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USA Science & Engineering Festival – Role Models in Science & Engineering Achievement

Les Paul

Les Paul -- Musician, Inventor and Sound Engineering Genius

Pioneered the development of the electric guitar; invented such revolutionary music recording techniques as echo delay, overdubbing and multi-tracking

Rock and roll as we know it today would not exist without his invention --the solid body electric guitar. Little wonder legends like Eric Clapton, Paul McCartney and Eddie Van Halen consider him an icon. Throughout his life, Les remained an innovator as a guitar player and sound engineering pioneer.

Born Lester William Polsfuss in 1915 in Waukesha, Wisconsin, he became hooked on music and electronics at an early age, later becoming self-taught and accomplished in both disciplines after having to drop out of high school. He built his first crystal radio at age nine -- which was about the time he first picked up a guitar. By age 13 he was performing semi-professionally as a country-music guitarist and working diligently on sound-related inventions. In 1941, Paul created his first solid-body electric guitar -- an innovation that would later make him famous -- and he continued to make refinements to his invention prototype throughout the decade.

Why He's Important: His solid body electric guitar revolutionized music and music recording (particularly in rock and roll), giving musicians greater creativity, versatility and control over the sounds guitars created. Although Adolph Rickenbacker in 1931 invented the first amplifiable electric guitar (a semi-hallow bodied instrument), Les' instrument -- thanks to its solid, non-hollow, wooden body -- could produce amplified electronic sound without distorting.

As he once said in describing how he designed the solid body electric guitar: "What I wanted to do is not have two things vibrating. I wanted the string to vibrate and nothing else. I wanted the guitar to sustain longer than a hollow acoustical guitar body and have different sounds than an acoustical box." The fact that the body of his newly-created guitar was solid allowed for the sound of a plucked string to sustain, as its vibrating energy was not dissipated in a reverberant acoustic chamber, he added.

In the 1950's The Gibson Guitar company collaborated with Les Paul to present the Gibson Les Paul guitar -- one of the most successful guitar brands of all time.

Other Achievements: Les also refined the technology of sound recording by developing revolutionary engineering techniques such as close miking, echo delay, overdubbing and multi-tracking. In 1952, he introduced the first eight-track tape recorder (designed by Paul and marketed by Ampex).

Les also was a versatile bandleader and performer who could play jazz, country and pop. And he subsequently made his mark as a jazz-pop musician extraordinaire, recording as a duo with his wife, singer Mary Ford. Their biggest hits included "How High the Moon" (1951) and "Vaya Con Dios" (1953), both reaching #1.

Over the ensuing decades Les Paul remained active on all fronts. He recorded a Grammy-winning album of instrumental duets with Chet Atkins, Chester and Lester, in 1977. From the mid-Eighties through the mid-Nineties, he performed weekly at Fat Tuesday's, a New York City jazz club. In 2005, at the age of 90, he released the CD, "American Made/World Played", which featured guest spots from several of his most illustrious rock and roll disciples and won him a pair of Grammys.

He performed weekly at New York's Iridium Jazz Club up until his death in August 2009.