Guitar innovator Les Paul dies at 94

'Architect of rock 'n' roll' also invented multitrack recording

NASHVILLE -- Legendary guitar and recording innovator Les Paul, 94, died Aug. 13 from complications of severe pneumonia at White Plains (N.Y.) Hospital.

A pioneer in electric guitar sounds, responsible for developing and lending his name to what many consider rock 'n' roll's definitive guitar, Paul's career spanned from the jazz age through the new millennium. Every Monday, he played two sets at New York's Iridium Jazz Club.

"Les was a renaissance man," said Patti Smith guitarist and rock historian Lenny Kaye. "He was many things: a great inventor, a great conceptualizer. But for me he was a great musician who played with feeling and originality."

Paul's early innovations in the development of the solid-body guitar would become the template for Gibson's best-selling electric, the iconic Les Paul model, introduced in 1952. Among Paul's other technological innovations were developments in multitrack recording, guitar effects and the mechanics of sound in general.

“Without Les Paul, we would not have rock and roll as we know it,” said Terry Stewart, president of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum. “His inventions created the infrastructure for the music and his playing style will ripple through generations. He was truly an architect of rock and roll.”

Born Lester William Polsfuss June 9, 1915, in Waukesha, Wis., Paul began performing publicly as a honky-tonk guitarist by the age of 13 and dropped out of high school at 17 to play in Sunny Joe Wolverton's Radio Band in St. Louis.

His first recordings came in 1936 when he recorded as the solo country act Rhubarb Red and also appeared on records by blues singer Georgia White. Paul eventually switched to jazz, forming a trio in his early 20s. In 1938, he moved to New York, where he began performing regularly on national radio with Fred Waring's Pennsylvanians, the popular dance orchestra.

"I would say Eddie Lang and Django Reinhardt were the ones who really influenced me," Paul told Billboard in a 2005 interview. "They were both out of this world, and I worshipped them. Worshipped isn't even the word, it was more than that . . . it was just something beyond any belief."

The guitarist moved to Hollywood in 1943, where he met Bing Crosby, with whom he recorded the 1945 hit "It's Been a Long, Long Time." Paul went on to enjoy his greatest success as a recording artist with his wife, Colleen Summers, who performed under the stage name Mary Ford. Together, they scored a string of hits on Capitol Records, including "Mockin' Bird Hill," "How High the Moon," "Vaya Con Dios" and "Hummingbird." (The couple divorced in 1964.)

A Les Paul guitar
In addition to his artistic prowess, Paul was an inveterate tinkerer who harbored an interest in electronics and guitar amplification since his youth. In the late '30s, he began experimenting with twin pickups and steel-reinforced guitar bodies.

In the early '50s, he partnered with Gibson to develop a solid-body guitar, eventually leading to the release of the 1952 Les Paul Goldtop. After issuing different iterations of the signature guitar, Gibson released the Les Paul Standard in 1958, which the guitar maker said has since remained unchanged.

Paul's innovations in multitrack recording were also a pivotal part of his legacy and one that revolutionized the recording process.

"He allowed us to hear music in a way that would never have been possible without him," producer Rob Cavallo said. "If we didn't have multitracking, how else would you get to hear someone sing their own backing harmonies or play a lead guitar over a rhythm guitar they themselves have played?"

Paul will always be most indelibly associated with the guitar that bears his name. Aerosmith guitarist Joe Perry said he owns about 50 of them. "It's an amazingly comfortable guitar to play," Perry said. "That's why for some of the hardest rockin' punks to country twangers and everybody in between it's the guitar of choice."

Bon Jovi guitarist Richie Sambora recalls the time he first met Paul in 1988, when the band was starting work on its album "New Jersey."

"Les came to over on my birthday and we sat on the dock behind my house for hours and talked," he said. "At the end, he gave me a guitar and said, 'Son, here's the sword, now go out and cut the shit.' "

Paul is survived by his daughter, Colleen Wess; sons Lester (Rus) G. Paul, Gene W. Paul and Robert (Bobby) R. Paul; five grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren.

A private funeral service will be held in New York, with a service in Waukesha to be announced. In lieu of flowers, Paul's family asks that donations be made to the Les Paul Foundation, 236 W. 30th St., Seventh Floor, New York, N.Y. 10001.

Additional reporting by Ed Christman, Cortney Harding and Ken Tucker; the Associated Press contributed to this report.