Lester William Polfuss, better known as Les Paul, was born in Waukesha, Wisconsin. His mother was related to the founders of the Valentin Blatz Brewing Company which later became the Pabst Brewing Company and to the founders of the Stutz Motor Company, which produced the famous Stutz Bearcat. It was his mother who first simplified the family name to Polfuss. Les would later shorten it further to Paul when he took on that stage name.
Les Paul’s interest in music began at the age of eight when he began playing the harmonica and the banjo. He later replaced the banjo with the guitar. In order to be able to play both instruments at once, Paul invented a harmonica holder that he could wear around his neck. The device is still in use by musicians to this day, using his same basic design.
By the time he had hit his teenage years, Paul was playing a few professional gigs. By the age of 17 he had found himself steady work as a musician and dropped out of high school to play full time for Wolverton’s Radio Band in St. Louis, Missouri. In 1934 Les Paul left Missouri for Chicago and began playing jazz, influenced heavily by Django Reinhardt.
Les Paul had two problems with the acoustic electric guitars of the day. One was the feedback caused by guitar body resonating with sound from the amplifier, and the other was the lack of sustain. He solved both of these problems when he attached a bridge, guitar neck, and pickup to a piece of 4×4 lumber. That piece of common lumber became one of the first solid-body electric guitars ever made. Leo Fender and Adolph Rickenbacker had also created similar designs.
Paul approached Gibson about selling his guitar early on, but they showed no interest until Fender began producing solid body electrics. Gibson quickly built a guitar around Les Paul’s designs and presented it to him for endorsement. In 1961, Gibson changed the design without Paul’s permission. He protested and the new model was renamed the “SG,” another very popular model in the Gibson lineup.
In 1948 Les Paul made one of the world’s first multi-track recordings in his garage, entitled “Lover (When You’re Near Me).” Paul made the recording, featuring him playing 8 guitar parts, using acetate discs. He even built his own disc cutter out of automobile parts. Later, when magnetic tape was popularized, Les Paul modified an Ampex 200 reel to reel recorder to allow him to play along with a previously recorded track and combine the two inputs into a new track. Ampex was impressed with the work and began building the two and three track recorders that became the backbone of the audio industry in the 1950s.
Les Paul’s claims to fame are 22 gold records and numerous inventions that have revolutionized the music industry. Les Paul continued to play music on a semi-regular basis up until his death from pneumonia at the age of 94 in 2009. Les Paul is one of only a handful of artists to have a permanent exhibit at the rock and roll hall of fame.