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Solid-Body Electric Guitar

Paul One would be hard-pressed to find a guitar fan unfamiliar with the name Les Paul, who not only established himself as a renowned, pacesetting musician with a signature sound, but also contributed a number of advances in guitar design and recording processes, most notably with his invention of the solid-body electric guitar.

Born Lester William Polfus in Waukesha, Wisc., on June 9, 1915, he was hooked on music by the age of nine, and soon taught himself how to play the harmonica, piano, guitar and banjo. He also had a natural curiosity and ability with things mechanical and enjoyed making his own improvements to musical instruments. He built a recording machine, for example, from parts from an automobile and dentist drill, and an amplifier from radio and telephone components.

At the age of 13 Paul was performing semi-professionally and in high school joined a band by the name of Rube Tronson's Cowboys, going by the stage moniker "Red Hot Red." He dropped out of school to perform as "Rhubarb Red" with Wolverton's Radio Band at a station in St. Louis, Mo., where he worked with and was mentored by the talented Sunny Joe Wolverton. He relocated to Chicago and began performing as "Les Paul" in 1934, assembling his first trio in 1937 and releasing his first two albums. Next he moved with his then-wife, Virginia Webb Paul, to New York and became known as a performer on radio broadcasts of Fred Waring's Pennsylvanians until 1941. In 1943 he moved to Los Angeles, where he made a name for himself with a new group, the Les Paul Trio, and performed with big-time entertainers including Nat King Cole and Bing Crosby.

By the 1930s electric versions of hollow-body guitars had become widely available and though Paul tried playing them, he was unsatisfied with existing models. He began experiments with designs of his own during this decade and became convinced that a solid-body model was a viable concept. He believed a solid body design would produce a better sound with reduced feedback and better sustainability for notes and chords. He created a prototype using a railroad tie and an Epiphone guitar neck he called ์the Log.๎ He performed with his own specially designed guitars but no one else seemed particularly interested. He even approached the Gibson Musical Instrument Co. with his designs in the early 1940s, but the company was doing well with their arched, hollow-body electric models, and so, they rejected his proposals.

Paul was encouraged to press on by others in the business, however, including Crosby, who convinced him to set up his own studio and record his own masters. In 1948 Paul was involved in a debilitating car accident that permanently injured his right arm. While recovering, he began experimenting with recording devices en route to his breakthrough development of the concept of multi-track recording, which allowed musicians to play and record multiple parts of a song. In 1947, Capitol Records released "Lover (When You're Near Me)," the first-ever multi-track recording release, featuring Paul playing eight different parts on electric guitar. He played six parts himself on his 1948 hit, "Brazil," and he and recording partner Mary Ford, whom he married in 1949, released their first multi-track hit, a cover of "How High the Moon," in 1951, selling 1.5 million copies. Paul worked on perfecting the multi-track recording system until 1956 and the music industry has relied heavily on the multi-track system for studio recording ever since.

Meanwhile, in 1951, Leo Fender released a solid-body electric guitar called "the Broadcaster," and competition inspired Gibson to seek Paul's help in launching a comparable product. A collaboration employing Paul's original ideas led to the 1952 launch of Gibson's "Les Paul Model" which was an incredible success and has been subsequently used by musicians around the world. Paul was issued U.S. patent No. 3,018,680 for the Solid Body Electric Guitar in 1962, though many are said to have contributed to the solid-body concept. Paul's innovations went far beyond the solid-body guitar and multi-track system, however, with musical breakthroughs including sound-on-sound recording, overdubbing and reverb effects. His ideas are said to have helped define the blues rock-and-roll sound of the late 1960s and '70s and to have helped drive style for recording artists in rock, blues, country, alternative and metal music well into the 1990s and beyond.

After dozens of hit albums, musical milestones, four children and a divorce in 1963 from Ford, Paul went into semi-retirement in 1964 but returned to the scene several times in later years for recordings with Chet Atkins in 1976 and the Guitar Monsters in 1978, followed by regular trio performances in New York City from 1984 to 1996. He has been honored with a number of awards for his achievements including his 1978 induction, with Ford, into the Grammy Hall of Fame, induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1988, and induction into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2005. He was also awarded the John Smithson Bicentennial Medal from the Smithsonian Institution in 1996. As of this writing (Dec 2005), Paul lives in New Jersey and released an album in the fall of this year, at the age of 90.

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