Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Les Paul By Jon Sievert(3)


From Guitar Player, December 1977

When Les Paul appeared on the 1977 Grammy Awards show, more than a few people in the viewing audience were undoubtedly surprised to discover that he was neither (1) dead, nor (2) a guitar. Les, then 61, was not there for one of those tributes accorded creaking pioneers of the recording industry. He was there to receive a Grammy that he shared with Chet Atkins for the Best Country Instrumental Performance: Chester & Lester. The album was the first he had recorded in more than ten years, and the award represented just another notch in one of the most remarkable careers in show business history -- one that spans nearly half a century.

Ralph J. Gleason, the late dean of music critics, suggested some years ago that "no one in the history of pop music has had a greater effect on the ultimate pop sound than Les Paul." Guitarists as diverse as Wes Montgomery, Michael Bloomfield, Ray Benson, Pat Martino, Jerry Hahn, James Burton, Steve Howe, Peter Frampton, Steve Miller, June Millington, and Link Wray have all cited his influence and publicly proclaimed their love for his music; there are literally thousands more in the same debt.

The reason for Les Paul's importance are not hard to trace: even before Charlie Christian gained fame for his playing in Benny Goodman's band (1939-'41), Les's work with Fred Waring on network radio helped introduce the controversial electric guitar to a skeptical public. His designs of electric Spanish solidbodies were years ahead of the major manufacturers and his experiments with, and inventions of, presently routine recording techniques such as echo delay, phase shifting, sound-on-sound, overdubbing, and multiple-track recording, revolutionized the recording industry, catapulting himself and Mary Ford into national stardom in the early '50s. Additionally, he is responsible for the idea and design of the first eight-track recorder, and the world's most prestigious guitar bears his name.

Les Paul's story begins on June 9, 1916, in Weukesha, Wisconsin. Born Lester William Polsfuss, he had taken up the harmonica and built his first crystal set by age nine. The first thing he heard on that radio was someone playing the guitar, and he soon decided that he also wanted to play one, because it left him free to speak and sing.

His first guitar was from Sears Roebuck, and it wasn't long before he had learned enough chords -- three -- and songs to start performing at lunch hours for local Optimists and Lion Clubs and PTA meetings. The harmonica stayed in the act, as Rhubarb Red (Les's stage name at the time) fashioned his first harmonica rack from a coat hanger and began to develop the jokes and patter that remain a part of his performances today.

By the time he was 13, he had already built his first broadcasting station and recording machine and had amplified his guitar with a phonograph needle through the family radio. About that time, a western band featuring Joe Wolverton on guitar came trough town, and Les discovered for the first time that it was possible to make music above the third fret. Wolverton, impressed with the precocious guitarist and harboring a grudge against the band's vocalist, convinced the leader to fire the vocalist and hire Les in his place.

Following a summer of touring, during which he acquired his first Gibson, an L-5, Les returned to Waukesha to resume his schooling and experimenting. Within a year he received a call from Wolverton, now doing a single act, who invited Les to join him in Springfield, Missouri, to form a duet. Thus was born Sunny Joe & Rhubarb Red, with Les playing guitar, jug, harmonica, and piano, while Joe played guitar, banjo, and fiddle; both sang.

The combination was a hit as the two toured the Midwest, paying radio stations, clubs, fairs, theaters, and dance halls. One of Les's first projects was to build a PA system for the band's truck so that they could announce their arrivals. The two hit Chicago in the early '30s just as the town was beginning to break wide open as a jazz haven. Following the 1933 Chicago World's Fair, the pair ended their musical association. Les wanted to play jazz and electric, and Joe wanted to remain country and acoustic. Joe left for California, but Les stayed in Chicago and became two persons: his mornings were spent hosting a radio show for WJJD as Rhubarb Red, playing country music and receiving thousands of cards and letters a day, while at night he fronted a jazz group under his real name on station WIND. The dual identity extended to his recording projects. As Red, he recorded for Sears Roebuck and Montgomery Ward and had several modest hits. As Les Paul, he turned up on a number of "race" records with blues singer Georgia White, playing piano and guitar. Through it all he kept up his interest in inventing and electronics. In 1934, Les retained Chicago's Larson Brothers to build a guitar that he had designed in order to test his theories concerning solidbody instruments.

In 1936, Les tired of his double life and dropped his Rhubarb Red persona. His reputation as a jazz guitarist had grown swiftly as a result of countless late-night jam sessions with artists such as Art Tatum, Roy Eldridge, Louis Armstrong, and Eddie South. Les decided to form his own trio. Jim Atkins -- Chet's older half-brother -- handled vocal chores and rhythm guitar, while Ernie Newton held down the bass and performed some comedy routines. Shortly thereafter, the trio left for New York. Les hustled a gig with Fred Waring And His Pennsylvanians, the large vocal ensemble with whom the trio worked five nights a week, coast-to-coast, on NBC. Audience response was immediate, and soon Les was receiving more mail than Waring because of the sound of his electric guitar. The Waring job lasted nearly three years, during which time Les began to experiment on a noncommercial basis with the concept of multiple recording. In 1940, he left Waring to become the musical director of radio stations WJJD and WIND in Chicago and to play with Ben Bernie's big band.

In 1941, Les built his first solidbody guitar, which he dubbed "The Log." It was actually a 4" by 4" board with a pickup and an Epiphone neck. An Epiphone body split in half was added to make it look like a guitar. Five years later he went to Gibson with his idea. Gibson turned him down.

Les's career took a significant turn in 1943, when he and Bernie left Chicago bound for Los Angeles. Bernie soon died, and Les formed another trio. Almost immediately they began to work with established stars such as Bing Crosby, Burns & Allen, and Rudy Vallee. With the war under way, Les was drafted into the Armed Forces Radio Service (AFRS) to provide entertainment for GIs. His commanding officer was composer Meredith Willson (The Music Man, etc,), and Les was stationed in Hollywood, where his trio became the house band behind major entertainers such as Jack Benny, the Andrews Sisters, Dinah Shore, and Bing Crosby. During this period he also recorded a classic album called Jazz At The Philharmonic under the pseudonym Paul Leslie. The piano player on that album was Shorty Nadine, better know as Nat King Cole.

In 1946, Les recorded "It's Been A Long, Long Time" with Crosby, and the distinctive guitar work on that hit proved to be another big break. The superstar crooner was intrigued by Paul's recording experiments and urged him to build his own studio. Dissatisfied with existing equipment, Les decided to build a system better than anything then available. His recording lathe was fashioned from a Cadillac flywheel, and he began to develop techniques such as close miking, echo delay, and multiple tracking. The studio was built in his garage, and its quality attracted many artists who soon recorded there, including the Andrews Sisters, Pee Wee Hunt, Kay Starr, Jo Stafford, and W.C. Fields (his only recordings). In 1948, Les released his first multiple recordings, "Lover" and "Brazil." Playing all the parts on both tunes, he achieved some very unusual effects, and the Les Paul sound -- still one of the most distinctive and easily recognizable -- was born.

The records were hits, but the bright promise of Les Paul's career was dimmed by the intervention of fate. On the way to a concert one winter evening, Les's car skidded off an icy bridge and dropped 50 feet into a snow bank. Eight hours later he was discovered with a broken nose, a broken collar bone, six broken ribs, a slit pelvis, cracked vertebrae, and his right arm and elbow shattered. One doctor, a Les Paul fan, dissuaded a colleague from amputating the arm (perhaps preventing one of legal history's hugest verdicts for compensatory damages). When Les was informed that, at best, his right arm would be partially functional but immobile, he requested that it be pieced back together and positioned in a manner that would allow him to play the guitar. Les spent almost a year and a half in a hospital with a cast on his arm. While recovering, he released a number of follow-up tunes previously recorded with everything but the lead parts. Undaunted by neither his inability to properly hold the guitar nor the fact that he had no right-hand movement except in his thumb, he laid his guitar flat and recorded the solo lines with a thumbpick. His biggest successes were yet to come.

In December, 1949, he married an attractive young vocalist working with Gene Autry named Colleen Summers and promptly changed her name to Mary Ford. That same year, he conceived and perfected the technique of sound-on-sound recording. With Les utilizing this revolutionary method to multi-track Mary's vocals and his many-layered instrumental parts, the couple was quickly elevated to international fame by a long string of hits that peaked in August, 1953, when "Vaya Con Dios" reached the number one position on the national charts and stayed there for nine weeks.

The couple toured extensively and performed on nationwide television as guest stars several times a week. They were among the first name stars to endorse a commercial product -- Rheingold Beer -- and they soon agreed to host a TV show of their own, Les Paul and Mary Ford at Home, a hit for seven years.

In 1950, the instrument manufacturing industry was immersed in controversy over the solidbody guitar. Some traditionalists reacted to it with vehement resistance, but the pragmatists and money men could not discount the success of Leo Fender. When Gibson developed its own entry, they naturally went to Les Paul for support, since they had long desired an official endorsement from him anyway and especially because of his pioneering work in building solidbodies. In 1952 -- the year in which Ampex marketed the world's first eight-track tape recorder, designed by Les Paul -- Gibson introduced the gold-top Les Paul Model guitar. An immediate success, the line was soon expanded with a deluxe version (the Les Paul Custom) and economy models (the Junior, TV, and Special). The Les Paul Model became the Les Paul Standard in 1960. In the latter part of the following year, Gibson replaced the design with a thinner guitar, a double-cutaway. Les and the company soon terminated their endorsement agreement, and the name of the new series was changed to SG. In 1968, a second generation of single-cutaway Gibson Les Pauls was unveiled, including the Deluxe, reissues of earlier models, and later, the low-impedance Les Pauls: Personal (1969), Professional (1969), Recording (1971), and the semi-acoustic Signature (1973).

Les and Mary were divorced in 1964, legally and professionally. Disappointed with the general state of the music industry, Les retired to his Mahwah, New Jersey, home to pursue his great love of inventing on a full-time basis. However, he did not isolate himself from the music business in his retirement, and he took great pains to keep abreast of industry developments and to stay in touch with musicians.

In 1970, Les was again the victim of a serious accident. A visiting friend playfully cuffed his ear and broke an eardrum. Three years of operations followed, involving serious difficulty with the inner ear. In early 1974, as he started to get around again, he got itchy to start playing. He cautiously allowed himself to be booked for a college concert in Elgin, Illinois, took one of his latest inventions -- the Les Paulverizer -- and knocked out the crowd. Since then he has appeared in a stream of concerts, club dates, and TV shows all over the country, and he took a brief tour of Europe. Les Paul is a hit all over again.

With still more inventions and recording projects in the works, Les, at age 61, is looking ahead. This interview was conducted at Les's home in Mahwah, and the setting could not have been more conducive, for the house is virtually a recording industry museum. All of his original recording equipment is intact, including the eight-track recorder, sound-on-sound gear, and Gibson amp. The Log is there, as is an experimental Epiphone he modified in the late '30s, most of the 22 gold records, and a wealth of innovative radio and recording equipment. Guitars are everywhere.

Are you getting many job offers these days?

There aren't enough days in a week to handle the requests. It blows my mind. Happy Days is a show of mine; I'm the musical director. There are several recording projects in mind. I'm involved in many, many things. Chet and I are going to do another album.

How did those sessions with Chet Atkins come about?

Well, he called me sometime in 1974, and he heard I was moving about again, and did I want to do an album? I said sure, and then about another year later he calls again and says he's about ready -- just as soon as he gets his chops together. Then another year later he calls and says, "I've definitely made up my mind, and I'm gonna do it." I say, "Okay, I'm ready if you are." So I went in and dug out the guitar.

How did you select the tunes and format?

Chet said, "What are we going to do?" I said, "I don't know -- book the band and studio." So he did -- for a week. Then we went to this greasy little restaurant to sit down and kick it over. At first Chet suggested that I play harmonica and guitar; he'd play violin and banjo, and the two of us would sing. So I asked Chet if he wasn't one of the most well-known guitar players in the world, and why the hell should we fool around and do things we can't really do? Let's just play guitar. Chet said, "Who's gonna buy it? Just a couple of squares are gonna buy it." Anyway, I said, "Let's put a mike between us in case either of us thinks of something to say and just start playing." And he says, "But Les, I don't wing it. I'm not one of those guys who make it up on the spot. I rehearse every part very tightly." I said, "Well, let's lay it down and see what happens." So we get to the studio for the rehearsal, and the mike is set up, and we're sitting there saying, "What are we gonna do?" So he's thinking country, and a couple suggestions were made, and finally I said, "Do you know 'Avalon'?" Chet says, "Yeah," and we start to fall into it. I said the line about did Chet know who Mel Bay was? He fell right into it. Best straight man I ever had. Chet said, "Yeah, he sells the guitar book." And I said, "Well, let's send for it." Then I said, "How about 'Caravan'?" and off we go. So anyway, we sit there and come up with this list, and after a few hours, it's over. So we go up stairs to take a little rest, and Chet says, "I've got the band and studio for the rest of the week," and I said, "Chet, we're all done. I got a plane reservation. I'm going to Newark in a couple of hours. Just use the rehearsal." And Chet says, "But what about all those clams?" "Leave them," I say. "People like clams. They like to know we're human."

And did you succeed in releasing that rehearsal?

Yeah, and of course it won the Grammy. You could have knocked me over. I don't know why they called it country, through. Hell, there wasn't a country cut on it. Anyway, Chet is so easy to work with. We really blended together. He's so rhythmically tight and colorful and distinctive that it leaves me wide open to tear off way out in the field somewhere and fly my kite. In show business, there are guys who can wing it, and you're talking to a winger. As far as I'm concerned, I don't want to see anything until I'm right there. You just move me over to where I'm supposed to be when it's time, and I'll take it from there.

How did all of this get started? How did you begin making music?

At nine years old something started to grow in me that became noticeable. I knew that there was something happening. I was walking down the street, and I saw this sewer digger on his lunch hour open up his lunch pail, dig out a harmonica, knock out the cracker crumbs, and play a bunch of tunes on it. I was fascinated by that harmonica, so I stared the guy out of it. I just stared at him. He said, "Here kid, take it. Get out of here." So now I'm playing the harmonica, and I go over to my friend's house, and he's winding this piece of wire around a cardboard toilet paper roll. He's making a crystal set. So he draws me out a plan to make one, and I go home and make one. The first thing I hear on it is a guitar. And then I'm hearing the Grand Ole Opry, and a guy named DeFord Bailey is blowing blues harmonica, and I figure it out: it's not blow, it's draw. That guy's got a C harmonica, and he's playing in G. I figure it out, and all of a sudden, I'm the king of Waukesha, and I'm playing in little places all over town for tips. So I'm coming home making $30-$35 a week, and my brother's working 50 hours a week driving a truck and making $18.

When did you begin playing the guitar?

I didn't get my own guitar until I was 11 or 12, but I'd already learned a couple of chords on my friend's father's guitar. When I got my first guitar from Sears Roebuck, it came with a capo and a book called the E-Z Method For Guitar. The nut was adjustable so that I could make it Spanish or lap steel. The problem was that it was too big -- I couldn't get my hands around the fingerboard.

How did you handle that?

I took the sixth string off. I just decided to leave it off until I grew enough to reach it. So I started out on five strings, and that's when I discovered that moving the bridge changed the intonation. I asked, "This is not in tune -- why not?" So I marked it with a pencil and moved it, and the intonation changed. That led to other discoveries like height and action, and it progressed from then on. I was into customizing right away.

When did you start investigating electronics?

It was just sort of a thing with me that the electronics and the music grew at the same time. I started taking microphones and phonograph pickups apart to see how they worked right away. I had to know what everything was.

Did anyone help you? Any teachers?

Just the library. I'm a real book man. If it's in a book, I can get it. I used to spend hours in the library. Still do.

How did you get the guitar and the electronics together?

Well, when you play outdoors, where at least half my jobs were, you can't be heard unless it's amplified. So immediately I go for a microphone, amplifier, and electric guitar.

How did you do that?

First with a phonograph needle. I took my mother's record player apart and jabbed the needle into the guitar, and it came out the speaker. I didn't realize it then, but I was also doing stereo back in the '20s. The reason for that was my own ignorance. The only way I could figure out how to get amplified was to use my mother's radio, and I could plug a mike into that, and it was fine for my voice and harmonica, but I couldn't figure out how to put another mike in there so that I could also amplify the guitar. Then I took my dad's radio and hooked it all together and put one radio on one side of the stage and one on the other. Instant stereo. I just kept studying electricity and eventually figured out how to make a magnet, how to wind a coil, and what induction and capacitance are. It was fun. I built my own recording machine when I was 12.

How was that accomplished?

My dad owned a garage and had a lathe, so we could make a lot of the parts. It worked on a gravity-feed principle: you'd wind up a weight with a crank, and the weight comes down like a grandfather clock. When it hits the bottom, that's the end, and you'd better be done singing and playing before it hits, because that's all you get. That was the only way to get consistent speed.

Were you getting any kind of guitar instruction at that time?

No, it was all on my own or what I could cop from someone else. When I was about 11, Gene Autry played my hometown. This was before they has a theater there, so when Gene came to town to promote one of his movies, they just picked a parking lot and showed the movie on the outside wall of a building. So I went down to see him, and he was singing his songs, like "Silver Haired Daddy Of Mine," and he was playing in the key of F. At that time I only knew about three chords, and F was not one of them, so I had written out a fingerboard diagram and had it with me so that I could put down what he was playing. I had a flashlight, and sat in the front row. Every time he'd play an F, the light would come on, and I'd put a dot down on the diagram and then turn off the light. If he wasn't playing F, the light wasn't on. So finally, after an evening of this, he said, "You know, ladies and gentlemen, I've got to stop here for a second, because there's something that's really bugging me." And he went and hit an F, and the light lit. And he says, "Why in the world does that light come on just when I hit an F chord?" So I confessed, and he called me up on stage and asked me to play my guitar and sing. I was the hit of the town.

What guitars did you acquire after that?

I got the Sears guitar in 1927 and went almost immediately to a Gibson L-5. I went to the Kalamazoo, Michigan, factory to pick out the one I wanted. I had the 1927 model for a little while and then went to a 1928 model; I still have the 1928 one. Gibson had a pretty good lock on the market then. I didn't even hear a D'Angelico until I came to New York in 1936. I had heard of Epiphone, of course, with George Van Eps and the others. I still have the real great-sounding Epiphone that I used in the late '30s. I've built a bunch of guitars and rebuilt other ones until you wouldn't know what they were, but the L-5 was the leader of the band until the Les Paul. I was friends with the Epiphone people right up until the time that they went broke. I walk in, and they say, "Anything you want, Les, take it. We've had it." Very sad, because they made a wonderful instrument, but they weren't as progressive or as consistent as Gibson.

Were you playing electric guitar in your early act with Joe Wolverton?

No, he'd had none of that. Strictly acoustic.

What was the progression of development of your solidbody guitars?

Early on, I figured out that when you've got the top vibrating and a string vibrating, you've got a conflict. One of them has got to stop, and it can't be the string, because that's making the sound. So in 1934, I asked the Larson Brothers -- the instrument makers in Chicago -- to build me a guitar with a 1/2" maple top and no f-holes. They thought I was crazy. They told me it wouldn't vibrate. I told them I didn't want it to vibrate, because I was going to put two pickups on it. As far as I know, I was the first guy to put two pickups on a guitar. Before that, they always had just one. A guy picked a spot and put it there not because of how it sounded but just where it looked best or where it was convenient to install. Anyway, the next step was in the late '30s, when I took an Epiphone and bolted a 3/8" steel bar across the top of the body on the inside. The pickup was completely immune to vibrations from the bridge and from the neck. It was suspended, so it didn't touch the bar or the guitar and was shock-mounted so that it would not move. It gave me the equivalent of a solidbody guitar. The sides of the body were for cosmetic purposes only.

When did the Log come about?

That was 1941. Epiphone gave me the use of their factory on Sundays. I could go down there and use their tools and work all day. That's where I built it. It was the next logical step. The Epiphone people would come in and shake their heads when they looked at it.

Did you use it a lot?

Oh yeah. I used it to put down the bass guitar lines on my records. I used it a lot when I was in California in the '40s. I was living in Hollywood, and everybody -- Leo Fender, Bigsby, all of them -- were in my back yard looking at that Log and the Epiphone with the steel bar. When I took it to Gibson around 1945 or 1946, they called it the broomstick with a pickup on it.

What guitars did you use before the Gibson Les Pauls?

I was using the one with the steel bar and the Log most of the time. I made my first multiple recording, "Lover," with an aluminum guitar that I built.

A guitar made out of aluminum?

Yeah, I made three or four of them. I've got one here. I had a few hits on that guitar -- "Caravan," "Brazil." I also did the recording session with W.C. Fields on that one. The problem with it didn't show up until I went out on stage. I was working with the Andrews Sisters at the Paramount on Broadway, and the guy got up there with two hot spotlights and hit the aluminum guitar, and it started to do all kinds of crazy things. The first thing I know, I'm saying, "Holy God, what's wrong with my ear?" So I tune it again, and I get it right, and then the guy pulls the spot over to one of the Andrews Sisters, and I start sinking into another key again. I says, "There goes my invention." Many of my hiding places around here are full of inventions I've tried that were stupid. But they weren't so stupid that I wouldn't try them. I thought at the time that they were all good.

Who were some players who influenced your style?

Eddie Lang. And there was a guy I used to hear on the radio who used a capo and a thumbpick; I don't know his name. He was one of the Three Keys. Django Reinhardt really knocked me out, of course. But that was later on. Back when I was starting to learn to play the guitar, there wasn't really anybody for me to look at. I'd hear some guys at the Opry, but they weren't doing a whole lot. I found a Chicago musicians' union book from 1929 not too long ago, and I think there were maybe six guitar players listed. That's how few there were. There were other guitar players that came along, but they didn't really influence me. Very few guitar players really connected with me. There weren't any electric players to speak of. I'm the one who went to the union and insisted that they make a separate category for electric guitar in the union book.

Were you playing electric guitar as Rhubarb Red on Chicago radio?

Oh yeah. I had my L-5 with a pickup on it and then that guitar with the 1/2" maple top, the one that the Larsons had built for me.

How were you meeting all of the jazz players?

That was easy, because Chicago was the fireball in the early '30s. All the great music was in Chicago. They either came to town, or they were already there. You never took a streetcar or bus to get to clubs. They were too close. You'd just take your guitar in your hand and walk from one club to another. Every theater in the neighborhood had vaudeville. We lived jamming. It was wonderful. I was playing jazz all night, so I would sleep in the lobby of the studio where we did the Rhubarb Red radio show. I needed every minute of sleep I could get. I worked out the concept that every minute of my life was valuable. So if I got the chance to play with Art Tatum and Roy Eldridge, I made the time, even if I didn't get much sleep.

When did you decide to go to New York?

In 1936. I thought -- it's time to move, it's time to take this and go into the big time of tomorrow, which at that time was either New York or Los Angeles. So we packed our car -- the Les Paul Trio -- and flipped a coin. Heads, New York; tails, L.A. It was heads. The guys said, "Well, what are we going to do when we get there?" I say, "Don't worry, because [bandleader] Paul Whiteman is a very good friend of mine." Now, I've never met the man, but here we are, on our way, driving like three fools. When we get to New York, we hit a cheap hotel with the bathroom down the hall, and Jim says, "Don't you think we ought to call up your dear buddy, Paul Whiteman?" So I look up his number and call the office, and the secretary wants to know who I am. I tell her Paul and I are old friends. She says, "Mr. Whiteman doesn't seem to remember you; what's this in regard to?" I told her that we had a trio, but she said, "Mr. Whiteman is very busy and doesn't have time to see you." I hung up.

Where did that leave you?

Well, the guys say, "What'd he say?" I tell them he says to come right over. We went to 53rd and Broadway and pressed the button and went up there. It says "Paul Whiteman" on the door, and it's a hot day, and I can see him in the back. There's a girl at the reception desk. I tell her I called a few minutes ago and that I'm Les Paul, and I've got my trio here, and I'm sure Mr. Whiteman is anxious to hear us. Whiteman gets up and slams the door. The guys are not too happy with me, and we're standing in the hallway when Fred Waring starts to go into Whiteman's office. So I said, "Aren't you Fred Waring? We'd sure like to play something for you." He says, " I've got 62 Pennsylvanians now, and I can't feed them." So I says, "You've got nothing to lose. The elevators are all down on the ground floor -- can we play until the elevator gets here?" So we whipped out our guitars and started playing, and the faster the elevator came up, the faster we played. He cracked up and said, "Put that stuff in the elevator." We did and went one floor down to his office, and we went into the rehearsal hall where all the Pennsylvanians were. And he says, "Men, I just had the damnedest thing happen to me, and if you like this trio as much as I do, I'm going to hire them." We went to work that day.

How did that affect your career?

That put us on the air coast to coast, and I received more letters than Waring, telling me to stop playing that electric guitar. We used to do two shows a night, one at seven, one at eleven. One for each coast because of the time difference. So one time, I did the show using the acoustic for one show and the electric for the other. We recorded them and listened to them and took a vote among the trio and Fred, and it was unanimous to stay with the electric. So I says, "That's it."

Was Gibson building pickups for you at that time?

No, they never built them for me, and I wouldn't tell them what I was doing. They were on their knees begging me to tell them how I could run all this cable and how I could do this and that. I finally told them in 1967 after I had retired. I always built my own pickups or altered the ones they gave me.

And what was the secret?

Something that should have been pretty obvious: low-impedance pickups. Unfortunately, we started in the music industry with high impedance and locked ourselves in and for some reason haven't turned ourselves around. I figured out very early through my study of electronics that low impedance was the way to go. I figured that if the telephone company used it, that's the way to go. If you walked into a professional recording studio and someone handed you a high-impedance mike, you'd think he was nuts.

Why are low-impedance pickups superior?

Well, first of all, if you're in the club, you don't pick up the sound of the cash register or the neon lights, and you can run as much cord as you want. With high-impedance, every foot of chord adds capacitance and knocks down the high frequencies, the treble. So what does the guy do? He says -- give me another amp, or give me another guitar, or whatever -- when he should be worried about the length of the cable or his pickup.

So how did high-impedance pickups become the industry standard?

They're cheaper. With high-impedance you wind the coil and go directly into the tube or transistor. With low-impedance you need a transformer to transform the energy from low to high at the amplifier.

When did you first start getting interested in multiple recordings?

That actually goes all the way back to 1927, which was the year my mother got her player piano. She didn't like to pump the thing, so she made me do it. As I pumped the piano and watched the keys go down, I could tell what was happening. Then it was a question of what wasn't being played. There was a lot of paper left over, so I started punching holes in it. If it was a wrong note, I'd just cover the hole with a piece of flypaper. My mother comes home to listen to her piano, and all hell breaks loose. There was always a long leader, so I cooked up some hot intros. So the first time I started adding parts to songs was on a piano roll.

When did you start doing disc-to-disc multiples?

That was around 1946, when I built the studio in my garage in Hollywood. I built the two recording lathes out of Cadillac flywheels -- cost a lot less that way, and they worked better than anything else that was around then. I had seven number one hits with disc multiples: "Lover," "Nola," "Goofus," "Little Rock Getaway," and some others -- they were all recorded on disc -- no tape. You'd get two machines going, record on one, play that back, then play and sing along with it, recording on the other. And you just keep doing that, back and forth. "Lover" had some 24 parts on it. And you'd better not make a mistake, because if you do, it's back to number one.

What were disc recording's advantages over tape?

Tape was what you call modulation distortion, which is inherent in the tape, and this is one of the things they're still fighting with tape. You didn't have that kind of distortion with disc. But every dog has its day; the disc had its drawbacks. As you go to the inside of the record, you would lose highs. I got around that by recording at 78 rpm on the outside of a 17" disc. That gave me a lot of room, and I was burnin' up those discs. That's why the quality was so great. I was going at 78, with EQ of 33 1/3, so when my records came out, they were hotter than a skunk.

When did you start doing sound-on-sound with tape?

That was about 1949, I never told Ampex what I was doing. I just asked them for a fourth head, and they just drilled a hole and put it there. They had no idea about what I was doing, and I didn't tell them until five years later. "How High The Moon" was our first big hit on tape. Eight-track came in 1952. I just went to Ampex with the idea and handed it to them. I never did patent it. They built it for me, but it took them four years to get it right. I've still got it here, and it's the best machine in this place. My modern machines have one tough time trying to keep up with the old one. The original board is here too, and it also surpasses anything around.

In what way?

It's because everybody wants things small. They want them transistorized -- everything on a little chip. Don't get me wrong -- we work with the chip. We're heavily into research work, and I don't want to sound like a stubborn old-timer, but the tube will outperform the transistor or chip. The chip might cost 29 cents or what ever, and it draws very little current, and it doesn't dissipate nearly as much heat, and it's lightweight and compact, etc., etc., but the old-timer is still the most consistent. The change to solid-state is inevitable though, because price forces you to compete, and maybe they'll come up with something better in the end.

How do you record your guitar?

I've gone directly into my amp and into my mixer since 1934.

How do you feel about modern recording techniques?

Much more complicated than they need to be. One of the first things I learned in the multiple-track business is that this machine can run away from you -- it can run you, instead of you running the machine. I learned that the machine can be a bitter enemy, because he will do anything you tell him to, and you better be careful. Another thing -- just because there's a track open doesn't mean you have to put something on there. When I made "My Baby's Coming Home," the guy at Capitol called me up and said, "We didn't get the complete record -- there's only one voice and one guitar on it." And I say, "That's it. That's the whole thing." And he said, "How can you do that, when the last one had about 28 voices and a million guitars on it?" I says, "Well, that's all it needs. If it only needs one, what do you want to put down 28 for?" What you have now is guys going into the studio and laying the parts down and searching for something. They really don't know what it's going to sound like when it's done. Some may have an idea, but damn few.

How did you do it?

The way I do it and have always done it is like this: I don't touch the machine until I'm sure of the whole arrangement. Then I go to the machine, and in 15 minutes, I'm done. I learned to do it like that working with sound-on-sound. You better know what the end is before you start, because you can screw yourself up in a hurry.

What is the Les Paulverizer?

It's a remote control box for a tape recorder, and it's mounted right in the guitar. Let me back up and tell you where the idea started. Making the multiple recordings -- first disc and then on tape -- and doing the echo delay and sped-up sounds, it rapidly dawned on me that people would want to hear a sound like the records when performed live. You walk out there with just one voice and one guitar, and you've got a problem. If they yell out, "How High The Moon," you've got to give them something close as possible. So I came up with the bright idea of taking Mary's sister and hiding her offstage in a john or up in an attic -- wherever -- with a long microphone. Whatever Mary did onstage, she did offstage. If Marry sniffled, she sniffled. It just stopped everyone dead. People couldn't believe it or figure it out. There was no tape then, so when this came around, it was highly different and shocking. One night I hear the mayor of Buffalo sitting in the front row tell his wife, "Oh, it's simple. It's radar." So a couple years after playing with the extra voice and an orchestra and everything, they began to think that they heard all kinds of things. They put things in there that weren't there. But I felt the real solution was to make it sound just like the record, as close as possible, and eventually I came up with the idea of the remote tape control unit, and I built the first box. I used it for the very first time in a performance for President Eisenhower.

Did you modify the equipment after that?

Yes, as time went on it got more sophisticated, more condensed. When I came out of retirement, I looked around and found that all that equipment weighed 1,100 lbs. So I told my engineers that I wanted it down to 120 lbs, and they said it couldn't be done. I said it could be done, and it would be done, and it was. And it does much more than it ever did before. Now when we go out on a job, we throw it in the back seat of the car or under the seat of a plane, and we're gone. It takes us maybe 15 minutes to set up. And you look at the other guys -- five 18-wheelers pulling up with all their gear.

And all signals come out of one line?

All out of one line. I have my microphone mounted right on the guitar, and it comes out of the same line as the Paulverizer. Some of the stuff is so simple. I believe simplicity is the greatest, but it's the toughest thing to get sometimes. They'll make it complicated, the public will. The mayor says. "It's radar." You know who figured out the trick with Mary's sister? Nobody could figure it out. Life Magazine couldn't. We wouldn't tell anybody; it was a secret for years. Then one night, a man came backstage with his little girl and says, "If I tell you how you're getting that sound, will you give me a yes or no?" I said, "Sure" and the little girl says, "Where's the other lady?" It took a little kid who didn't have a complicated mind. Everybody saw machines, turntables, radar -- everything but the simplest thing.

When you came out of retirement, was it difficult for you to get your chops back?

I was desperate, but still I didn't scramble. I guess I just leaned more on what was in mind than what was in my chops. I learned a long time ago that one note can go a long way if it's the right one, and it will probably whip the guy with 20 notes. With 20 notes -- he's got a lot of problems. My chops were not as fast as when I was a kid; things that were done a certain way before were harder to do when I came out of retirement. But then the speed came back. Chops come back, and you don't worry about them. I think the most important thing about playing is to walk out with confidence and look the people right in the eye and say, "Here I am," and go and do your thing. As soon as they know you're confident, they're confident. As long as you adjust to them, you're not in trouble. You should eyeball them and find out what they want and give it to them. They didn't pay to come and look at the tapestries.

Do you like any of the currently popular guitarists?

Oh, sure. There are a lot of them I like for certain things. It seems to me that there's a number of guys that got a lot of things going for them, and I can understand what they're doing. And I can't say that any of them seems to have a corner on the market, I think everyone would agree: there is no one guy shinning, no one guy who is king above all. But one of the problems with the new crop on the horizon is they've got their razor-clean playing, but it's like a clock. It's about as musical as a metronome. It's easy to play like a machine, and when a guy gets to playing like a machine, it's frightening. You've lost all the feeling in it. We can appreciate how hard he practiced and studied and probably skipped playing basketball and going with girls, but I still feel that in many cases, what is lacking is that the guy is not saying anything. And that's what music is all about. He can pick clean, but the music is expressionless.

Do you go out to concerts much?

Oh sure, I keep up, but it's getting harder to do. Right now, as far as I'm concerned, the music industry has a big void in it. Everybody's searching for a change. I think Roberta Flack is looking for it; I think Bette Midler is looking for it; I think the Rolling Stones are looking for it. Somebody's got to come along. In 1948, the door was open, and there was a hole sitting there, and I came along with the idea of the Les Paul sound. It was wide open for me to come in and clean up and sell millions of records, because there was nobody in the bag.

Which Les Paul guitar is your favorite model?

I would have to say the Recording. It's an excellent box, although the guy playing with a rock group who wants to drive the daylights out of a Marshall may want to use a regular Les Paul, because he can get more power out of it. The Recording has low-impedance pickups, and I feel it strikes the best balance of any guitar ever made.

Which model are you playing now?

I'm playing one of the low-impedance prototypes. It's got the same body size and shape but doesn't have an arched top. It also has my own pickups on it and a steel bar running through it. All my guitars have that steel bar. Improves sustain.

How long will you continue your career?

That's one thing I get asked all the time on the stage: "How long are you going to keep playing?" And I say, "Until someone tells me not to." The day that I recognize the fact that I'm not needed or that I can't make someone happy, then I'm not going to play."