Les Paul, who died in New York on Thursday, invented the solid-body electric guitar one afternoon in 1939, when he was 24.
He cut an acoustic guitar in two and set a block of wood down its middle. On this he mounted a pick-up, a magnet with electric coils.
Electrification made the guitar louder, so it stopped being just an accompanying instrument; the wooden block gave it sustain, the quality of one note ringing for a long time. With your left hand (right if you were Jimi Hendrix) you could bend the ringing note and give it emotion.
The first musicians to play Les Paul’s invention were those Americans whose art was emotional: the
Blues players, who were mainly black. Then it was exported to England in the 60s, to the Beatles, and Rock and Roll became white.
The electric guitar really made Rock music possible. How? A band could have just singer, guitarist, bass player and drummer, and yet produce a sound loud and complex enough to be considered proper music. Les Paul eliminated the horn section — trumpet, saxophone, clarinet — and the string section — violin, cello, double bass — whose instruments were expensive, difficult to play and whose exponents were hard to find.
Importantly, a band of four men (three if the singer could also play guitar or bass) could easier sustain itself economically than a band of 16. So in the 1960s, thousands of bands began to be formed by amateurs, most of them white teenagers, across America and England.
In the 1970s, the electric guitar became popular in America’s south, through bands like the Allman Brothers, Lynyrd Skynyrd and later Stevie Ray Vaughan. We could argue that Les Paul’s invention helped the cause of integration in America. Playing the same rock music on the same instruments brought whites closer to blacks. Though they had been performers for decades, black musicians like BB King, Muddy Waters, T-Bone Walker and Chuck Berry were seen differently after whites started playing the electric guitar.
For ten years, between Jimi Hendrix’s emergence in 1965 and the dominance of disco in 1975, the electric guitar was popular music’s primary instrument.
Les Paul himself had little use for his guitar’s properties. He played jazz in a flat, rapid style with no flashy solos, mainly accompanying his wife, the singer Mary Ford. But his invention changed music and culture.
Evolution killed guitar music. Disco was interactive: you could dance to it (as you can dance to the rhythms of rap). Rock music was like a sermon. You could agree with it, by shaking your head, but you couldn’t really move to a guitar solo.
And so guitar-led music passed away.
For the church, Rock and Roll was the music of the devil. If this is so, on Thursday night, the folks at hell had a bigger, certainly a louder, party than the angels above, as they welcomed home Les Paul.
(Aakar Patel is a director at Hill Road Media)