Les Paul

Les PaulLes Paul died last week at the age of 94.

He invented the solid-body electric guitar when he was 26; he called it ‘the Log’, as the essential feature was a block of 4×4 timber with a Gibson guitar neck attached. He stuck bits of an Epiphone body onto the sides of the log, for comfort and looks, but that didn’t affect the sound. The main thing was not to have a resonating body: the pickups should be static while the strings did the vibrating. He had experimented with strings and a pickup attached to a railway sleeper in 1937, and his comment was ‘You could go out and eat and come back and the note would still be sounding.’ Nigel Tuffnell pays his homage in Spinal Tap to a Gibson Les Paul guitar. The sustain! Listen to it!

I brought my first guitar with me when my Dad brought us on a trip round the States in the summer of 1962; I was fourteen. The first place we stopped for the night was a trailer park just outside New York, across the river in New Jersey. Andy NelsonRight next to our ground-breaking camper van (Louise) was a shiny silver caravan (trailers, they call them) where a man was playing tasty licks on an electric guitar. I wandered over and hung about, and he introduced himself as Andy Nelson; I introduced myself as Worm. Andy was a Gibson representative: his job was to go round the States demonstrating guitars and taking orders. His wife was with him, and they invited us all over for drinks. She was sad because her bottle of crème de menthe had fallen over and spilt in the cupboard.

Andy said he was going the next day to see his friend Les Paul. It’s Less, he said, not Lez, because it’s short for Lester. I had heard Les Paul and Mary Ford on the radio: Put a ring on my finger, in their trademark multi-tracking style, was a hit from 1958. Andy, or Mrs Andy, said that Mary was a true angel, she had saved Les repeatedly from drink and depression. Andy asked me would I like an autograph, so I said yes, and he came back the next day with a big shiny black-and-white photo of Les and Mary, signed to ‘the Worm’ and urging me to keep up the guitar playing. I may still have it, though I can’t think where: my one and only celebrity autograph.

4 Responses to “Les Paul”

  1. willy Says:

    Very nice tribute to both men. I read somewhere that Les had very little design input (aside from the solid body) in the early Les Paul models. ‘Paint ’em gold!’ was his only modification – later he brought out his Les Paul Recording series with huge modifications, and they didn’t really sell at all, although he played them constantly from the late sixties on. The stereo 355 that Andy is playing – each pickup not only with it’s own volume and tone controlls, but pluggable into it’s own amp! – would be much more Les’s cup of tea! Tons of knobs and switches to fiddle with…

  2. recumbentman Says:

    Yep. I’d say it goes to 11 too.

  3. Larry Grinnell Says:

    Thanks again for the tribute to Andy (and Les, of course!). I have owned a copy of that ad for years and only recently noticed he was playing another of his infamous customs (he drove the custom shop, and in so doing, Gibson President Ted McCarty, nuts with his custom orders). Note the neck and headstock inlay. The neck has solid block inlays and the headstock has the L-5 flowerpot. Maybe it was an actual L-5 neck (or at least ornamented like one).

    The shiny caravan was one of the iconic Airstream trailers, an American design classic. He hauled his Airstreams around the country, typically with an International Travelall (similar to a Chevy Suburban). When he wasn’t hauling the Airstream, he was hauling his beloved Sandusky speedboat for another fishing adventure.

    Andy’s wife was Muriel (the first of two!), a tragic figure who suffered from mental illness that manifested itself when Andy himself got ill in the early 1970s with several heart attacks and he had to retire. The lack of something to focus on drove her into her personal abyss, fueled by her medications and lots of alcohol (not to mention lots of Camel cigarettes). I was one of the few members of the family who got along with her, and honestly was very fond of her.

    Andy was one of those players who couldn’t care less about a signature “tone.” He plugged whatever he was playing at the time into whatever could amplify it, yet his “tone” was recognizeable no matter what. The true sign of a pro.

    He would start his clinics with a nice perky piece like Guitar Boogie or Steel Guitar Rag, and close them with a rousing rendition of Flight of the Bumblebee. He didn’t play it often in his later years, but when asked, he’d give it the old college try, and even in his 70s, did a creditable job of it.

    I sure miss him (and Muriel–both of them, and of course Les).

    • recumbentman Says:

      Thanks Larry! Larry Grinnell is a nephew of Andy Nelson’s, and he has put together a comprehensive article and a collection of bits and pieces, which I can’t locate just now; the link from this page no longer seems to work.

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