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10 Things You Gotta Do To Play Like Les Paul

June 1, 2009
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AS ONE OF THE FOUNDING fathers of the electric guitar, genius inventor and designer—and guitarist par excellence—Les Paul stands as one of our country’s greatest national treasures. A true living legend, Paul’s unparalleled career stretches back to well before the dawn of tape-based recording technology, and it’s safe to say that his influence has touched every guitarist who has since walked the planet. You’ll hear echoes of Paul’s playing in everyone from Jeff Beck, Keith Richards, and Danny Gatton to George Benson, Pat Martino, and Brad Paisley. But it wasn’t only Paul’s playing that cast a wide spell. His inventions literally changed the world.

It all began about a decade after Lester William Polfus was born in Waukesha, Wisconsin on June 9, 1915. Les’ early fondness for reading and tinkering bred a knack for modifying whatever materials he had access to in order to suit his own needs. Whether it was sticking a phonograph needle in the top of his first Sears-Roebuck guitar to amplify it (circa 1927!), or fashioning a harmonica holder out of wire (one of many patented Paul inventions), as Les became more interested in music, he simply invented whatever he needed to get the job done.

Paul began making what he called “multiple” recordings first by punching out additional holes in his mother’s player piano rolls, and later by utilizing a pair of disc cutting lathes. Les would record a part directly to a 78rpm acetate, then add a second part by playing along with the first disc while simultaneously cutting a second one. By repeating this process, Paul could build up as many tracks as he wanted, with one small drawback—any mistake meant re-cutting the previous disc. Keep making clams and you’d end up back where you started! Eventually, Paul rigged up several pulleys of different diameters to control the speed of the lathe motors in various increments, which allowed him to record parts at reduced speeds and normalize them on playback. Once he got the hang of it, Les holed up in his home studio, and, after about 500 attempts, emerged with something completely different that turned the music world upside down. Les Paul’s astounding “New Sound,” first heard on 1948’s “Lover” and “Brazil,” was a dizzying kaleidoscope of sound imagery characterized by Paul’s twinkling pixie guitars flying through the arrangements with seemingly impossible velocity. Anxious to continue his newfound success and make his job a little easier, Paul modified a German-made magnetic tape recorder he acquired from Bing Crosby with an additional head, and invented the first sound-on-sound tape recorder. But Les was sidelined by a serious car accident that left his right arm permanently set in playing position. Paul continued recording during his recovery, and in 1949, married an attractive young vocalist named Colleen Summers, whom he promptly renamed Mary Ford. Paul’s layered treatment of Ford’s angelic voice was a huge hit, and the duo became one of the biggest international acts in the music business. They cut hundreds of songs, including the chart-topping “How High the Moon” and “Vaya Con Dios” (a generous sampling of the duo’s Capitol catalog was collected in 1991’s Les Paul: The Legend & The Legacy box set), starred in their own television series for seven years, and remained together until divorcing in 1964. (Ford passed away in 1978.)

Since then, Les Paul has gone on to receive five Grammy Awards (including one for 1977’s Chester & Lester with Chet Atkins, and two for 2005’s Les Paul & Friends: American Made World Played), an induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, an honorary membership in the Audio Engineering Society, and numerous other high honors. Les’s fascinating and inspirational life story has been well-documented both in print and on video, so let’s get right to point—the man and his music. But first, you better...

1 LISTEN TO YOUR MOTHER

Paul’s earliest musical experiences centered around his mother’s player piano, which he was allowed to crank up and play as a reward for doing chores. Sometime around 1926, he stared down a sewer worker on break in front of Les’ house into surrendering his harmonica, which his mom promptly boiled. Finally in possession of his own instrument, Paul began singing country songs at local barbecue stands as Red Hot Red, but soon realized that he needed to accompany himself with an instrument that he didn’t have to stop singing to play, or stop playing to sing! He tried piano, but didn’t like having his back to the audience. Then, at his mother’s suggestion, Les got his hands on a banjo. He liked the instrument, but found its sound too harsh. So once again, Les’ mother stepped in and finally guided the youngster to the guitar, and the rest is history. Paul continued playing country as Rhubarb Red, but also developed an interest in the jazz he was hearing on the radio, and began studying the works of Coleman Hawkins, Earl Hines, and later, Eddie Lang and Django Reinhardt. Torn between lucrative country gigs and low-paying jazz gigs, Paul eventually followed his heart and chose the latter, a wise move that soon led to the beginning of a recording career that would trigger a transformation from sideman to leader of his own trio.

2 NAME IT AND CLAIM IT

Paul began trying to convince guitar manufacturers to build him a solidbody electric guitar as early as 1934, but it wasn’t until 1941 that Les gained access to the Epiphone factory on Sundays and set about building his first fully functional dream instrument. “The Log” was essentially two pickups (another Paul first) mounted on a 2x4 attached to an Epiphone neck, reinforced with a steel rod, and decorated with cosmetic “wings” that gave it the appearance of an archtop hollowbody. A year later, he built a headless guitar out of aluminum. Both instruments reflected Paul’s theory that a guitar’s pickups should be as isolated as possible from its top. He took the Log design to Gibson sometime around 1946 and was politely ushered out the door. It would take another six years until Gibson relented and began production of the gold-colored Les Paul Model in 1952. This was followed by the upscale Custom in 1954, and the Standard in 1958 (as well as several less expensive models). Gibson’s cosmetic makeover to a brilliant sunburst finish, along with some design tweaks, produced during the next two years what have since become the holiest of LP grails—the highly-coveted ’58 and ’59 ’Bursts. Close behind these beauties were the last sunburst Standards produced in1960. Between 1961 and 1963, Gibson altered the design to a thinner, double-cutaway body—often erroneously referred to as the Mary Ford Model—without Paul’s approval. Les Paul Standards and Customs produced during this period are still commonly called “Les Paul/SGs,” but the SG wasn’t truly born until 1964 when Paul severed his ties with Gibson. Half a decade later, Paul struck a new deal, and Gibson resumed production of the single cutaway Les Paul in 1968, and the company’s first reissues, followed a year later by the low-impedance Recording Model, Les’ Les Paul of choice (though his personal instrument is custom made). From that year on, Gibson has manufactured an astounding number of axes bearing Les’s name, including Standards, Customs, Signature Artist Models, and Relics, plus all of their relatives, as well as budget versions currently licensed to Epiphone. It’s hard to imagine any greater honor than having your name practically become synonymous with the solidbody electric guitar itself.

3 STAND OUT FROM THE CROWD

When Paul’s mother commented that she couldn’t distinguish her own son’s playing from other guitarists on the radio, Les immediately set out to remedy the problem. Soon, Paul was peppering his melodies and solos with flashy, ear-catching embellishments pinched and tweaked from nearly every style of music, including tremolo-picked glissandi, fluttering trills, dissonant minor seconds, staccato palm-muting, string bends, and, of course, Les’s wild pull-off and hammer-on runs. Ex. 1a lays out proto-typical Paul-style triplet pull-offs in the key of F—that’s right, just plow through that B natural—while Ex. 1b shows how Paul incorporated the lick, along with some sassy 3-plus-b3/#9 minor seconds, into a head-turning I-V blues turnaround circa 1936 when he was still playing acoustic. Ex. 1c’s bar-long, trem-picked gliss into another version of the run evokes the opening Am cadenza Paul played on electric during a 1944 outtake of “Dark Eyes,” and it’s a move he still uses today. Branching into the key of C, Ex. 1d transposes our fretted whole steps to the fifth and fourth positions to cover a jazzy, dominant II7-V7 progression (D7- G7). Keys rarely imposed limitations on Les’s use of open strings. Case in point: The slippery Bb-based motif in Ex. 1e pivots on open G while alternating between multiple hammer- ons and pull-offs. Smooth! Finally, two hammered-and-pulled three-against-four hemiolas—one in two-part harmony—round out this lick primer in Examples 1f and 1g. Each 3/8 motif takes three full measures to recycle to its point of origin. Les navigated those tempos by speeding up his parts, so go easy on yourself and slow ’em down.

4 COME OUT SWINGING

In his own estimation, Paul’s earliest recordings (as a sideman with blues singer Georgia White) were full of over-playing. “I wanted to be sure I got it all in. I was like a dive bomber, playing the fastest run I could that had nothing to do with expressing the blues,” he admits in the liner notes to The Complete Decca Recordings. Luckily for us, this trend extended into 1944, when Paul made his first trio recordings and could really cut loose. Filled with fiery phrasing and tons of notes, Paul’s eight-bar solo excerpt in Ex. 2 soars over a traditional E7-Am-E7-Am-Dm- Am-E7-Am progression (a la “Dark Eyes”) with chromatically descending whole-steps played as hammered-and-pulled triplets (bars 1 and 2), diatonic hammer-ons and pull-offs that pedal on open E and presage the sound of modern two-handed tapping (bars 3 and 4), raked arpeggios (bars 5 and 6), and saucy half-step oblique slurs topped with a trill and tonic stinger (bars 7 and 8). Beck-ola!!

5 FLAUNT YOUR WIT

Anyone who has met Les Paul or witnessed one of the Legend’s live performances is certainly aware of his often ribald sense of humor. During recent interviews or in his current live set (more on that shortly...), Paul jokingly refers to himself as a “moldy fig” and tosses off one-liners like a seasoned pro, often in mid-song. (“I feel like a condemned building with a new flagpole!” and “My thumbs won’t do what I want them to do!” come to mind.) It’s an endearing trait that Les also loves to flaunt in his music. Take the “nyahnyah” lick illustrated in Ex. 3a, for instance. It’s comical enough in single notes, but Les ups the funny bone factor by playing it in parallel minor seconds! “Shave-and-a haircut” is another favorite quote that might pop up at any time. Try dropping the raked-and-muted version shown in Ex. 3b into the last two bars of the upcoming Ex. 4b. And speaking of quotes, Paul loves to paraphrase well-known melodies, as he does in Ex. 3c by playing a palm-muted excerpt from David Rose’s “Holiday for Strings” over a IIIm7-VI7-IIm7-V7 progression...during a ballad!

6 DIVIDE AND MULTIPLY

Released in 1950, “Nola” was one of Paul’s first multiples recorded on magnetic tape. For the ear-tickling opener in Ex. 4a, Les souped up an otherwise pedestrian—if not corny—intro with two half-speed harmony guitars along with one recorded at normal speed. I wanted to fit this on a single staff, so re-finger the individual parts at will. For a real challenge, try playing both half-speed parts at the same time. (Tip: Set a pitch transposer or Whammy Pedal up one octave to reach those impossibly high notes in real time.) Gtr. 3 drops out as Ex. 4b picks up the melody, a bouncy little ditty in which Gtr. 2 adapts similar motifs to the I, II7 and V9 chords (D, E7, and A9) in bars 1-6. The first ending wraps with a move built around D chord tones and their lower chromatic neighbors, plus a pair of bend-y blues licks. The second ending begins with the same D moves, then concludes with a simple “two-bits” ending. (Tip: Here’s where you want to drop Ex. 3b!) All the while, Gtr. 1 chugs out a four-note descending bass line punctuated with staccato chordal fragments for each chord change. Ex. 4c shows one of Paul’s verse variations that features a half-speed, tremolo-picked descending D scale motif (Gtr. 2) flanked by Gtr. 1 playing a heavily palm-muted, slightly-tweaked version of the melody. Dig that crazy minorsecond cluster, then try adapting this example to the E7 and A9 by referencing the ninthand fourteenth-position fingerings in the original melody. Baby! (Treasure Hunt: Dig out my analysis of Paul’s “Caravan” in the 12/98 issue of GP for more on Les’s multi-speed recording techniques.)

7 GET A SIGNATURE INTRO

“How High the Moon”’s infectious melody may have been responsible for the song becoming Les Paul & Mary Ford’s biggest international hit, but it was Paul’s spritely intro that set the mood for the arrangement and became his calling card. Ex. 5 lays out both guitar parts, but if you’re on your own, stick to Gtr. 1. (Tip: You can pare bar 1 down to octaves built on the lowest note in each chord.) The duo’s original 1951 recording of the song plays in the key of A, but Les almost certainly cut it in G, the key he still plays it in every Monday. (It’s coming...)

8 STICK CLOSE TO THE MELODY

Though still more than capable of cutting loose whenever he desires, Paul has certainly streamlined his approach since his early “dive bomber” days. Nowadays, Les stresses the importance of melody: “All of the great musicians stay near that melody, or let you know (what it is) so that you aren’t completely out there,” he told jazz pianist Marian McPartland during a 1996 NPR interview. With his current trio (Almost there...), Les approaches standards such as “The Best Things in Life Are Free” with a playful elegance that allows both the melody and his personality to shine through, as in the simple snippet depicted in Ex. 6. And yes, that final “snapped” open Dis yet another LP trademark. Try ending a few licks at your next gig with an appropriately snapped open A or low-E and watch the heads turn! Of course, if you’re like Les, once you’ve got a melody down pat, you’ve gotta...

9 TINKER WITH IT

Paul currently plays it at every gig (Wait for it...), but ironically, he did not play the melody on the duo’s 1951 hit version of “How High The Moon.” Instead, Mary Ford sang it in glorious four-part harmony while Les created a swinging harmonic bed of chugging, four-on-the-floor block chords, horn-like punctuations, and counterlines, laced with a few hyper-speed fills like the ones back in Examples 1f and 1g. “If you can replace the melody with something better, that’s great, isn’t it?” says Les. One of the song’s highlights occurs at 1:13, where Les’s guitars emerge from Mary’s heavenly wordless vocal interlude, and he wraps up his solo with Ex. 7, one of the swingin’-est three-part figures you’ll ever hear. Combined with an irresistibly toe-tapping rhythm, these simple triadic harmonies—recorded separately, of course—had as huge an impact on the public as any Goodman or Miller classic. Trust me, you’ll be humming it for days! Finally and above all, if you want to emulate Les Paul, you’ve gotta...

10 PLAY FOR FUN

Ready for it? The Legend lives on! Now approaching 94, Les is still a fireball fueled with enough enthusiasm to make a weekly trek to play two sets with his current trio—usually guitarist Lou Pallo and bassists Paul Nowinski or Nicki Parrott—at New York’s Iridium Jazz Club, just as he’s done since beginning this Monday-night tradition at the now-defunct Fat Tuesdays in 1984. Despite ongoing arthritis that leaves only two fretting fingers mobile, Paul still gets around the fingerboard with remarkable agility, grace, and an individuality that would certainly make his mother proud. Paul’s sets are a joy to behold and a laugh riot. And you never know who will show up. Musicians from Paul McCartney and Keith Richards to Tony Bennett and George Benson are among the many who have stopped in to jam with Les, or simply to enjoy witnessing the Legend is such an intimate setting. Years ago, I attended a show at Fat Tuesdays and was seated behind Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones! Pagey sat in on a slow blues while I bought Jonesy a beer. Good times! Catch him while you can, folks—it’s worth the trip.

There was an immeasurable outpouring of love and respect in June, 2005, when musicians from all walks gathered at Carnegie Hall in New York City to celebrate Les’s 90th birthday. Speaking to the crowd, longtime Paul disciple Steve Miller, who was four years old when Les taught him his first guitar chords, couldn’t have put it better: “Les, you’re a wonderful person.” How true. Thanks for keeping us filled with wonder, Les!

Due to licensing restrictions, examples 4a - 7 (from the songs "Nola," "How High The Moon" and "The Best Things in Life are Free") are not available online. To see these examples, please pick up a copy of the June 2009 issue of Guitar Player, or better yet, subscribe to Guitar Player and get the best guitar lessons every month!

 

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