This blog wouldn’t exist if not for Les Paul (1915-2009). So many know of his innovations in the development of the solid body electric guitar, but there is also his work in the advancement of multi-track recording, tape delay, sound-on-sound looping, reverb etc. that we take for granted today. Before the software replicants that we use today, there was a time where, if something didn’t exist, you went into a machine shop and made it out of wood, metal, vacuum tubes and electrical components. That’s hardcore analog. That calls upon a wider range of skill sets than most of us have today and, in Les Paul’s case, than most anyone ever had.
Video: Les Paul and Mary Ford are hosted by Alistair Cooke on a 1953 broadcast of the legendary CBS show Omnibus doing a “sound-on-sound” performance of “How High the Moon.”
I’d been thinking a lot about him this week before his passing. I haven’t owned a guitar in years and I had just gotten tired of either borrowing my friend Gerald’s Gibson SG for recording or playing clean guitar sounds on my keyboard and running them through guitar FX plug-ins, that I decided to get one of my own again. The first electric guitar that I bought for myself was a silver Les Paul Standard copy made by the Cortez (!) company when I was a freshman at Wayne State University in Detroit. I’d decided to skip school that semester but still lived in the dormitory keeping up the pretense of going to classes. Money that was supposed to be spent on books was quickly converted into the cash needed to buy that guitar and an amp, so I could make spending money playing in original music bar bands at night. My days were spent giving myself a crash course in guitar playing that, thanks to years of violin, piano and theory that came before it, went very quickly. After moving to NYC and fully embracing the new paths that MIDI technology was taking us to, my bar band aspirations became a thing of the past. The guitar broke and was never replaced. Plus, I was surrounded by friends who were/are guitar wizards now so, why bother?
Yes, after moving to NYC with one of the number one bands in Detroit, that all fell apart. I returned to “serious” music, as I understood it at that time (I had classical training, J.S. Bach to Steve Reich, but the bands were a more immediate form of expressing Cold War angst, for this young man). I worked for John Cage’s publisher and then later, his editor, so that, coupled with my incipient work in avant-garde theater, saw me through a phase of trying everything possible: indeterminate music, serial music, prepared piano, percussion quartets, electronic soundscapes, etc. This led to a World Music phase in the 90s that was followed by a Neo-Minimalist phase because, with my keyboard-based ensemble, I was able to use non-tempered gamelan tunings within the guise of pattern-driven mini-epics for chamber ensemble. Still, it wasn’t completely ‘me’ yet. One of the best compliments I received from a live performance of a piece of mine for microtonal keyboard and gamelan at Celebrate Brooklyn! came at me like the kid who speaks up in The Emperor’s New Clothes: “I really liked your piece. It reminded me of The Who.” I laughed them off. But later, when I thought about it, when the piece was removed of all the ‘new music’ trappings, they were right. The road I chose may have been different, but the destination was the same. Since then, it’s all been about returning to who I was all along. My music has become a synthesis of everywhere I’ve been and everything I’ve done and that includes restoring the sound of the solid body electric guitar to my work, though with a lot more history behind it this time.
When I arrived in NYC, I almost felt I had to hide my punk rock/new wave ‘detour’ when I re-entered the classical world. I guess I was embarrassed about my incomplete music school pedigree. Worse yet was the embarrassment I felt (and still feel) for the Ivy League composers who dominate the NYC scene when they try to “rock out,” or decide to get all “downtown” on us. I guess it works both ways. To see it you gotta be it and, well, I don’t see it. Much. If hanging-in-there has brought me anything, it has made me come around full circle and feel comfortable in my own skin again with what I’m doing and where I want to go now musically, and there ain’t no degree you can get for that.
So here I am last Sunday, 20+ years after that silver Cortez, looking at all the electric guitars hanging on the walls at Guitar Center on 14th Street in Manhattan. So many new models and guitar gadgets since I last looked. My trips to music stores had always centered around the keyboards, electronics and software. So, if I’m coming full circle, why not go all the way? After a half an hour of trying out different ones, I decided on a particular Les Paul Standard that seemed to call my name and felt just right.
Mind you this was before Les Paul’s passing today. I’m sure I’m not special. I’m sure that there were millions of musicians somewhere thinking about him every day. In the months, weeks, and days leading up to that moment, I’d been talking about him with my guitarist friends, building up the courage to get another Les Paul some day soon. My research led me to remember all the innovations that he’d made besides the solid body electric guitar: multi-tracking, overdubbing, looping, tape delay, reverb etc. Now these live on in the little machine before me that I’m typing into.
I had an Akai APC-40 to control my laptop on order from B&H Photo since late May, until they emailed me that it would not be shipped within the quoted 2-4 weeks. I would have to wait until September! Screw it, I’ll make do with how I’ve been doing things up until now. I canceled the order and put that money towards the Les Paul Standard sitting beside me right now. Sometimes musical expression has to be more immediate than a chain of gear that needs to be turned on, booted up, opened up, mixer on, speakers on, controller on… sometimes it has to be something you can just reach out and grab, touch, pound on if you must, and make some music with, dammit. Like now. That’s classical and that’s rock’n’roll.
Thank you, Les Paul for always keeping a beautiful and musical balance between man and machine, and for an electric guitar that will sustain a note almost as long, but not quite, as your legacy surely will.