A twelve year-old kid sneaks into his older brother’s room down in the basement.
In an immaculate black tolex-covered guitar case resting on the floor lays the object of his fascination.
Confident that his oldest sibling is out of the house for the time being, he unbuckles the case and as usual forgets to open the rear-side buckle of the sturdy case bearing the logo: Gibson. The gleam of gold delights his curious eye. Inside lay an instrument of a nature derived from what had been the stuff of hearsay: photographs, television …record albums.
Case fully open, the boy gazes upon the object: a wine red triple pick-up Gibson solidbody guitar, complete with gold-plated hardware. It sits there snugly in its pink velvet-lined case, as if to suggest…Boy, do you have ANY idea of what I am? I mean…look at me for chrissakes! Do you have any idea whatsoever…of what to do with one as well-crafted as me? Close my case right now you little punk! You’re in new waters and you don’t even have a compass…
But the boy knows what he came down here for. This is it — a Gibson Les Paul Custom. After taking in the magnificence of the three gold-plated humbucking pickups wired to the four potentiometers capped with serious looking knobs — a pickup selector switch labeled rhythm and treble, he passes his finger over the strings like so many initiates to the guitar before him.
In time, cautiously progressing to embracing his brother’s guitar, he’d learn to alternately fret the 3 thinnest strings at the second fret, so as to make a progression — a chord progression. Strummed open strings, leading to that single-fingered chord and pulled off to open-stringed home base. Eventually throwing in a little descending part with that same single-finger chord up at the fifth fret — descending like some Hawaiian ukulele thing — down a fret at a time until he was right back to those open-strings. Those open strings sounding — what is it? — a cluster of 4th intervals? A G13th chord? Doesn’t matter…
Doesn’t matter unless you were that kid in a Minnesota basement taking your brother’s gleaming Les Paul Custom for a ride while he’s out…
(The preceding is my way of noting the passing of Mr. Les Paul, a man largely responsible for the advancement of the solidbody guitar and the Gibson Les Paul guitar in particular — and multitrack recording — and a great guitar player.)
Me, I just want to post a thing or two of what Les Paul means to me.
Sorry Spinal Tap fans. While this is undoubtedly a potential jumping off point for a Nigel Tufnel-inspired testament to the Les Paul guitar — truly a rock and roll icon — what I have to elucidate is more of a shameless and solipsistic reminiscence and expression of what the man and the guitar have contributed to my personal journey. (Was gonna call this: “I Came Ten Thousand Miles to Rock!!” but have resisted the temptation.)
Les Paul, the man?
Les was the man!
It does a disservice to this tribute to even mention that Les apparently dropped out of school at 17. However, in a world that has been conditioned to think of competence as correlated to length of schooling, we might do well to try and understand how an innovator of Les Paul’s genius would find his path most decidedly away from school. (note: Les Paul was an Honorary Board Member for Little Kids Rock, a nonprofit dedicated to bringing free musical instruments and music instruction to underserved schools across the United States of America.)
Les admired the playing of the great Belgian gypsy guitarist Django Reinhardt. Both of these masterful musicians suffered severe injuries. Django in a fire that disfigured and maimed his fretting hand — Les having broken his “picking” arm in several places in a car crash. After healing from their respective traumas, both of these men continued to expand and influence music with a passion that inspires us to believe in transcendence of hardship.
Les Paul, the instrument?
While Les Paul was not solely responsible for the Gibson Les Paul guitar, he was one of the inventors of solid-body guitars. He and the Gibson guitar company worked together on the Les Paul.
The Gibson Les Paul just is. And it is to many people all over our planet. While teaching high school in Japan I’ve shared in the delight upon some Japanese kid unveiling his prized Les Paul. The attraction to a Les Paul guitar is surely universal. (I’ll bet that right as I’m typing this some guy — perhaps in Lapland — is marveling at the warmth of a Les Paul plugged into a tube amplifier. While his reindeer herd gently sleeps…)
Me, I grew up in the 70s any way you slice it. Rock and roll punch was pretty much delivered with the Les Paul guitar. And visually it was is a thing to admire — perhaps like some spaceman’s-race-car-controller-thing, or a race-man’s space-car-controller-thing…
That’s it! Unlike some guy and his Fender Jazzmaster, where you kind of want to see if he is gonna be all right or not standing there; the guy with the Les Paul is fully covered — thank you very much. These days I tend to think of that unsure guy and his Jazzmaster as way more cool — that could just be me, or the times, or dunno — better for another post.
Still, an unsure guy holding a Les Paul guitar is indeed an awkward sight.
Countless guitar players delivered rock guitar on a Les Paul, and Les Paul himself provided a wealth of guitar riffs and approaches for others to appropriate for their own developing styles. (read: too many to possibly cover)
I once saw the late Randy Rhoads playing his Les Paul Custom with Ozzy Osbourne in the Duluth arena. Randy played a Les Paul through a little MXR distortion pedal into a cranked Marshall tube amplifier and it was…sublime — hitting all these squeals and driving his fretboard “off the rails” with this …sound. (Me, I’m thinkin’ if I got my Suzuki up to about 12,000 rpms upon driving off of the upward slope of my substantial shed roof..well, right before hitting an ohia tree or two, I’d maybe get a sound vaguely reminiscent of Randy Rhoads’ Les Paul…but way more lame.)
Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top, Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin, Alex Lifeson of Rush, Ronnie Montrose, Thin Lizzy, Tom Sholz of Boston, Jeff Beck, Peter Frampton, Gary Moore, Al Di Meola.. These and thousands upon thousands of other great guitarists played the shit out of the Les Paul solid body guitar.
All right. I’ve fallen off of the track myself.
My personal Les Paul story?
One day when I was fifteen I went into Crippa’s music store in my hometown of Hibbing, Minnesota. In the back lay the shittiest, most duct-taped Gibson guitar case. Upon opening it I saw before me the most road abused 1973 Cherry Sunburst Gibson Les Paul Custom guitar. The bar-stench of a zillion gigs was most perceptable. Mark the store manager off-handedly told me that the guitar player from the band currently playing at the Kahler Hotel bar just up at the entrance to town had just brought it in on a trade-in for a new Telecaster. (I still remember the band’s name, Pearl Harbor. What are the chances?)
I had never seen such a beautiful thing, stench or no stench.
As sly as a fifteen year old can be, I asked the manager if I might take it home and try it out a little. (That gorgeous brand new Les Paul in the basement that I mentioned earlier? My brother bought that while working at this same Crippa’s so I had a little in with the store.)
I owe all three of my brothers for, among other things, helping me learn stuff. With the Les Paul bro, I never took formal lessons, although he gave them at said store. I do remember the briefest of lessons when I came to him all excited about striking upon what I thought to be a new note to bend up too. I announced to my brother, “I think in guitar you can bend to the so-and-so note. And he says, “You can bend to any note!” That’s how our lessons went. I also stayed up very late as his television watching buddy. We’d watch the Midnight Special and he’d set me straight about Gibsons and Fenders. That was years before I tried learning to play. On nights when it was late-night monster movies, he’d set me straight about what actor portrayed the best Dracula or Frankenstein. (That actually turned out to be less useful.)
…So I grab this seemingly thrashed guitar and take it home and thoroughly clean it and guess what? It takes on a shine like a jewel! At that point it was abundantly clear that Mark and Crippa Music would never again see that guitar until after we negotiated over the price for a filthy used-up [sic] guitar.
If you’ll permit this shameless self-indulgent post a little longer, that night I recall thinking twice about going out with my buddies, as I just didn’t want to take the risk of getting in a crash or something — to not have the chance to explore the new heaven I was residing in as an owner of an actual Les Paul! My very own! (Going out with buddies back then — being what it was — I had probable cause for concern.)
So to end what started as something spawned by hearing the news that Les Paul died today, and to be consistent in my, Les Paul Dying is About Me! -theme, I’ll close with a recording of my band in high school (1982), Sergeant Rock, and our version of a Rick Derringer song called, Teenage Love Affair. (It’s okay, because we were teenagers — who worried much too much about playing in tune — and cleaning our strings — and as such, we didn’t get a whole lotta love...well, the variety that Mr. Derringer refers to in said song anyway…)
My beloved de-stanked and re-stanked Les Paul is sort of on the right side sounding the wah-wah solo; heavy as wearing some kind of coffee table furniture around your neck; but an open A chord through an overdriven tube amp never felt so good. The other members of Sergeant Rock on this recording are: Jim Pfau – bass, Jim Pietila – drums, and Paul Suihkonen – vocals and guitar:
Les Paul the man was certainly beyond and apart from the Les Paul musical instrument. Yet in the act of recording, the two collaborated to produce beautiful music:
Aloha Les Paul!
Postscript: Upon massive public outcry for more Sgt. Rock rocking, here’s our version of the Judas Priest song, Running Wild. Be forewarned — it’s a tad heavy. Not your standard Starbucks fare for sure. Come to think of it, this should maybe be played for customers who opt for that double frappo super big gulp coffee as they gnash their teeth on the way out: