Les Paul's birthday always puts us in a good mood here at Epiphone. The bard of electric guitar would have been 98 years old on June 9 and his influence, his energy, his sense of play, and his steadfast dedication to entertainment are still a big part of our lives here at the House of Stathopoulo. How many times in an average day does someone, somewhere on stage--in a recording studio, or on a blog--say the words: Les Paul
? We take our reputation for mixing tradition, value, and innovation seriously and so did Les.
The massive Les Paul estate sale held last year through Julien's Auctions
revealed that Les held onto everything---basses, drums, mandolins, and lots and lots of vacuum tubes along with heaps of recent Epiphone guitars. Up until the end of his life, Les was still sketching ideas, offering advice, and working on prototypes. It's obvious that Les loved his work. Everything in Les' collection was there for a purpose. He didn't require boutique-anything to get the job done. (Of course, if you were lucky enough to win a bid for one of Les' guitars at the estate auction, it probably had a hole in it).
If Les were here today, he’d say check out the Ultra III
, which is full of the kind of technical advances that Les put into his own guitars at home. The Ultra III features
an on-board tuner, Pro-Bucker™ pickups, a Shadow NanoMag™ low impedance pickup, and one-of-a-kind Native Instruments GuitarRig software along with USB and stereo outputs. Les' own modifications to factory-made Les Paul
s share the same spirit. People used to say Les was crazy to try to put all that stuff in one guitar. Crazy like a fox. Look at the auction
and you'll see that many of Les's own guitar modifications are right in line with the technical advances that have made Epiphone the
great success story of the last decade.
Les was a dynamo in his lifetime--arranging, thinking, tinkering, and breathing
music. There doesn't seem to be a single moment in 20th century pop music history that he didn't participate in. His stories could all be individual movie scripts on their own---driving to Oklahoma to check out Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys, carrying too-heavy Gibson amps through the streets of New York City with Charlie Christian, meeting Django Reinhardt, recording the Chester and Lester album with Chet Atkins
, picking up a live electrical wire in his studio and burning up virtually every muscle in his body, surviving a car crash and having the doctor set his right arm in a position so he could still pick, driving around Hollywood with Bing Crosby, looking for a place to build a studio before settling on his own garage, and jamming in the window of Epiphone's showroom in New York City by day and sawing archtops in half by night while sharing some amorgiano wine with Epi Stathopoulo
. And we haven't even mentioned Mary Ford, their pioneering tv show, the Les Paulverizer, the Les Paul trio, or multi-track recording.
The 1950s is when everything happened for Les. The Les Paul Goldtop, built in collaboration between Les and Gibson President Ted McCarty, was a truly revolutionary guitar in 1952. The Les Paul Goldtop
featured two P-90s pickups with a slightly arched maple top, a mahogany body and neck and a stunning gold finish that was easily recognized from a distance.
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. It was classy. It was familiar and strange all at the same time. And, it was loud!
The combination of Les’s ingenuity and the Kalamazoo factory's reputation made the Les Paul Goldtop hard to resist. Mr. Les Paul was class personified, and so was his guitar. “I had two models in mind right away,” said Les. “I picked the gold color because no else had one…and black because it’s classy like a tuxedo
It was also in the 50s that Les, along with wife Mary Ford, had an unstoppable run of Top 10 Billboard hits beginning with his incandescent version of "How High the Moon," a musty old standard that Les transformed with 12 guitar parts, 12 voices, and about 24 takes of thumping, bumping, and picking into Les's new Ampex 300 tape machine, a home made mixer, a Bell & Howe amplifier, and one RCA44BX ribbon mic.
"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."
And indeed that was all he needed. "How High the Moon" was pre-rock and roll but it sounded like rock and roll. By this time, Les could work quickly. He was so practiced at rehearsing with Mary--working the machinery and arranging songs into his Les Paul
multi-track style ("How High the Moon," he recalled, took 'less than an hour
' to put down) that once Les had discovered his new sound, there was no stopping him. No one else at the time had multi-track recording.
"I'd tell (Mary) 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. What's more, it would take a stick of dynamite to change her, because once she'd got it, that was it, and she didn't have to rehearse or anything. It was the same with me. 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."
Sound on sound recording revolutionized Les's musical life and ideas seemed to burst from his brain like lightning flashes. And nearly all of their hits were made with Les's infamous Frankenstein guitar--part Epiphone), "The Log." (There were several versions of "The Log" and each of them seemed to have had Epiphone as a main ingredient). Les was the only major artist recording multi-track recording in the '50s and it would be another nine years before famed Atlantic Records engineer Tom Dowd ordered his own custom-made 8 track (inspired by Les' custom 8-track) at a cost of $40,000 ($288,994 in today's dollars)
Today, the Les Paul guitar that Les inspired is the #1 solid body electric guitar
. Nothing else really comes close when you want to get "sustain for days" and a variety of tones. And Les's advice for performers and studio artists ("simplicity is the answer"
) still abides. If you were ever on a desert island with Les with a couple of guitars, you could count on him to find the raw materials to build a combination radio and amplifier to keep you pickin' until you were rescued. That's what mavericks do. (We like to think he learned that at Epiphone.)
So on this and every Les Paul birthday, all of us at the House of Stathopoulo take pride that Les held Epiphone in such high regard.
He'd love our new headquarters in Nashville, too. In fact, it might be a good idea to keep a bench open for him, just for good luck. Happy Birthday, Les--from all of us at Epiphone.