“Les became my godfather, and he taught me my first three chords. I wore the skin off my thumb in a week just playing those chords”: Before he became a reliable rock hitmaker, Steve Miller was a child protégé of Les Paul

Steve Miller (left) and Les Paul
(Image credit: Gijsbert Hanekroot, Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

There's that old adage, 'everyone has to start somewhere'. It certainly rings true for guitarists, but, as he revealed to GP in a 2018 interview, Steve Miller's 'somewhere' was juuuuust a little different from all of ours.

Born in 1943, Miller spent his early years in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. In 1948, Les Paul and Mary Ford pulled in to the city for a six-week residency at Jimmy Faggio’s Supper Club. Miller's parents, both music enthusiasts, went to see Paul and Ford perform frequently, and began bringing their young son.

At some point, the young Miller was introduced to Paul, who gave the former some of his first informal guitar lessons. Even 70 years later, Miller's memories of those performances and lessons remained incredibly vivid.

Of Paul and Ford's residency at Jimmy Faggio’s Supper Club, Miller told GP, “Les and Mary were dialing in their act at this nightclub before they went to New York to start their TV show, so my dad brought his tape recorder there and recorded their act. This became a regular thing, and he’s taking me with him, so I’m at the nightclub watching Les Paul and seeing stuff happen in just the hippest scene imaginable.

“I remember Tal Farlow came in to jam one night, and when Les spotted him, he put a handkerchief over his left hand and just kept wailing,” Miller continued. “Les was such a monster, and he always made it look so easy. I remember thinking, ‘This is what I want to do. This is more fun than anything!’

“Les became my godfather, and he taught me my first three chords. I wore the skin off my thumb in a week just playing those chords.”

In 2005, Miller would join Les Paul onstage at the latter's 90th birthday concert at New York City's Iridium jazz club, where Paul performed weekly until his death in 2009, at the age of 94.

Perhaps unwisely, given the occasion, Miller chose a Stratocaster for the performance. Upon it being taken out of its case, Paul exclaimed – to Miller's sheepish reaction – “a Fender???” Considering that Paul taught Miller his first chords himself, the good-natured ribbing is quite understandable.

Jackson Maxwell
Associate Editor, GuitarWorld.com and GuitarPlayer.com

Jackson is an Associate Editor at GuitarWorld.com and GuitarPlayer.com. He’s been writing and editing stories about new gear, technique and guitar-driven music both old and new since 2014, and has also written extensively on the same topics for Guitar Player. Elsewhere, his album reviews and essays have appeared in Louder and Unrecorded. Though open to music of all kinds, his greatest love has always been indie, and everything that falls under its massive umbrella. To that end, you can find him on Twitter crowing about whatever great new guitar band you need to drop everything to hear right now.

With contributions from