Guitar Pioneer Les Paul Remembered by His Son

“It was like working with Mr. Wizard”: Producer/engineer Gene Paul shares how he learned music and sound from his father, electric guitar innovator Les Paul.

Les Paul with his guitar

Few have changed the way modern music is played and heard the way Les Paul did. As a pioneering player and innovator of the solid-body electric guitar in the 1940s, Les Paul helped usher in the sound of rock and roll. The Gibson Les Paul, named after him, has been the guitar choice for many guitar legends in different genres. Les himself played jazz, blues, country and pop music, and is known for his endless playing and recording innovations: licks, trills, chording sequences, fretting techniques, overdubbing, delay effects, phasing effects, multitrack recordings, and many more.

June 9, 2016 would have been the 101th birthday of this visionary musician and inventor, who passed away in 2009. To mark this anniversary, we talked to his son Gene Paul, a nine-time Grammy®-winning producer, musician recording, mixing and mastering engineer who has worked with the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, Eric Clapton, Norah Jones and many others. We asked him to share some memories and thoughts about his inspiring father.

Les and Gene Paul at Les Paul’s studio in Mahwah, NJ, 1964

Waves: Your father changed the way the world creates and listens to music. What in your opinion, apart from his extraordinary talents, made him such a revolutionary and innovative leader?

Gene Paul: “Although my dad’s inventions have affected so many musicians over the years, that was never his intention. He was always motivated by his own need to improve what was important to him and was strictly trying to make his own guitar playing experience better. Basically, he wanted to have his guitar heard at the back of the club.”

What was it in your father’s character that made him challenge himself time after time and push towards excellence?

GP: “My dad’s ability to focus on a specific issue he was interested in drove his lifelong curious nature. He wasn’t satisfied until he knew how something worked and if it could be improved, and his persistence and patience paid off more often than not.”

You’ve studied engineering in the family’s studio, and for years you played drums behind your father and your stepmother, [singer] Mary Ford. In what ways do you find your musical education different from that of most musicians?

GP: “I was smart enough not to take up the guitar. As a drummer I followed the usual path of a self-taught musician. The difference was my ability to hear many of the top drummers of the day up close. Through my dad I was able to get drum lessons from [Dave Brubeck’s drummer] Joe Morello, sit behind Buddy Rich during his big band gigs at Birdland and Vegas, and benefit from other wonderful opportunities that I thought were normal at the time. I was brought up in my dad’s studio. I learned all the basics from his point of view; it was like working with Mr. Wizard. We started from the beginning of the chain and worked our way out to the speakers. No detail was unimportant. It served me well.”

Can you share a few memories that stand out for you as the best musical memories you had with your father?

GP: “There are so many. When we were done with our gig, depending on what city we were in, dad, Mary and myself would go to see whoever was playing in the clubs. It was an education you couldn’t buy. Ray Charles, Wes Montgomery, Jimmy Smith, Andrés Segovia, BB King, and Mary’s idol, Ella Fitzgerald, among so many others. It was a gift that I still appreciate.”

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