“Some guys like Les Paul, confinement couldn’t hold them so they had to invent stuff,” said blues guitar veteran Joe Louis Walker from outside Manhattan’s Hard Rock Café, where he and dozens of other musicians gathered on June 9th for the Les Paul 100th Anniversary Celebration event. “If it wasn’t for Les Paul, what would we all be playing?” Walker continued. “Acoustic boxes don’t do too good at Madison Square Garden.”
According to legend, Paul was once playing an acoustic blues gig and someone handed him a napkin with the message “turn it up” written on it. Frustrated by the volume limitations of the instrument he created a solid body electric guitar that could be plugged directly into a speaker. The Les Paul – the instrument of choice for artists ranging from Eric Clapton to Randy Rhoads – was born. But that wasn’t his only innovation: the inventor also came up with multitrack recording, which allowed artists to record separate takes of music at different times but have them play back as if they were created in tandem.
“He paved the way for the rest of the industry to follow,” said Journey guitarist Neal Schon, one of seven main players to take the stage during the Les Paul 100th Anniversary Celebration, which took place on Paul’s birthday and nearly six years after his death from pneumonia at age 94. Rather than just a commemoration of the innovator’s influence, the event was a celebration of the electric guitar, as heroes of blues, classic rock and hard rock stepped up to show off their chops. Many of the performers knew and played with Paul, but there were no speeches and little between-song banter. The night wasn’t about verbal praise, it was an event of pure, joyful indulgence, which was very much in the spirit of Paul’s life in music.
“He did so much in his lifetime,” added guitar hero Steve Vai, who said Paul’s achievements in sound technology overshadow his career as an exceptional musician, who made over 20 full-length albums with his wife Mary Ford, as well as Chet Atkins and others. “His playing was very clean and he was one of the guys that was actually the first to solo,” continued Vai. “He played fast notes in single, linear fashion. And then he took it to another level by overdubbing the recording multiple times for the first time ever. So you had this cascading ocean of notes, which was totally unique.”
The Les Paul 100th Anniversary Celebration opened with the Les Paul Trio, which includes guitarist Lou Pallo, who played with Paul for almost 40 years. The group’s set featured “The Lady Is a Tramp,” “Blue Skies” and “Sweet Georgia Brown,” the very last song Paul played onstage at New York’s Iridium, where he performed two sets a week for nearly 15 years, and was often joined by countless prominent guest musicians such as Paul McCartney, Keith Richards, Mark Knopfler and Slash.