Les Paul and a Teenage Love Affair

gibson_les_paul (10)

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.)

I’m sure history will note Les Paul’s significant contributions to modern recorded music.

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…

It’s complete.

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:

Sgt. Rock – Teenage Love Affair

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:

Les Paul Trio – Honeysuckle Rose

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:

Sergeant Rock – Running Wild

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11 thoughts on “Les Paul and a Teenage Love Affair

  1. Do you hear the sustain on this post?
    It’s just, like, “AHHHhhhhhhh.”
    You could go out and have a bite, and you’d still be hearing that one.
    “AHHHhhhhhhh.”

    Ok…. All frivolity aside (like Spinal Tap is frivolity, sheesh), there’s one thing I’d like to bring up here. While I agree that the Gibson Les Paul is an amazing guitar that has touched the lives of many amazing (and many more not so amazing) guitarists, I’ve had a difficult time coming to grips with the fact that most people, at the time of St. Les Paul’s passing, have chosen to speak at length of the Gibson Les Paul guitar, and only mention in passing his invention of multi-track recording. The guitar was an influence on guitar players, while multi-track recording really changed the entire music industry, not to mention the television and film industries. One has to wonder if he’d trademarked his name on that as well, if that’s all we’d be talking about, and not so much about the Gibson guitar.

    For the record #1: Sorry it took so long to get around to responding to this post…. I’ve got distractions these days.

    For the record #2: I’ve got personal Gibson leanings as well, but towards the SG. That said, I grew up as a die-hard Led Zeppelin fan, and therefore have certain affections for the Les Paul as well.

  2. Aloha Cameron,

    Thanks for bringing up the much-neglected, and yet most significant aspect of Les Paul’s multi-track innovations. (Thanks too, for finding a spot to insert Nigel’s testament to the Les Paul’s sustain!) I must leave it to others to write of such pioneering as I’m unclear on the history of Les apparently creating multi-track recording. For what it’s worth the recording of the Rick Derringer song from my band’s demo tape was recorded instrumentally and then we ran two stereo cassette decks together to record the vocal track on top — primitive, but it worked. Listening to Les’ recordings, I’m continually amazed to hear what the “Wizard from Waukesha” was able to achieve. Mahalo.

  3. Way to go Dar!!! I grew up in the 50’s and 60’s when Les Paul ‘was the man.” Thanks for bringing it all back. But let’s not forget Mary Ford. Together they created something very new and different. Sometime, put “How High the Moon” on the site. Unforgettable. Love, Carol

  4. Ah yes, those were good times. I enjoyed your Les Paul article Darren, brought back good memories. I still remember that sound you got with that guitar, biting and radical, what R&R was supposed to sound like!
    I could expound more on those times but i’ll wait till we’re in person.
    Up here in northern Minnesota Les Pauls’ passing was commemorated by our guitar players bringing their Les Pauls to the gig. Many songs were played which we don’t normally play but just pounded them out anyway! Blues, rock, country…whatever they remembered having a Les Paul in, we played (or tried to).
    Your Les Paul was the first one i jammed with (me being a drummer) and i remember the tonality and sustain it had, along with your “on the edge” playing style. You rocked Darren, and still do i’m sure. Would be fun to jam with that set-up again. Although i remember your amp at the time went through quite a few “alterations” and i’m sure has since disinegrated into nothing by now. Gotta love those basement workshops/jamming rooms.
    Anyway rock on nerraD… your prose has come along quite well!

  5. Aloha Aunt Carol and bro. Jim!

    It’s a delightful surprise to hear from both of you.

    Carol, thanks for bringing up Mary Ford’s contribution to the music. Their version of How High the Moon is indeed a great recording. (By the way, on the ‘Voggy Volcano Lanai Music’ on this site there is a recording of me and a friend playing Bye Bye Blue if’n that rings a bell. Thanks for taking a look/listen to the blog. Not so active contributing to it myself of late.. got a whole new tune in the works, if ya dig..

    Jim, I’m real glad you had a chance to spock out this post ’cause you play a rather significant part in it! (note: commenter Jim was the drummer in Sergeant Rock and continues contributing his estimable drumming talent and good humor to various bands in Minnesota to this day.) I too look forward to meeting up again, sooner than later, but suffice to say its a real pleasure to share a little riff, inspired from our collective past, with you. Thanks for the kind words and the lasting friendship.

  6. Darren, I was at the last Sgt Rock mini-reunion with Jim on drums and Jim, err… ah… James on bass. Your audio clip is bitchin’. On the same trip, my bro played Redemption Song and I wept. Hanging out with you was one of my very favorite things to do on the islands. I’ll try to keep up with your blog now that I have it. Take care,
    Jer

    • Aloha Jerry,

      I’m happy you visited the blog, especially for this post, as you was there! Living across the street from your family, and bass frequencies traveling as they do, we sort of “followed” Jim’s bass chops development back then. (Unless Galen was working on his double-bass drum chops in our own basement!) How hip is it that bro. Jim would drop the needle on a Steely Dan album to drink in Chuck Rainy’s ono-kine bass lines? Made for great dinner music at our house — and great bass playing! Tell Dr. James howdy when you talk to him — and that I tried to get his fine bass playing out more in the mix from our demo tape.. What can I say? I’ll probably never hear, “Heya Dare, could you turn up a bit more?” (..unless someone was being sarcastic! heh) (Oh. And ps: as a fellow educator, don’t mind my edu-rants. Growing up together, you know how we savor the dialectical quality of these things! (Still, that shit dint come from school, and you know it!) Mahalo!

  7. Great Les Paul story Darren, I remember that guitar well, I did not realize that you found that at Crippa’s. I remember buying Paul’s old SG for $30 when he was going to GIT, and didn’t get my first Leas Paul until 1993, now I have 9 of ’em. I sure hope post the rest of the Sgt Rock material, you guys were awesome. Take care.

    • Hey Rod,

      Good to see you droppin’ in here. Was just talking with Paul about that very SG. Sounds as though, in the intervening years, the price appreciated significantly from 30 bucks, heh. Thanks for checking out Island Notes. Now that the mention has been made, I’ll try and find a chance to post another Sgt. Rock recording somewhere here. I associate some of the very best of times playing with those guys. Aloha.

  8. Rodney,

    The only other digitized Sgt. Rock tune I have is our version of the Judas Priest song Running Wild.

    (Er, see above postcript, as that’s where I was able to post it. Oh, and I referred to you as “massive”. That was really just hyperbole, so if you are now..large these days, it’s not a comment about that. Aloha.)

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