On Aug. 13, the most important living person in rock and roll history died due to complications from pneumonia. He was 94 years old. And he invented the solid-body electric guitar.
Les Paul’s innovation wasn’t limited to just the axe; he was a tinkerer and an inventor and pioneered recording processes like overdubbing and multi-track recording—things later groups like the Beach Boys took to incredible heights. Paul was also an accomplished player in his own right—his albums sold millions over the years across multiple genres—country, jazz, folk and pop. As a player, he influenced legions who came after him—from Chet Atkins to Al Dimeola and everyone in between.
A story I love: Legend has it that he was in a horrible car wreck in the late ’40s and his right arm was shattered. Doctors were going to have to set it in an immobile position for the rest of his life, so Paul had them set it at a right angle so he could still play the
It’s fitting that his death was so close to the anniversary of Elvis Presley’s (Aug. 16, 1977). Though we could argue about who invented rock and roll (really, it was the combined efforts of Elvis, Little Richard, Fats Domino, Alan Freed, Louis Jordan, Chuck Berry and a few other folks—like anything truly awesome, it needed to be invented by committee), one truth is universal: without the electric guitar, none of it makes any difference.
Can you imagine Jimi smashing an acoustic and lighting it on fire? “Purple Haze” is a forgettable folk tune without distortion. Page and Plant? Eddie Van Halen? Stevie Ray Vaughn? Santana? Prince? Do you remember when Dylan plugged in? It turned an entire genre on its ear—folkies had no idea what to do (other than smoke some more pot and complain). All thanks to Les Paul.
Sometimes, an invention comes along that changes the course of human history in such a profound way that mankind loses sense of what life was before it. Antibiotics. The printing press. The internal combustion engine. The telegraph. The transistor.
The electric guitar is on that list. Not so much because of what the guitar could do, but because of what people did with it. The electric guitar gave voice to so many artists that mattered in so many ways to the cultural evolution of human history in a way unseen since the Renaissance. It is as important to the last century as canvas and paintbrush was then.
Paul lived longer than most good rock icons should, but unlike so many that do, his relevance has never been questioned. Instead, he got to do something so few great inventors have been able to do: watch how humanity embraced his invention and was bettered for it; which had to elicit a sense of satisfaction I can only dream about.
With the act of stringing a log of wood and wiring it to an amplifier, Paul launched a revolution that marches forward, decades after it was set aflame. He will be missed.