A Local Look at Les Paul – Electric Guitar Legend

--> Special thanks to Don in Wisconsin for contributing this article!

Les Paul's Guitar: The LogBy no means do I consider myself an authority or any sort of notable historian on Les Paul, electric guitars, or anything of that ilk. Yet, I do happen to play guitar and live within a “stone’s throw” of where local lore documents Les having actually invented the first version of a solid-body electric guitar often identified as “The Log.” As with many historical events, there is some controversy over who, officially, invented the first electric guitar. There are so many nuances to that topic, it would be best for any reader - having an interest - to research on their own and believe whatever version of “the truth” they find acceptable. Yet, most information credits Paul with not only having pioneered this version of the guitar, but contributing numerous other techniques and enhancements that made the instrument so incredibly popular in live and recorded music. Most notably among his many accomplishments, Les also pioneered multi-track recording. That concept, alone, forever changed the process of how music is recorded to this very day!

Les Paul’s real name was Les Polsfuss (Lester William Polsfuss to be exact). He later simplified it to Les Paul. He was affectionately known as The Wizard of Waukesha, having grown up in a home located in that area of Wisconsin. His boyhood home was rather tragically torn down many years ago, amidst inexplicable circumstances surrounding this particular event. Yet, there is a Les Paul Parkway named in his honor in Waukesha, and there are Les Paul museum projects, both completed and in various stages of development in Waukesha and Milwaukee. There is a Les Paul Performance Pavilion in Cutler Park, and Les is buried at Prairie Home Cemetery in Waukesha, WI, as well.

Although Les spent his later years in Mahwah, New Jersey and played in New York City jazz clubs prior to his death at age 94, he treasured his ties to his hometown of Waukesha and Wisconsin. More detailed information about Les Paul and his life can readily be found by checking out the Les Paul Foundation. You will learn why he was called “Red” growing up, and glean other fascinating facts about his career, as well.

I once owned a Gibson Les Paul Model classic “Black and White” guitar with his actual signature on the pick guard. I foolishly traded it away for another guitar years ago when I was quite a bit younger and not fully aware of its potential significance. I think Les was “only” in his 70’s at that time, and was resurrecting from retirement. He had just overcome some health issues to continue his playing and appearances on a more limited basis. Since it was an authentic signature, “my” Les Paul guitar fetched added trade value and allowed me to pursue what has now become a transition to my affinity with well-made acoustic guitars. I sure wish now in hindsight that I had kept that Les Paul guitar. I often contemplate about how it would look on display in my home, so near the spot that he first introduced the electric guitar.

Gibson Les Paul Classic

Goerke’s Corner, near my current home, is the place where Les showcased his early electrical magic. That location is now a “Park and Ride” stop for Public Transportation. There is no major signage or identification attributed to the fact that this is where Les, reportedly, first “hooked up” his experimental electric guitar to an outdoor drive-in restaurant speaker. Variations of this story still persist, however there is no debate that this is the marker where his invention occurred. Les was well-known for his musical talents and harmonica playing at the outdoor barbecue-style restaurant that existed there at the time.  Customers at the Goerke’s Corner restaurant - halfway between Waukesha and Milwaukee – would gather there for a meal and to enjoy listening to Les play on summer nights. Yet, they asked if there were some way he could increase the volume of his guitar sound somehow. This led to his devising a solution to amplify his first “log” guitar electrically. He also pioneered a “hands-free” means to hold his harmonica and accompany himself on guitar. That practice also found its way into folk music and became most notably associated with Bob Dylan, among others.

Many accounts abound on the specifics of how the Les Paul Model emerged at Gibson, and arguably it did not become popular until after Leo Fender first popularized his Fender electric guitar models. Les and Gibson, eventually, came to terms on the design of “his” model and the rest - as they say - is history. Eric Clapton and an endless array of other prominent guitarists helped immortalize Gibson’s Les Paul Model. There were so many versions created and reissued that it would take a book just to document them all.

From a personal perspective and in closing, I hope that continued interest and funding will better identify the aforementioned Goerke’s Corner spot that I drive by countless times each week. There should be some monument or marker that properly calls attention to just how important a place that geography truly encompasses in musical history.

Information for this article was based upon works referenced in Wikipedia, The Les Paul Foundation website, personal notes, and other research and knowledge known and obtained by this writer.

If you have a Les Paul related story (either about the man, or the guitar), feel free to share it in the comments below!

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13 Responses to “A Local Look at Les Paul – Electric Guitar Legend”

  1. Jeff Salmon March 10, 2011 at 10:07 am #

    Nice article Don. Thanks for the mention and link to the Les Paul Foundation. Jeff Salmon

  2. RobFonner March 22, 2011 at 4:56 pm #

    Hey Don, excellent mini-history! I've been playing for over 35 years and only got my first LP a few years ago. It's a Custom 1982 model with the Tim Shaw pick ups and the mini crank tuners. A beautiful guitar in ox blood finish and heavy as hell clocking in at 11.1 pounds!

    • Don March 26, 2011 at 4:15 am #

      Sounds amazing, Rob, but that would be a workout having that "beast" strapped around your neck for too long? Do you mostly play it sitting or standing? The LP you own sure sounds like an interesting one. Hang on to it. Enjoy! Continued Best Wishes.

      • David Harter April 29, 2011 at 4:26 pm #

        Fantastic Mini-Article Don!!!
        I have a good friend that just relocated here from Colorado and is a guitar nut. He has both Strats and LPs and asked if I wanted to take him to Waukesha to see a Les Paul Museum. Now I can tell him that they are in the project stage. He gave me a Les Paul Jr. for Xmas and I previously a drummer but now learning to Play.
        Curious as to what (Anybody) can tell me about the LP Jr. Don't really know its history although its a beautiful guitar with a perfect Sunburst Finish. Dave in Milwaukee.
        PS. Love this site.

    • fbhbj June 10, 2011 at 6:01 am #

      this is nice

  3. RobFonner March 26, 2011 at 8:56 am #

    Actually I use a '76 Strat in the band. It weighs almost nothing. The LP is a bear standing with it, but the tone, the tone!

    • Riff March 26, 2011 at 12:06 pm #

      Tone is the Master....agree....Strats? Love those too! You've made some great choices there, Robb. Continued Best Wishes. If you've ever wanted to capture that lush tone "on your own"....check out Jonathan's latest review here on Owen Critchley's Home Recording Program.
      Take Care.

  4. Jim April 20, 2011 at 5:16 pm #

    Nice article. I'm in Milwaukee and was able to catch the Les Paul exhibit at the Discovery Center downtown. Guitar fans, come to Milwaukee and check it out.

    Jim

    • Hess April 22, 2011 at 12:54 am #

      Thanks, Jim. Milwaukee is somewhat of a well kept secret in some parts of the world. Shhhhhh...........LOL

      You know we're that town a little south of the Home of the World Champion Green Bay Packers. Arffff.

  5. Riffmeister April 22, 2011 at 1:32 am #

    Good article, Guitar Tips Weekly and Jonathan are awesome!

  6. Mack April 26, 2011 at 8:35 pm #

    My great grandfather had ( and now my uncle has) an electric guitar -solid body- that was made in San Francisco in the latter half of the 1940s. His name was Joe Gibson. His friend had just got an acoustic with electric pickups and my grandfather made a bet that he could make a guitar out of metal that would sound the same as the acoustic with electric plug-ins he became famous around Arkansas and Oklahoma in his bluegrass band and one day a man came and asked to borrow the guitar, my Grandfather said no to it leaving the shop but let the man take measurements and after a while the first electric guitar made out of metal was made. ( he also put my aunt through college with several inventions he made, like a fiberglass bottom boat he made. I want to know where did the Gibson brand come from; (the signature at the top of the neck of my grandfathers guitar matches the same one they use today) and if this guitar predates that of Les Paul or Fender how would I prove that.

  7. Bob Mersereau May 4, 2011 at 4:29 am #

    When I was about 10 living about 30 miles from New York City, with my parents and older brother attended the radio broadcast of the "Fred Waring" program in New York. We arrived too late for the 15 minute broadcast, but were ushered in at its conclusion to seats front row center and were recipients of some fun comments ("Glad you finally made it!") from Fred himself. There followed a 45 minute show just for the studio audience, and Les Paul sat right in front of medoing his thing! I was enthralled. If my memory serves me, I could see into his guitar where there appeared to be electronic tubes glowing. Whatever there was, he sounded great! I was hooked!

    I started playing on a mandolin, because it was in our house. Soon, I had my first guitar. In high school, my friends started a dance band, and I was given a D'Armine (?) pickup for it and was helped by my scoutmaster friend to convert an old radio into an amplifier of sorts. I joined the band. While in service, I often jammed with others, and then again played in bands through college. During my working years as an engineer, I often played with others for parties and charity events with my next-to-newest Gibson ES-330T circa 1960. (I keep it my bedroom and play most every day.) In retirement I've been attending open jam sessions with my newest Gibson, an ES-135 I acquired in 2005 through EBAY. This newest Gibson stands next to our piano, ready for whatever playing opportunities present themselves.

    Les Paul has been my inspiration and Charlie Christian my favorite. Thanks.

  8. Raymond June 10, 2011 at 8:59 am #

    I also learned guitar as a kid-sheesh, 40 years of playing? Anyway, that makes me sorry I just bought a brand-new 60th anniversary Telecaster.

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