NEW YORK – Les Paul, the guitar virtuoso and inventor who revolutionized music and created rock ‘n’ roll as surely as Elvis Presley and the Beatles by developing the solid-body electric guitar and multitrack recording, died Thursday at age 94.
Known for his lightning-fast riffs, Paul performed with some of early pop’s biggest names and produced a slew of hits, many with wife Mary Ford. But it was his inventive streak that made him universally revered by guitar gods as their original ancestor and earned his induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as one of the most important forces in popular music.
Paul, who died in White Plains, N.Y., of complications from pneumonia, was a tireless tinkerer, whose quest for a particular sound led him to create the first solid-body electric guitar, a departure from the hollow-body guitars of the time. His invention paved the way for modern rock ‘n’ roll and became the standard instrument for legends like Pete Townshend and Jimmy Page.
He also developed technology that would become hallmarks of rock and pop recordings, from multitrack recording that allowed for layers and layers of “overdubs” to guitar reverb and other sound effects.
“He was truly the cornerstone of popular music,” said Henry Juskiewicz, chairman and CEO of Gibson Guitar, which mass produced Paul’s original invention. “He was a futurist, and unlike some futurists who write about it and predict things, he was a guy who actually did things.”
Paul remained an active performer until his last months: He put out his very first rock album just four years ago, and up until recently played every week at a New York jazz club.
The news of his death prompted an outpouring of tributes from the music world.
Said Kiss’ Paul Stanley: “The name Les Paul is iconic and is known by aspiring and virtuoso guitar players worldwide. That guitar is the cornerstone of a lot of great music that has been made in the last 50 years.”
A musician since childhood, he experimented with guitar amplification for years before coming up in 1941 with what he called “The Log,” a 4-by-4 piece of wood strung with steel strings.
“I went into a nightclub and played it. Of course, everybody had me labeled as a nut.” He later put the wooden wings onto the body to give it a traditional guitar shape.
The use of electric guitar gained popularity in the mid-to-late 1940s.
Leo Fender’s Broadcaster was the first mass-produced solid body electric on the market in the late 1940s.
Gibson solicited Paul to create a prototype for a guitar, and began production on the Les Paul guitar in 1952. Townshend of the Who, Steve Howe of Yes, jazz great Al DiMeola and Led Zeppelin’s Page all made the Gibson Les Paul their trademark six-string.
The Les Paul series has become one of the most widely used guitars in the music industry. In 2005, Christie’s auction house sold a 1955 Gibson Les Paul for $45,600.