All You Need Is One Note - The Wisdom Of Les Paul

December 1, 2009

Les Paul’s relationship with GP throughout the decades provided the magazine with many opportunities to share his vast musical and technical knowledge with readers. As we perused many of his past interviews, it became obvious that his words could populate a magnificent primer on how to be a “complete” guitarist—a master of live performance, melody, harmony, dynamics, recording and production techniques, tone, and more. Here, then, is a short collection of the master’s astute insights, as excerpted from the GP archives.


“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 half-inch 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.” —December 1977


“In your mind, you have the sound you would crave to hear, but there are a million variables: The pickup that’s capturing the sound of the string, the amplifier and whether EQ is involved, the sides of the speaker cabinet, the speaker itself, where you place the amp in the room, how large or small the room is, and whether you’re hearing the sound coming at your head, or whether it’s going between your legs. Then, you might want an exaggeration of certain sounds within the spectrum you’re playing. You may want a boost on the fourth string or the third string. You can spend a lifetime on each individual sound that you wish to create, and there are so many variables that you’ll be chasing a sound that you’ll probably never find. I’m 90 years old, and I’ve never found it yet. What I did do is find the best sound for a particular moment.” —December 2005


“A guitarist needs to take into account that he’s playing with other instruments. Does your tone blend with the piano, does it blend with the drums? Does it marry into the family you’ve created, or does it stick out all by itself?” —April 1997


“If I hit a clam, I tell the audience, ‘Well, I missed that one. I’ll go back and get it.’”—August 1984


“When you pluck that string, you have a choice of playing it at the neck, or near the middle of the guitar, or bringing it two-thirds of the way down toward the bridge, or picking it right at the bridge. You have a choice of picking it hard or very light. You can either fan it, or you could beat it, okay? Now, if I’m playing a sweet song, I’m going to pick that string where I get the softest, sweetest, most caressing sound I can get. But if I want this thing to come down—bang!—with a hard percussive sound, then I’m going to pick it back by the bridge.

“I would never, however, pick near the middle of the string. That’s a clothesline— it’s half the length of the string! So how do you figure out where to pick when you’re playing a song? Well, let’s say you want to express the deepest, roundest sound that you can get. Now, what is better than white? And what’s the most extreme difference from white? Black. So what you do is pick the note where you got white, pick it where you’vegot black, and put it where you’ve got gray. This how you paint a picture with your ear.” —December 2005


“I think the most important thing about playing is to walk out with confidence, 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, find out what they want, and give it to them. They didn’t pay to come out and look at the tapestries.” —December 1977


“When you play a song, it should have some meat in it. It should rhyme. You should leap out of your chair and say, ‘Wow—that’s great!’ If not, you’d better fake it, or hope that your instincts save you.” —December 2005


“Modern recording equipment is much more complicated than it needs be. One of the first things I learned in the multitrack business is that the machine can run away from you. It can run you, instead of you running the machine.” —December 1977


“I once asked [Gypsy jazz guitarist] Jimmy Rosenberg what was the toughest thing in playing the guitar, and he said, ‘Slow.’ He said ballads killed him, because it’s so difficult staying with one note. Now, that’s true. All you need is one note, but the trick is finding the right note—a note that sparkles like the Hope Diamond, and with all this air around it. I’ve never forgotten hearing Count Basie one night. He was in a wheelchair, and they pushed him up this ramp, and got him seated at the piano. All of a sudden, the band breaks, and Count Basie’s hand comes down, and he hits one note. Now, that was the most precious note I’ve ever heard, and it laid me flat out. So, you know, you can have all the talent in the world, but it has to be controlled— like a racehorse.” —December 2005


“I’m a fast player, but I sit down and make them wait for the run, and I only put in the run where it belongs. And, hopefully, it’s not disturbing the melody.” —January 1989


“You can practice in your head, too—just have a good conversation with yourself and figure out where you’re gonna go.” —August 1996


“I never walk over to a recording machine until I know what I’m going to do. I don’t expect the machine to create a hit, because it only records what I have to say. This means I know what I’m going to do in the song’s intro, I know the tempo I’m going to play it in, I know what I have to say, and I know I have to say it in so many minutes and so many seconds. I know how the song is going to start out, and how it’s going to end. I know where it has to build up. I know the microphones I’m going to use, and I know the arrangement, and the instrumentation. And, with me, it’s from beginning to end. I invented multitracking, so I know that you can record parts separately and punch things in, but I don’t do that. My thinking is that a song has to have one feeling, and when you punch in, you’ve got one feeling over here, another feeling in the middle, and something different near the end. When you piece it together, that’s what comes out—pieces. The feeling doesn’t flow. Now, I’m not saying that you shouldn’t punch in if you missed a note. I’m just saying that, generally speaking, a song sounds better and more alive as a continuous performance of how you’re feeling.” —December 2005


“I always built my own pickups, or altered the ones Gibson gave me. This is because I figured out very early through my study of electronics that low impedance was the way to go. If you walked into a professional recording studio and someone handed you a high-impedance mic, you’d think he was nuts. High-impedance pickups are the industry standard simply because they’re cheaper. 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. But with highimpedance pickups, every foot of cord adds capacitance, and knocks down the high frequencies. That should have been pretty obvious. Unfortunately, we started in the music industry with high impedance, locked ourselves in, and, for some reason, we haven’t turned ourselves around” —December 1977


“Showmanship is very important. You’ve got to go on and off with a bang. From the audience’s point of view, though, the ending is more important than the beginning. You’ve got to know where the hell you’re going. If you mess up on the ending, it’s over. You’ve just signed your death warrant.” —August 1984


“Have you noticed that there are millions of guitar players, but it’s still difficult to find five great ones? This applies to singers, violinists— you name it. It’s a matter of presentation, but facts are facts. Superstars with real talent—God seems to make sure it’s a limited run.” —August 1984


“I’ll keep playing 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.” —December 1977

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