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Les Paul: Inventor and Innovator


This is SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow, broadcasting today from Madison, Wisconsin, with a question for our audience, Wisconsinites, Wisconsinians(ph), whatever you prefer.

What do Harry Houdini, Don Ameche and Liberace all have in common? They're all - yes. They're all from Wisconsin. They're all entertainers. They're all from Wisconsin. And the man may have - you know, so is the man who may have done more to shape the face of the entertainment and music industry more than anybody else. And I'm - of course, I'm talking about musician and inventor, tinkerer Les Paul, the wizard of Waukesha. That's just down the road apiece from Madison.

You've heard of the Les Paul electric guitar. But his innovations go way beyond that. He invented multi-track recording, echo, delay, reverb, all these things that the music industry depended on later. And because of that, some people have called him the Thomas Edison of music. And here to talk about his life is Sue Baker. She is program director at the Les Paul Foundation, based out here in Waukesha. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

SUE BAKER: Thank you.

FLATOW: This was - this is actually very fascinating. You know one, of the amazing things about Les Paul is that he was an inventor from a really early age, right?

BAKER: Right.

FLATOW: How early was that?

BAKER: Well, the first thing that Les invented was a harmonica holder. He had gotten a harmonica, and he was playing the guitar, as well, and he wanted to be able to play the harmonica and the guitar without having to hold the harmonica. So what he did was look for something to hold that harmonica and play. So his older brother worked for a dry-cleaning store, and as Les said, there were hangers all over the place. So he took an old-fashioned metal hanger from a drycleaner and shaped it to go over his shoulders.

And he - the other thing that was really unique about it is Les didn't want to be able - he wanted to be able to play the harmonica and the guitar without touching the harmonica at all. So he designed that holder so he could flip his harmonica with his chin. And that's really cool, except the really amazing part is he was, like, 13 years old when he did it.


BAKER: I mean, he was really an inventor from a very...

FLATOW: Could he play the harmonica or just...


FLATOW: He could.

BAKER: Yes. He was playing all over Waukesha. His mother was very supportive, and she was really good at positioning him and putting him in front of the Rotarians and the Kiwanians. And he played in school. He was in front of groups all the time.

FLATOW: Tell us about the rail guitar, which was really something. It's really intriguing.

BAKER: Yes. Where Les lived was right across from a railroad track. And when he was playing his guitar - now, keep in mind, this would have been like in the early '20s, so it was an acoustic, hollow-body guitar. And he loved his guitar. He always did. But he said, you know, I would pluck the strings and play, but there was no sustain. You'd play the tune and the sound, and it would go right away. And he wanted that sound that, when he plucked the string, that it would keep on going. It would sustain.

And so he thought, well, what could I do to make that happen? He said, I need something - some material that's really, really dense. And he thought, well, what is the densest material that I can think of? And he thought about the rail from the railroad track. And, as Les tells it, he said I got four or my bodies, and we borrowed a wagon and we went down the slope underneath a bridge where there was - the guys from the railroad would cut the defective rail and throw it underneath the bridge.

And they got the rail, and Les took it home, and he put a guitar string over it. And he took the microphone out of his mom's candlestick telephone, and he put it on there, and he got the most wonderful sound. And he was all excited, and he said, Ma, Ma, come. You've got to hear this. I just invented this great electric guitar. And his mom comes in. You can almost picture her, you know, wiping her hands off of, you know, from doing dishes or something. And she walks in and she looks at it and she goes, Lester. Now, think about a cowboy riding on his horse with a piece of rail. It's not going to happen.

FLATOW: So he - undeterred.

BAKER: He was undeterred. He said, well, I knew she was right, but - he said, I kept thinking and I kept thinking about that rail and a great sustain.


BAKER: And there's actually a copy of this in Milwaukee, at the Discovery World Museum. And they have it set up so you can actually pluck it. So you can hear for yourself all that...

FLATOW: Great tone.

BAKER: Great. It just goes on and on.

FLATOW: Yeah. You took our producers, Alexa Lim and Christopher Intagliata, on a drive around Waukesha yesterday...

BAKER: Yeah.

FLATOW: ...and - to point out some historic places. And I want to play a little bit from that audio postcard, so that our listeners can hear that.


BAKER: So, the first thing we're going to go see is where Les went to elementary school. So we're driving along the Fox River, here. And this would have, of course, been here when Les was here. And this Red Brick School on the left is where Les went to elementary school. It was called Park School at the time.

Now this building on the right here was a brewery, the Weber Brewery. And one of Les' stories - and this so typical Les - Les said, yeah, you know where the Weber Brewery is? I said, sure, I know where that is. And he said, yeah, my buddies and I used to swim in the vats of beer and then he laughed. Come on. No, no, really. I...


BAKER: Les was born right here. His house was - the glass was so much of that. It was right about here, in the Walgreens parking lot. But the house is gone. When Les was about two years old, his parents decided to move. And I complained the street mall because this is where Les' house was. So if you look back where Golden Chicken is, that's where Les' would have been. So Les was born at Walgreens and grew up in Golden Chicken.


BAKER: In 1948, Les' dad, George, and his brother Ralph bought this little tavern, and they named it the Club 400. They named it that because the train that went right in front of this property was called the 400. It took 400 minutes to travel from Chicago to Minneapolis-Saint Paul. So it was the 400.


BAKER: I don't know. The owner has set if the light on, to knock on the window. So I don't know if it - we're taking in the scene. It looks pretty the same. Look at the bar. George and Ralph built that bar to look like a guitar in honor of Les. And where those steps are right now, those little steps going up to the vat area, Les and Mary performed. It was the very first time the two of them had ever played their guitars together.

Now this is Prairie Home Cemetery. Les chose this spot right here. And the reason he chose it was, he said, you know, there's going to be people coming to visit me. And I don't want them walking over someone else's grave to get to see me.

His name was Lester William Polsfuss. The guitar on the memorial is a 1952 Gibson Les Paul guitar. What informally has been happening is guitarists have been coming and leaving their guitar picks there. Les used to say, people think I'm a guitar. They don't know I'm a real person. And so it's really terribly ironic that what we do? We put up the guitar.


BAKER: Yeah. It's a cool place. I admit to sometimes coming over here and just sitting. This is a neat place to be. Well, OK. I just gave you the Waukesha tour.

FLATOW: Wow. Thank you for that..

BAKER: You're welcome.

FLATOW: That was great, taking us all in that tour. Are there a lot of guitar picks there?

BAKER: There are. It's very interesting. In fact, just yesterday, when we were there, there was a lot more, and they're from all over. And I, you know, I go and I'll look at them. There are different colors. There are different shapes. And it must - I find it interesting just to think about what guitarists are thinking when they leave their pick for Les.

FLATOW: Yeah, yeah. They must be thinking about the Log too. Tell us about the Log...


FLATOW: ...the famous log.

BAKER: Yes. Well, the first Log is the rail that I've just described a few minutes ago. But Les, as I told you, kept thinking about that wonderful sustain and the lack of feedback he got from the rail. Well, in the early '40s, he started thinking about that again. He was - at that time, he was playing in New York, and he was playing the clubs. He was playing jazz. He was playing with Fred Waring in the Pennsylvanians, but he kept thinking about that sustain that he wanted. So he went back to experiment. And he thought, OK, I know the rail is not really practical, so what is the next most solid, most dense piece in the trail that I can make a guitar from that's practical to carry?

So he took a four by four piece of wood, and he put guitar strings on it. And he put on the microphone and the bridge and the fretboard from - he put an Epiphone fretboard on it. And he set it up the way he thought it would sound really, really good. Now, keep in mind, when Les did anything, he spent an inordinate amount of time working and working to make it just perfect. Well, he got it to where he thought it sounded just perfect.

He took it to a club, and he played a song on it. And he got basically no reaction at all. And he was really disappointed, and he went home and he thought about it. He thought, gee, you know, it sounded really good. I wonder why the audience didn't respond. And then he thought, you know what, I think I'm going to take an old Epiphone acoustic guitar and saw it in half and give the guitar, my Log, some wings because it'll look more like a guitar. And maybe people will make the association about it. So that's what he did. He saw the acoustic guitar in half, and he put the wings on his log, and he took it back to the same club, played the same song, and people said, wow.


BAKER: That's a great sound. How did you do that? And Les said, people, hear with their eyes.

FLATOW: Wow. Same thing.

BAKER: Same thing.

FLATOW: It's the same thing. Did he feel like he had a better, purer sound than an acoustic guitar coming from his design?

BAKER: He loved the electric guitar. I mean, he talked about how his guitar was his first love, no matter what. And he loved the sound of the electric guitar. And, of course, he was always doing things with recording techniques so he could he change the sound.

FLATOW: Let's talk about that because we have a bit of Les Paul's hit song "Lover" that we're going to - as they used to say in the business, we're going to cue it up and put it on the air because this demonstrates some amazing recording techniques, right?

BAKER: Right.

FLATOW: What kind of techniques were you taking about?

BAKER: Right. Les wanted - well, it goes back to the story of - he was playing in Chicago. And his mother drove from Waukesha to Chicago to see him after his show. He's playing with The Andrews Sisters. And Evelyn, his mother, came up and said, Les, I heard you last night on the radio. You sounded great. Ma, you didn't hear me on the radio. I was backing up The Andrews Sisters. You couldn't have heard me. And she said, well, then Lester, you've got a problem because you know what, everyone playing those electric guitars sounds the same.


BAKER: So...

FLATOW: He decided to com up with something new.

BAKER: He did. He said, OK.

FLATOW: Let me - wait. Let me play.


FLATOW: Let me give an ID first and remind everybody that this is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR. And I'm Ira Flatow, here with Sue Baker, talking about Les Paul. And he - let's play the song. I got the song cued up. Let's play "Lover," and you'll describe the difference that we hear in the song.


FLATOW: Very famous song. And what he did do here that was so unique?

BAKER: This is sort of incorporated everything. In fact, probably the best way to describe it is in Les's own words. There's an autobiography about Les, and he wrote about "Lover." And these are Les's words: The way "Lover" was recorded is a good example of how multi-layering was done, using two-disc recorders. You'd lay down your first track down on a disc then play something along with it while you use the second machine to record the combined sound on the second disc.

Then you'd take that two-layered disc, move it over to the playback machine and repeat the process, adding the third layer, the fourth layer and so on. Each time you add a track, you are mixing it with everything you had layered before on a fresh disc. "Lover" was the first recording where I attempted to combine all my inventions and effects, the hot pickups, the varied disc speeds and my different playing techniques into a multi-layering - layered recording where I played all of the instruments.

I experimented with several different guitars in the process of building "Lover." There were several different versions where I used the aluminum guitar and others in various combinations. But for the final version, the one that became the hit, it's mostly the Log and my favorite clunker you hear. We went through about 500 discs to get there. Finishing "Lover" completed the creation of my signature sound, which came to be known as the new sound.


FLATOW: That is Les Paul.

BAKER: Isn't that amazing?

FLATOW: Yeah. That is a great description, his own description of how he did it. Well, is there something he never finished that he wanted to do?

BAKER: Yes. Les wound up wearing hearing aids in both ears, which is just so sad and ironic because all of his life he spent chasing sound. He's always wanting that perfect sound. And here's a guy that winds up wearing two hearing aids. And he never felt the hearing aids were where they should be. They never were good enough to meet his standards. And he often said, I've got to do something. Well, keep in mind, he died when he was 94. In his 90s, the man - in between playing his weekly gigs in New York City - he was working on improving hearing aids.


BAKER: I kept telling him, hurry up, Les. There's a lot of us coming up may need them. But he left us without fixing them.

FLATOW: And where are his - all of his stuff? Who's collecting his stuff because he has a lot of stuff?

BAKER: He has a lot of stuff. And we're really fortunate that right now there are four museums across the U.S. that have Les Paul exhibits. There's one in Waukesha, Wisconsin at the Waukesha County Museum. And just 20 minutes to the east is Discovery World in Milwaukee. And it's wonderful because there are two very different exhibits. But they're very complementary to each other. There's also the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Mahwah, New Jersey, where Les lived most of his latter years. Those four museums and there's more coming...

FLATOW: Anything that you'd like people to know about him that they don't know?

BAKER: Well, you can find out a lot by going to the Les Paul Foundation website, which is lespaulfoundation.org. We keep putting more things on all the time. I was fortunate enough to have become good friends with him the last 10 years of his life, and I so admired his attitude towards life. He had an attitude of if something got in his way, it wasn't a poor me. For example, he had really bad arthritis, and in the end, he couldn't even hold a pick without putting sandpaper on it so that he could really hang on to it. But he never complained about it. Instead, he said, you know what, I just have to figure out a new way to hold my pick.

FLATOW: Typical inventive spirit, never say die on that. Thank you very much, Sue, for sharing those memories. They're just great. Thank you.

BAKER: You're welcome.

FLATOW: Sue Baker, program director at the Les Paul Foundation. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.