R.I.P. Les Paul

Slate's Culture Blog
Aug. 13 2009 2:07 PM

R.I.P. Les Paul

 

Advertisement

Popular music history might best be narrated not as a succession of styles or superstars but as a tale of sonic technology—a story of sounds and the stuff that makes the sounds. In which case, Les Paul, who died today at age 94 , might just be the most important rock-'n'-roller of them all. Just as the golden age of popular song was shaped by the piano, and hip-hop by sequencers and samplers, the rock era was dominated by the electric guitar. Paul's invention, in 1941, of the first solid-body electric gave rock 'n' roll (and come to think of it, blues and country and western and dozens of other genres) a defining sound and enduring icon. For generations of rockers, the Gibson guitar that bore Paul's name was indispensable—a perfect, pure-toned instrument; a talisman; and a phallus nonpareil .

Les Paul wasn't just a gearhead; he was a virtuoso. In the 1950s, Paul's limpid, lyrical, fleet-fingered guitar picking powered the dozens of hit records he made with his wife, singer and guitarist Mary Ford. (Ford's vocals were eerily multitracked in these songs—another of Paul's technological breakthroughs.) But Paul kept playing for decades after his heyday. I was lucky enough to see the maestro several times at the regular Monday-night gig that he played, into his 90s, at the Manhattan jazz club Iridium. He was old and looked it: slight, wizened, bent. But his fingers hadn't aged much. He didn't play as briskly as in the old days or attack his solos as forcefully. But the tone was as clear and radiant, particularly on ballads. If you closed your eyes, he didn't sound like a stately elderly legend. He just sounded like a great guitar player—some guy really killing it on a Gibson Les Paul.

Jody Rosen is a Slate contributor.

TODAY IN SLATE

Jurisprudence

Scalia’s Liberal Streak

The conservative justice’s most brilliant—and surprisingly progressive—moments on the bench.

Colorado Is Ground Zero for the Fight Over Female Voters

There’s a Way to Keep Ex-Cons Out of Prison That Pays for Itself. Why Don’t More States Use It?

The NFL Explains How It Sees “the Role of the Female”

The Music Industry Is Ignoring Some of the Best Black Women Singing R&B

Culturebox

Theo’s Joint and Vanessa’s Whiskey

No sitcom did the “Very Special Episode” as well as The Cosby Show.

Television

The Other Huxtable Effect

Thirty years ago, The Cosby Show gave us one of TV’s great feminists.

Cliff Huxtable Explains the World: Five Lessons From TV’s Greatest Dad

Why Television Needs a New Cosby Show Right Now

  News & Politics
Weigel
Sept. 18 2014 8:20 PM A Clever Attempt at Explaining Away a Vote Against the Farm Bill
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 18 2014 6:02 PM A Chinese Company Just Announced the Biggest IPO in U.S. History
  Life
The Slate Quiz
Sept. 18 2014 11:44 PM Play the Slate News Quiz With Jeopardy! superchampion Ken Jennings.
  Double X
Doublex
Sept. 18 2014 8:07 PM Crying Rape False rape accusations exist, and they are a serious problem.
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Sept. 18 2014 1:23 PM “It’s Not Every Day That You Can Beat the World Champion” An exclusive interview with chess grandmaster Fabiano Caruana.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 18 2014 4:33 PM The Top 5 Dadsplaining Moments From The Cosby Show
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 18 2014 6:48 PM By 2100 the World's Population Could Be 11 Billion
  Health & Science
Science
Sept. 18 2014 3:35 PM Do People Still Die of Rabies? And how do you know if an animal is rabid?
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.