Les Paul and the Birth of Solid Body Electric Guitars


Bryan Hillebrandt
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Joined: 03/13/09
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Bryan Hillebrandt
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Joined: 03/13/09
Posts: 23
06/18/2009 11:16 pm



It’s hard to adequately approximate the effect that the birth of the solid body electric guitar has had on popular music. This innovation, born of a few players’ desire for new sound possibilities, is the main catalyst that made possible everything from the lyrical solos of Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour to the driving metal assault of Slayer, from Jimi’s wailing solos to the chicken pickin twang of James Burton. And if we look at the pioneers of the solid body electric--those who were responisble for its development--one name is inextricably linked: Les Paul.

The first electric guitars were nothing more than acoustic arch-top guitars with pickups on them. Popular with jazz players, these guitars would feed back if turned up too loud. Playing at lower volume was fine if you were playing a small club, but if you wanted to play larger venues—and be able to make more money per gig—you wouldn’t be able to turn your guitar up loud enough to be heard in the back of the room. Another problem was acoustic guitars rely on string vibration for volume. This decreases sustain, that is, the length of time that a note sounds.

These are the problems that Les Paul and others faced. The original Rickenbacker “Frying Pan” lap steel was built to deal with these same issues. And while the solution for the Rickenbacker was to cast the guitar in solid aluminum, Les Paul decided to stick with wood. Taking a 4x4 piece of railroad tie, Paul made what is now called “The Log.” He is famous for having said that you could pluck a note on it, go out to lunch, come back and the note would still be sounding.

Apparently audiences didn’t much like watching a guy play a piece of wood with strings on it. So Paul took an Epiphone archtop, sawed it down the middle and mounted the two halves on either side of the log. This made the instrument far more recognizable as a guitar and, one would imagine, a little more comfortable to play.

In the early fifties, Gibson Guitar Company produced a solid-body electric guitar based on suggestions that Paul had given. This guitar received his endorsement and became the guitar to bear his name. The Les Paul model has seen many changes since that time. When sales declined, Gibson redesigned the Les Paul (without Paul’s endorsement) into a thinner, double cutaway guitar. Paul didn’t want his name associated with it and it thereafter became known as the SG (get it, Solid Guitar?).

When the original Les Pauls gained more popularity due to being seen in the hands of several rock luminaries, Gibson started making them again, with the blessing of Les Paul, and it has been a consistent seller since then. It is an instantly recognizable shape that shows up in popular culture and art and seems to be a visual signifier linked forever to Rock and Roll.

So next time you pick up your Les Paul, whether it be a 52 Goldtop or a budget knockoff version you bought at a yard sale, be grateful for the guy whose name is on your guitar. Then turn it up, that’s what he made it for.
# 1
SELDER
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Joined: 01/26/06
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SELDER
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Joined: 01/26/06
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06/19/2009 5:47 pm
Les Paul Was 40 Years Ahead Of His Time!

He Was Such A Great Guitar Player That Chet Atkins Begged Him To Make An Album!!

The Result Was A Grammy Award-winning Album Called Chester & Lester.
# 2
gavin_rossdale
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gavin_rossdale
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06/08/2012 7:55 am
cool article!! :) please post more articles related to it.. this can surely improve my skills on how to play on guitar..
# 3
ChristopherSchlegel
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Joined: 08/09/05
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ChristopherSchlegel
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Posts: 8,389
06/08/2012 1:52 pm
Thanks for the good article on the man to whom all of us electric guitarists owe so much. Here is the wiki article on his amazing life.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Les_Paul
Christopher Schlegel
Guitar Tricks Instructor

Christopher Schlegel Lesson Directory
# 4
Nomad2
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Joined: 09/10/12
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Nomad2
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12/09/2012 12:34 am
Just read your post. Great piece. Having come back into the guitar world after many years, I'm picking up again on the bits I've missed or forgotten.
Made for a great read.
# 5
gypsyblues73
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gypsyblues73
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01/03/2013 9:05 pm
I got to see the log at the Rock n' Roll Hall of Fame...not much to look at but so cool to see something that's such a monumental piece of history as far as guitars go. Also ironic how the sides came from an Epiphone (one of Gibson's competitors at the time, long before being bought by Gibson). Great article too, but there's one other interesting piece to the story: Gibson initially dropped the ball when it came to solid-body guitars. When Les approached Gibson with his ideas, he was practically laughed out of the building. They said "no thanks" and decided they'd just stick with their hollowbodies. Before long though, they did a quick 180 when they saw how the Fender Esquire/Broadcaster/Telecaster came out of nowhere and started selling like hotcakes. Then they were scrambling and going "Hey where's that Les guy?" :)
# 6

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