There are two legendary guitars: the Gibson Les Paul, and the Fender Stratocaster. I own them both. They are both incredible instruments, with highly unique tones that make them stand out of the crowd of many other instruments that are wonderful in their own right. And with a high degree of accuracy, I can listen to a recording and tell you which artist is playing a Les Paul, and which is playing a Strat; their tones are that distinct. But the fact that these legendary instruments exist at all — the fact that rock and roll exists as we know it — is due to one man: Les Paul.
Music lost one of its masters today, Les Paul died at the age of 94. He leaves behind a legacy no less profound than being the most important force in modern music for the past 50 years. If you think that is an overstatement, read what the who's who of six strings say about Les: [click here].
Les invented…INVENTED…the electric guitar, and multi-track recording, which has been the basis for every commercial recording since the 1950s. His development of the Les Paul guitar for Gibson, and the effect on legions of guitar heros that followed, is staggering. If you've heard Slash (Guns N' Roses), Duane Allman (Allman Brothers Band), Jimmy Page (Led Zeppelin), Ace Frehley (KISS), Pete Townsend (The Who), Zakk Wylde (Black Label Society), Peter Frampton (Frampton), Joe Walsh (Eagles), Neil Schon (Santana, Journey), or any of a hundred more, you’ve heard a Les Paul guitar.
I won't attempt to eulogize this first, true guitar hero. There are many more important guitarists than I to write Les' memorials. But I have been a fan of the instrument since buying my first Les Paul Custom "Black Beauty" in 1974 for $279.00 at Don Weir's Music City in San Francisco. And I still play it today. And I was honored to hear Les Play live at the Warfield Theater in San Francisco back in the late '70s. My band mates and I went to see this living legend, and we weren't disappointed. He invented "shredding" long before Eddie Van Halen or Joe Satriani. Truth be told, all rock guitarists have a huge debt we owe to Les for giving us the encouragement to be wild, to try new things, and not be happy with the status quo.
A special memory for me is that after seeing his show, Les came over to the bar for a drink. Not only did he shake my hand and autograph my ticket, he told the bassist in my band who owned a Les Paul Recording Bass how to set the different electronic controls to get various different tones. To say that a group of young musicians were in awe of this 63 year old musician was a gross understatement.
Well, Les, you are no longer a legend in your own time. Now you belong to the ages. I, for one, am a better guitarist, better musician, and better human being for having listened to your music and followed your life. Vaya con dios, Mr. Paul. And know that…music cried today.