Friday, August 14, 2009

American made, world played: Les Paul (1915-2009)

The new musical documentary “It Might Get Loud” examines the history and evolution of the electric guitar from the viewpoints of three of rock music’s best guitarists.

But while Jimmy Page, Jack White and The Edge will have a lot to say about the origins of the instrument that defines the modern rock sound, what they bring to any discussion of that history pales next to that of Les Paul, the man, the guitar legend who mastered the lost chord on Thursday, at a hospital in White Plains, N.Y., from complications of pneumonia, at the age of 94.

You’re entitled to suspect it’s hyperbole or bad marketing when someone’s referred to as “the father of” just about anything. But in the case of Lester William Polsfuss, it’s accurate to call him indisputably one of the fathers of rock and roll.

Having pioneered or assisted in such critical developments as overdubbing, multitrack recording and tape delay techniques, Les Paul made most of the sonic innovations we take for granted in rock music possible. He helped develop the design of the guitar that bears his name, one of rock music's three defining instruments (the Fender Stratocaster and the Rickenbacker being the others).

And Paul, being more than a gifted proto-geek behind the scenes, actually brought the passion as a guitar player, perfecting trills and various chord shadings that still give rock the letters of its language.

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If you want a taste of rock and roll’s future, do yourself a favor: Listen to the version of “How High the Moon,” the one that Paul and his first wife, Mary Ford, recorded in January 1951. Paul's guitar scats in and out and around Mary Ford’s equally athletic vocals … for a while.

Then Paul breaks away to fly solo – finger-picking already like nobody’s business, … laying down the dissonant chords that helped form the semiotic backdrop of our cold-warring, tail-finned, mid 20th-century American lives.

In that song’s two minutes and change, you can hear it: Years before Elvis Presley or Chuck Berry or Bill Haley, the musician and tinkerer from Waukesha, Wisc., had effectively created the electric guitar’s harmonic template, its sonic swagger and dissonance, the brisk but improvisational infrastructure of rock musical style.

On these foundations, every memorable rock and roll record in history would ultimately be built.

But Les Paul also appreciated the ways in which the absence of music forms its own musical statement. "I learned a long time ago that one note can go a long way if it's the right one," he told CNN in 2002, "and it will probably whip the guy with 20 notes." Lesson to wannabe shredmeisters and six-string heroes everywhere: Some of the greatest notes ever played are never played.

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It’s a tribute to how widely his contributions were appreciated that, within a day of his passing, guitarists from Trey Anastasio to B.B. King, Ace Frehley to Keith Richards had all weighed in with something to say. More will follow in the days to come, and later, when they have the absolutely inevitable tribute concert somewhere in America … with every one on that stage playing a Gibson Les Paul, no doubt.

But more importantly, it’s the best tribute to Les Paul himself, his sense of invention and an irrepressible passion for the future, that he kept working virtually all his life. If you want proof of this, look at the picture of him, an image taken last year by Thomas Faivre-Duboz at the Iridium Jazz Club in New York City, where Paul played until fairly recently with a small combo every Monday night.

Marvel at a man past the age of 90 but still swingin’, still active, still present in the world he helped to create.

Go play some rock and roll. Any rock and roll. Doesn’t matter what. He’s in there, in every trick and technique of the guitars you hear, in every tweak and effect of the studio that recorded the guitars you hear. He’s in there.

Les Paul didn’t create the sound of rock and roll. But it’s a certainty that without him, rock and roll wouldn’t have much of a sound at all.
Image credits: Gibson Les Paul: Zeppelin4life. Les Paul, 2008: Thomas Faivre-Duboz, republished under Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 2.0 license.

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