Les Paul, 1915-2009

Les Paul literally made possible all the music you love, and he died today.

Paul essentially invented the solid-body electric guitar in 1939, and the Gibson guitar that bears his name and design influences came to define rock and made perfect noises in the right hands—Jimmy Page, Paul Westerberg, Neil Young, Mick Jones, and on and on. He was also the first person to ever release a music recording using multi-tracking—recording an instrument and then playing it back while recording another audio track in concert with it—in 1947. Multi-tracking is recording—without that innovation, there would have been no White Album, no Radiohead, no nothing.

Paul was also a virtuoso guitar player and recorded 11 No. 1 hits with his wife, Mary Ford, including "Vaya Con Dios."

Les Paul, 1915-2009

Paul was 94. In high school, your blogger saved up $600 from a summer job delivering chlorine to pools, and decided to buy a guitar. I picked out a Les Paul Studio—a huge, solid, heavy maroon thing with a bunch of phase switches and dials that I didn't understand and a neck like a baseball bat. I thought it looked cool. It did look cool. It turned out to have been a special model designed for recording that couldn't play loud or overdrive an amp—which was all I wanted to do—and I was sorely disappointed.

Years later, I saw Paul play at the Iridium, a Manhattan jazz club he played weekly up until the end. When I saw that Paul, the guy who built the edifice upon which rock grew, played a Les Paul Studio, I regretted all the years I spend not playing that guitar, and realized how cool I would have looked doing it. Paul's hands were arthritic and knotty, but he played beautifully. He'd retaught himself, in his 80s, how to play without bending his fingers.