I selfishly assumed that Les Paul would probably live forever. Even in his 90s, he seemed to have the energy to go the distance, and I couldn’t imagine a musical world without him. After all, when a musician passes, it’s always sad, but his or her impact on society is usually confined to a community of fans who love their music. With Les, it was much more than chart success, cultural fashion, or MTV/VH1 reverence. Even if we completely delete his tremendous musical works from consideration, his contributions to recording technology kicked off a journey that resulted in the digital-multitrack workstations used by virtually all producers of music. (And it’s quite a story that Les’ own experiments in multitrack recording were borne from messing with one of Bing Crosby’s stereo decks.) His creation and development of the solidbody electric guitar arguably helped manifest rock music, and the guitar that bears his name has powered scores of songs, from the epic and legendary to the quirky and maligned. He pretty much invented electronic echo, as well—which means The Edge would have sounded very un-Edge-like if Les Paul had never trod upon the planet.
Of course, this is all stuff that will grace history books until the end of recorded time. But what scholars in the future won’t get is experiencing the buoyant effect of Les’ laughter, his joy of music, his eternally inquisitive mind, and his complete love of everyone and anyone who expressed something musically deep and thrilling with a guitar in their hands. He didn’t care if the music was rock, jazz, rap, or Martian. He didn’t care if the perpetrator was young or old, rich or poor, educated or street smart, cool or klutzy. He didn’t even care if a great song was cut with a Les Paul, a Stratocaster, or a Travis Bean. Les would simply beam into the vibe and dig every twist and turn. And while, yeah, there might be a bit of a smug grin on his face as he mused that many examples of fabulous guitar work could, in some way, be traced back to him, Les was typically gracious and benevolent in his praise and enthusiasm for other music makers.
That evangelism wasn’t just for guitar music or the guitar, either. He was a one-man celebration of Peter Pan as a senior citizen—a fire-breathing sentinel against any perceptions that old age makes you worthless, cynical, unmotivated, bland, or significantly limited in any ways that might be truly important to one’s lust for life. And, believe me, Les could party. —Michael Molenda