H P NEWQUIST is a gifted writer and guitarist whose works have made there way across the planet more times than anyone can even begin to guess at. He has received numerous awards and citations for his works. A former Editor in Chief at Guitar Magazine, HP Newquist is the man responsible for The National GUITAR Museum and serves as the Executive Director. He has also written many guitar books including Legends of Rock Guitar which he co-wrote with author and guitarist Pete Prown as well as articles for Billboard, Guitar Shop, and Guitar Player Magazine.
He has conducted interviews with many of the “greats” in the guitar world. He is also responsible for The Way They Play books, which teach “guitarists how to play and sound like their favorite artists“. His co-writer on the series is RichMaloof, author, guitarist, and editor. Newquist’s works are truly a pleasure to read! Many thanks HP for all of your contributions to this fine instrument which we all treasure.
LES PAUL – The Legend Behind The Legend -1995 Interview By H P Newquist
Les Paul is the only man whose entire name is completely synonymous with electric guitar. Born Lester Polfus in 1915, Les Paul first made a name for himself in the middle of the century as a lightly swinging jazz musician backing artists like Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters, and later had a hugely successful duo with wife Mary Ford. But beyond his talents as a musician, Les was a dyed-in-the-wool experimenter who sought ways to get more sounds — and better sounds — from his guitar and from the studio.
Les Paul’s passion helped create the solid-body electric guitar as we know it today (indeed, the instrument has many fathers including George Beauchamp, Paul Bigsby, Leo Fender, and Les). He also developed “sound-on-sound” recording, the tremendous breakthrough in audio technology we know today as multi-tracking. Additionally, Paul was instrumental in the creation of numerous electronic studio effects, including reverb, phasing, and echo.
For all of his accomplishments, Les Paul is known these days primarily for the solid block of wood that bears his name. When you think Les Paul, you think rock: You think Jimmy Page, Pete Townshend, Ace Frehley, Slash, Joe Perry. Not a bad set of rock and roll associations for a jazz musician. Well into his eighties now, Les still plays guitar and puts on a hell of a show in a Manhattan club every Monday night. We recently sat down with him prior to an early set, and he graciously offered up the background on his many accomplishments.
Newquist: Let’s start with the obvious question: What first got you interested in guitars, effects, and recording?
Les Paul: I was always curious about sound. My mother had a player piano, which fascinated me when I was young, and I started playing with the rolls and punching holes in them. I found out, after a long time, how to punch the rolls in the right places to get multiple [notes] out of them. I went to my grade school science teacher — all this was happening when I was in grade school — and he explained to me the concepts of analog and digital, and that the player piano with roles really was sort of digital. And I realized the difference when I slowed down my mother’s record player, a Victrola. When I slowed that down, the tone and the speed slowed, but when I slowed down the player piano, the speed slowed but the pitch stayed the same.
Eventually, I did a hysterectomy on my mother’s piano [laughs], and I built a lot of things from her kitchen and from the house. I was singing and playing guitar at a barbecue stand one weekend and I hooked up the telephone to my mother’s radio and created a PA system. That same weekend some guy in the crowd sent me a note saying he couldn’t hear the guitar. He might have been a critic of my voice [laughs], but he did me a favor as far as the guitar was concerned. I took our phonograph pickup, the needle, and jammed it right into the bridge of my guitar. Now instead of playing a record, it was playing my guitar. Then I borrowed my dad’s radio and had two speakers for my show. With everything all put together, it looked like something out of Frankenstein. I turned them both up, and lo and behold, everyone could hear the guitar and my voice. And my tips went up! [laughs]. Everyone was happy.
Newquist: What led you to the idea of a solid body?
Paul: Well, I still had a problem, because the guitar with the needle would always feed back, and moving the speaker wasn’t the answer. The answer that first day was to get rid of my socks, towel, and everything I had with me, and stuff them into the guitar to kill the sound. The more I killed the sound, the better it got. Later on, I poured the whole guitar full of plaster of paris