Celebrating the wit and wisdom of Epiphone fan Les Paul on his 103rd birthday
Every June, Epiphone celebrates the birthday of Les Paul—inventor, arranger, guitarist extraordinaire, and Epiphone's loudest evangelist. During his lifetime, Les was a dynamo of pure musical energy, inventing, performing, and recording. How many times a day does someone, somewhere in the world say the words: Les Paul?
From the late 1930s until his death in 2009, Les inspired virtually every facet of popular music. He virtually invented the role of artist/producer. His fans included The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, Chet Atkins, Mark Knopfler, Jeff Beck, Steve Miller (Miller's parents attended Les' wedding to Mary Ford), and Jimmy Page. And the great guitarists of our day still speak of him as if they can't quite believe their own personal experience with "the Wizard of Waukesha."
"He just wiped the stage with me," Slash told Billboard in 2015 recalling their first meeting. "I couldn't keep up with him." Luckily for fans and historians, Les was also a gracious interviewee (and canny self-promoter) who never failed to give credit to his inspirations, his contemporaries, and his methods. And now for the first time, you can hear excerpts from Epiphone's own exclusive interviews with Les on subjects ranging from the layout of the Epiphone factory to how he encouraged Gibson to come to Epiphone's rescue in the late 50s.
Les Paul loved Epiphone guitars and his long friendship with both the company and its founder Epi Stathopoulo began around 1940 when Les was given permission by owner Epi to use the Epiphone factory as his personal workshop to create what no other instrument company—including Gibson—believed could succeed in the marketplace: a solid body guitar. After much trial and error, "The Log", made mostly of Epiphone parts (now in the Country Music Hall of Fame), would become Les' main instrument, powering countless radio gigs, a million selling hit with Bing Crosby (the post WWII classic "It's Been A Long, Long Time"), and Les' pioneering hit singles with wife, Mary Ford. "I built the Log at the Epiphone factory," recalled Les in an interview with Epiphone. "They let me use the Epiphone factory every Sunday... I put in a lot of hard work down there to make the Log."
Though few in the business foresaw the potential in a solidbody electric guitar at first, Les Paul and Mary Ford's success eventually inspired not only the Les Paul guitar but also a revolution of sorts in the industry. Les was the first artist to have total command of every aspect of his career and his sound and it was a path that Les seemed set on very early in his life. From his first memories, Les not only wanted to be the musician who played on the radio, but the Wizard behind the curtain who transported the listener to another universe.
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 before he was 10 and as a teenager also took up guitar, fashioning a homemade harmonica holder so he could play both at the same time. He performed contemporary country & western hits and experimented with amplifying his acoustic guitar by wiring a phonograph needle near the bridge and connecting it to a radio speaker.
Les later claimed his interest in learning how to manipulate sound was sparked by a visit to the RCA Recording Studios in Camden, New Jersey in 1932 when he was 17. Lester and his mother treasured the first "plug in radio" they purchased in the early 1930s and one of the artists they bonded over was Jimmie Rodgers, the Blue Yodeler, who himself started a musical revolution with his easy combination of blues, folk, jazz, and pop. Les later recalled that he and his mother happened upon a Jimmie Rodgers recording session on a visit to RCA studios. Les was fascinated by the work of the recording engineers and how they placed microphones far away from Jimmie to give his recordings a unique sense of space. From that moment on, Les tried to replicate the "echo" heard in Rodgers' records by performing in tiled bathrooms or hallways. He also experimented with placing microphones at a distance from their intended source. "Jimmie Rodgers did more for me than just the songs he was singing and his style of music," Les recalled. "I was also interested in the acoustical sound and the way I was going to mimic those sounds."
With his mother's blessing, 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). 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. When the Trio decided it was time 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." New York won out, and the enterprising trio soon won an audition on Fred Waring's popular radio program where Les quickly earned a following among the top jazz guitarists in the city, including electric pioneer Charlie Christian, who he first heard at a dance in Tulsa, Oklahoma with Bob Wills & the Texas Playboys.
"Over time, through being with Charlie, I realized how tough it is to come down on that one note in the right place, and how much more of a drive he had," Les told Andy Schwartz for the Charlie Christian box set on Sony. "He had that ability, like Lionel Hampton, to take a note, to take one "A," and just pound it into your head until it was the greatest note you'd ever heard. With all the technique they have out there, with all these guitar players—the one that wins is still the fellow that plays that one note I heard that night in Tulsa. He never lived to fulfill what he could have done, should have done. But I loved that man. Charlie Christianwas my friend."
Les' time in New York not only furthered his reputation, it also fired his imagination. He didn't just want to play guitar—he wanted to build one. "That time with Fred Waring was just the greatest education, the biggest break in my life," Les told Gibson. With the success of the radio show and a little money in his pocket, Les intensified his quest to create a guitar that could "sustain for days" without feedback. Taking note that Epiphone had opened a new showroom and "laboratory" on 14th street, Les decided to introduce himself to the Stathopoulos after he heard Epiphone tenor guitarist Leonard Ware, one of the great-unsung pioneers of tenor electric guitar. In an interview with Epiphone, Les called Ware "the best guitar player in New York. He could really make things happen. But at that time he was playing an Epiphone and that's what got me to go down to the Epiphone people and introduce myself and they were very happy to see me..."
Inspired by Ware, Les began to check out Epiphone's line of archtop guitars, which were competing for the attention of the best jazz players in Manhattan. "I had played Epiphone guitars and liked them very much... I had a Deluxe. Oh boy! 'Still got it and it's an excellent guitar. For rhythm—well—it just happened to be one of the finest guitars. It had quite a different sound than the Gibson. And when I came to New York, then I got acquainted with the Epiphone people and that's where the whole thing started. I just went down to 14th street and said "Hi, I'm Les Paul" and they knew me from being on (Fred Waring's) show." Epiphone founder Epi Stathopoulo appreciated Les' entrepreneurial spirit and soon gave the young jazz guitarist the company key on weekends to try out his crazy idea: building a solid body guitar.
The Log: Plugging in at the House of Stathopoulo
Epi Stathopoulo's modern factory and showroom was located at 142 West 14th Street in a seven-story beaux-arts style building near Little Italy and 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."
Les detailed the factory layout in an interview with Epiphone. "It was on the second floor on 14th street... The watchman just showed me where the levers were to turn on the current to run the lathes and do this and do that and the place was mine... I'd go in the front door and go out the back door to go home."
Throughout 1940 and '41, Les taught himself the basics of guitar design by taking apart Epiphone necks and bodies, noting bracing techniques, joints, frets, tuners, and how to mount an electronic pickup on a guitar top without the whole thing caving in. Eventually he came upon the idea of simply mounting pickups on a single block of wood. "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," Les said in his autobiography In His Own Words. "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. 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!"
Les continued experimenting, using other Epiphone parts to perfect his new guitar's profile, weight, and tone. "When I left Fred Waring in '41, I went to Chicago, And in Chicago I got a call from a guy who said: I got my hand caught in a bread wrapping machine and my right hand was mangled so I would like you to have my guitar... And I ended up with an Epiphone guitar and Epiphone amplifier. I said I'm gonna cut this up and experiment with it. I had three of them here. They were to become the most the predominant guitar that I played. I made that guitar that got caught in the bread wrapping machine—-wound those pickups, did all my experimenting."
Musicians around the country first took notice of Les' confident tone and jazz chops when he backed up Bing Crosby on "It's Been A Long, Long, Time," a massive hit inspired by wartime longing and melancholy and the first pop record to prominently feature an electric guitar solo. Still seeking his own chart breakthrough, 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 began recording for Capitol Records on the recommendation of Nat King Cole.
In his garage studio behind their small house near Hollywood, Les began recording with new fervor, trying to develop original recording techniques that would match the unique tones of his various solidbody guitars The Log and The Klunker, all of them made with Epiphone parts, necks, and bodies. Still inspired by the memory of his visit to Jimmie Rodgers' recording session, 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, recording both the original rhythm part and the live tapping. Les would continue this process back and forth, sometimes adding rhythm, solos, bass, and Mary's lead vocals and harmony. It was labor intensive, but the results were startling and soon Les' singles were hitting 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."
How High the Moon: The Capitol Years
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." (For more info on the recording of "How High the Moon," read our feature.)
The Log, the Klunker, and all of his 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 guitar. "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!"
While Les' star was rising, his friends at Epiphone were struggling. After the death of Epi Stathopoulo in the early 40s, Epi's brothers Orphie and Frixo tried to keep the company current as archtop guitars became electrified and Gibson—thanks to Les Paul and his solidbody guitar—became the dominant American instrument maker. The one Epiphone employee who was probably the true heir to Epi Stathopoulo was head salesman and sometime-designer Herb Sunshine, who inspired the Epiphone Electar "1939" Century Lap Steel and like Les, believed that perfecting the electric guitar was the key to the future of the business. By the mid 50s with Epiphone in serious financial distress, Herb called Les to tell him the "House of Stathopoulo" was closing for good and the Epiphone storehouse was his for the taking.
"He was a beautiful guy to be around," Les recalled to Epiphone. "Herb was just very, very nice and when Epiphone went down I held their hands. They cried to see that thing hit the dust... And they gave me all the parts that they had no use for. "Take them Les..."
Les decided to use his newfound leverage as a television, radio, and recording star to help revive the company that got him his start. "I'm the guy that talked Gibson into buying Epiphone. I told Mr. Maurice Berlin (the founder of Chicago Musical Instruments who owned Gibson)—'you know Epiphone is sitting there and it has one hell of a name and why don't you just make a deal and get that name. And make a different line of guitars so they are separate from the Gibson line and you can go creating other ideas...' And Mr. Berlin did just that and he purchased the name and every thing else."
Les also noted that for decades, vintage guitar collectors foolishly devalued late 50s and early 60s Epiphones that were made at the Kalamazoo, Michigan factory solely on the basis of the name on the headstock. "What they did at Gibson that I didn't like—and I kept telling them up there and I had a little difficulty with a couple of the foreman—that they were identical guitars except they changed the names on them. So (on) the Gibson line they used the same wood, the same guys building them, the same fretboards, the same everything. They made minor changes between an Epiphone and a Gibson. So if you saw a flattop coming (out of the factory) and it said Epiphone it was the same guitar as the Gibson one."
Les remained an advocate of Epiphone throughout his life and often gave his advice and encouragement. "Of course now we have a line of Les Paul Epiphones... I want them to be absolutely top quality. I don't care where they are made. As long as we keep the standards and keep the quality control in it and that name is on it—Les Paul—I want to make sure that underneath that name is a good guitar. Be sure to check out Music Aficinado's epic feature "Five Things You Probably Didn't Know About Les Paul" to learn more about Epiphone's own Wizard of Waukesha. Here's to the memory and the music of Les Paul!
Les Paul: The Epiphone Interview
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.