It's been a summer overburdened with the deaths of too many cultural icons, but the passing of Les Paul is an especially sad blow.
Paul, who died on Thursday at the age of 94 from complications of pneumonia, was a masterful guitarist whose inspired development of the solid-body electric guitar and innovative studio techniques, like multi-track recording, lent a potent voice to the guitar that had never before existed. It is fair to say that Paul revolutionized modern music, not only technically, but in his artful blurring of the borders between jazz, country, pop and rock music.
He became an unsuspecting mentor - and even friend - to musicians like Keith Richards, U2's The Edge, Jimmy Page, Pete Townshend, Paul McCartney, the Sex Pistols' Steve Jones and Slash. And with his late wife Mary Ford, he was a popular television performer in the 1950s; the couple hosted "Les Paul and Mary Ford At Home" and released a string of rollicking hits like "How High The Moon" and "Vaya Con Dios," garnering 36 gold records in the process.
While in the studio, Paul invented invaluable techniques and processes, experimenting with overdubbing and developing the first eight-track multitrack recorder, forever altering the way music is recorded. A vivacious presence in his later years, Paul performed his entire life, playing regular Monday night gigs at the Iridium jazz club in Manhattan for the last thirteen years. His last show was on June 1st when he became too ill too continue.
The guitar that bears his name, the Gibson Les Paul, first mass manufactured as the Les Paul Goldtop guitar in 1952, began as a bulky, solid-body creation that he conjured around 1940 (and cheekily calling "the log") to improve upon the amplification and sound of electronically sustained notes. Leo Fender developed another solid-body model around the same time. But it is the scores of musicians who considered Paul the patron saint of the rock guitar which might be his most sentimental legacy. Many of those Paul acolytes expressed their sadness - via Twitter or through official statements - upon hearing of the guitarist's passing:
Keith Richards: "“We must all own up that without Les Paul, generations of flash little punks like us would be in jail or cleaning toilets.”
Slash: "Les Paul was a shining example of how full one's life can be. He was so vibrant and full of positive energy. I'm honored and humbled to have known and played with him over the years."
John Mayer: “Remembering Les Paul today. Just happened to have his namesake Gibson around my shoulder the last few days. Pictures of Les Paul all over the studio today. Very special day in here. You should wiki his life. Pretty amazing.”
The Hold Steady's Tad Kubler: “There are very few human beings in history who touched so many people the way Les Paul did. Not only musicians. But anyone that loved music. He shared his gifts with all of us and brought people together with his brilliance and devotion to music and the art of sound. It was a privilege to have met him. He will be incredibly missed. But our blessing is to know that his spirit and soul will live for eternity in music everywhere.”
Joe Satriani: "Les Paul set a standard for musicianship and innovation that remains unsurpassed. He was the original guitar hero and the kindest of souls. Last October, I joined him onstage at the Iridium club in New York City, and he was still shredding. He was, and still is, an inspiration to us all."
Underworld's Karl Hyde: "The great Les Paul has gone on ahead, a huge loss to this world, a massive gain to the next."
Rage Against The Machine's Tom Morello: "RIP, Les Paul — thank you for the instruments that changed the course of music. If you have ever 'rocked' or 'been rocked,' you can thank Les Paul."
Joan Jett: "I, and everyone at Blackheart Records, mourn the passing of our dear friend, Les Paul. He was a genius inventor, musical innovator and a wonderful person. Without the advances he pioneered, the recording sciences and the electric guitar would have been left years behind. I will miss him so much."
ZZ Top's Billy Gibbons: "Les Paul brought six strings to electricity and electricity to six strings. [He] was an innovator, a groundbreaker, a risk taker, a mentor and a friend. Try to imagine what we'd be doing if he hadn't come along and changed the world. There will always be more Les to come. That's certified."
Henry Juszkiewicz, the Chairman of Gibson: "I cannot imagine life without Les Paul. He would walk into a room and put a smile on anyone's face. His musical charm was extraordinary and his techniques unmatched anywhere in the world. We will dedicate ourselves to preserving Les' legacy to insure that it lives on forever."