit.