Did Anyone Sound Like Les Paul

December 1, 2009

GIVEN THE HUGE AMOUNT OF INFLUENCE THAT LES PAUL HAD on guitar, it’s remarkable that practically nobody sounds like him. Famed players of the Les Paul guitar, such as Eric Clapton, Michael Bloomfield, Billy Gibbons, and Peter Green, certainly didn’t try to cop his tones or techniques. And when Paul’s contemporaries were popularizing the dark, round textures that would become the signature sound of the jazz guitar, Les—himself a skilled jazzer— focused on making his guitar sound as bright and clean as possible. In a letter written in 1974 to Guitar Player publisher Jim Crockett, he states, “I have a big pet peeve with some of the jazz players—they cut out all the highs. Most of the time it’s difficult to tell if they’re playing clean or not. In the recording studio their treble response goes to 2kHz or less. This is sad—I like a good clean player.”

Les Paul touted low-impedance pickups for their quietness and ability to keep the high frequencies intact. And instead of using distortion, he embellished his recordings with tinkling, high-pitched lines that he must have painstakingly tracked at half speed! By the late 1940s, Les Paul was already light years ahead of the pack. By working alone and not documenting any of his recording techniques, he essentially locked the gates to his vast sonic playground, making it virtually impossible for anyone to follow in his footsteps.

Of course, nothing’s impossible if you want it badly enough, and one guitarist who managed to decode some the Wizard of Wausheka’s mysticism was Danny Gatton. As a youngster, Gatton began to venture into Les Paul’s bag of tricks using a setup he devised with two tape decks. “Danny was the one guy who could re-create the Les Paul sound,” says guitarist Tom Principato, who recorded an album with Gatton in 1984 called Blazing Telecasters. “I have some of the recordings he made in Les’ soundon- sound style that are quite amazing. I also remember him using a ’53 Tele in the early ’70s that he’d fitted with a Charlie Christian pickup in the neck position so he could get that fat, Les Paul tone.”

Gatton’s celebrated tribute to Les Paul is his rendition of “Cherokee” from the album Unfinished Business, which sports the harmonized melodies and cascading, octave-above lines that were signatures of the Les Paul sound. Gatton also shared with Les Paul an interest in the mechanical side of music making, and it’s likely that the Les Paulverizer—a device that Paul built in ’50s to control the functions of a multi-track tape recorder from his guitar— inspired Gatton to outfit his ’61 Les Paul with his own Dingus Box. Gatton’s invention differed in that it remotely controlled his Echoplex, MXR EQ, Leslie speaker cabinet, and his amp’s reverb and tremolo—but the desire to create sounds on the fly was certainly something he had in common with Les Paul. (Gatton can be heard using this rig on a live, two-CD set from 1978 called Redneck Jazz Explosion Volume 1 and 2.)

By the mid 1950s, the glistening sound of Les Paul had given way to the raunchier tones and tougher playing styles of rock and roll. There was no looking back either, as most of the iconic blues and rock guitarists ventured ever further away from the pristine Les Paul sound. Pop music tastes had changed to the point where the records by Les Paul and Mary Ford were like epic monuments to a different age. Today, we still don’t completely understand how Les Paul created all those amazing sounds. What matters most is that he inspired people to play guitar. If they never sounded exactly like him, Les could have cared, well, less.

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