Les Paul, the virtuoso guitarist and inventor whose solid-body electric guitar and recording studio innovations changed the course of 20th-century popular music, died Thursday in White Plains, N.Y. . He was 94.
Les Paul and Mary Ford in 1947. They married two years later. More Photos »
The cause was complications of pneumonia, the Gibson Guitar Corporation and his family announced. .
Mr. Paul was a remarkable musician as well as a tireless tinkerer. He played guitar alongside leading prewar jazz and pop musicians from Louis Armstrong to Bing Crosby. In the 1930s he began experimenting with guitar amplification, and by 1941 he had built what was probably the first solid-body electric guitar, although there are other claimants. With his guitar and the vocals of his wife, Mary Ford, he used overdubbing, multitrack recording and new electronic effects to create a string of hits in the 1950s.
Mr. Paul’s style encompassed the twang of country music, the harmonic richness of jazz and, later, the bite of rock ’n’ roll. For all his technological impact, though, he remained a down-home performer whose main goal, he often said, was to make people happy.
Mr. Paul, whose original name was Lester William Polsfuss, was born on June 9, 1915, in Waukesha, Wis. His childhood piano teacher wrote to his mother, “Your boy, Lester, will never learn music.” But he picked up harmonica, guitar and banjo by the time he was a teenager and started playing with country bands in the Midwest. In Chicago he performed for radio broadcasts on WLS and led the house band at WJJD; he billed himself as the Wizard of Waukesha, Hot Rod Red and Rhubarb Red.
His interest in gadgets came early. At the age of 10 he devised a harmonica holder from a coat hanger. Soon afterward he made his first amplified guitar by opening the back of a Sears acoustic model and inserting, behind the strings, the pickup from a dismantled Victrola. With the record player on, the acoustic guitar became an electric one. Later, he built his own pickup from ham radio earphone parts and assembled a recording machine using a Cadillac flywheel and the belt from a dentist’s drill.
From country music Mr. Paul moved into jazz, influenced by players like Django Reinhardt and Eddie Lang, who were using amplified hollow-body guitars to play hornlike single-note solo lines. He formed the Les Paul Trio in 1936 and moved to New York, where he was heard regularly on Fred Waring’s radio show from 1938 to 1941.
In 1940 or 1941 — the exact date is unknown — , Mr. Paul made his guitar breakthrough. Seeking to create electronically sustained notes on the guitar, he attached strings and two pickups to a wooden board with a guitar neck. “The log,” as he called it, if not the first solid-body electric guitar, became the most influential one.
“You could go out and eat and come back and the note would still be sounding,” Mr. Paul once said.
The odd-looking instrument drew derision when he first played it in public, so he hid the works inside a conventional-looking guitar. But the log was a conceptual turning point. With no acoustic resonance of its own, it was designed to generate an electronic signal that could be amplified and processed — the beginning of a sonic transformation of the world’s music.
Mr. Paul was drafted in 1942 and worked in California for the Armed Forces Radio Service, accompanying Rudy Vallee, Kate Smith and others. When he was discharged in 1943, he was hired as a staff musician for NBC radio in Los Angeles. His trio toured with the Andrews Sisters and backed Nat King Cole and Bing Crosby, with whom he recorded the hit “It’s Been a Long, Long Time” in 1945. Crosby encouraged Mr. Paul to build his own recording studio, and so he did, in his garage in Los Angeles.
There he experimented with recording techniques, using them to create not realistic replicas of a performance but electronically enhanced fabrications. Toying with his mother’s old Victrola had shown him that changing the speed of a recording could alter both pitch and timbre. He could record at half-speed and replay the results at normal speed, creating the illusion of superhuman agility. He altered instrumental textures through microphone positioning and reverberation. Technology and studio effects, he realized, were instruments themselves.
He also noticed that by playing along with previous recordings, he could become a one-man ensemble. As early as his 1948 hit “Lover,” he made elaborate, multilayered recordings, using two acetate disc machines, which demanded that each layer of music be captured in a single take. From discs he moved to magnetic tape, and in the late 1950s he built the first eight-track multitrack recorder. Each track could be recorded and altered separately, without affecting the others. The machine ushered in the modern recording era.
In 1947 Mr. Paul teamed up with Colleen Summers, who had been singing with Gene Autry’s band. He changed her name to Mary Ford, a name found in a telephone book.