R.I.P. Les Paul

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

R.I.P. Les Paul

 

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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.