Father of the electric guitar, inventor of multitrack recording, Les talks about his life and his work.
Les Paul is rightly called the "Father of Electric Guitarists." He's also the father of multitrack recording and many other musical inventions. He's a fine guitar player – perhaps not as good as he was at his peak – but still, very, very able. We spoke to him during his recent flying visit to London.
I want to talk about your present rather than your past. You're still doing a lot of engineering in your own studio; after so long in recording, how are your ears? Can you still hear above 16 kc?
I can hear to 16 and that's it, I can hear to 16 on this ear (points to his right ear) and this cotton wool is only in here because of scar tissue built up from an operation. I've had two operations on this ear and they've put a new ear drum in.
So you've not been affected by sitting under monitors for so long?
No... well... I've got to retract that, re-wind that tape. What happened is that with my good ear I can only hear to about 12 or 13 kc.
So how does that affect your mixing?
Well it's very easy, how much is above 13 kilohertz anyway? Two beers right now would destroy your hearing up there, so what?
You ask about my hearing, I'm going to make this short. I went to the Mayo Clinic about my ear. The doctor said he would like to make a very small incision in my right eardrum to find out if there was any fluid behind it. He went in there with a tiny little needle. "He said there's nothing there, how do you feel?" And I said "Well the rumbling has stopped and I'm down 40 dB at 125 cycles." So he says "What?" I repeated myself and he said "Nobody can make that statement. I know you're a musician, Mr. Berlin said this." He then called in another doctor. Finally there's about nine doctors there and they march down the hallway and they put me back in this booth to test my hearing. They take the card out they made before they punctured my eardrum and they did the tests all over again. When it came out, there it was 125 cycles, down 40 dB. Now he had made a bet with me with the nine other doctors and if I won the bet the clinic is free to me. I won the bet. I not only won that bet but I go up to the Mayo clinic now and if there's 40 people with their heads bandaged all I've got to do is say, Les Paul, and they say "Come on in". They said "can we use you in The Medical Journal" and I said "As long as I'm alive." They described it as phenomenal but the way I checked it is just by snapping my fingers quietly and listening. The ear healed up in a week but the rumbling is back.
The original question you asked about the mixing... It's as good as the other guys.
How much time in your private life do you spend in your studio?
Just about all of it. Either there or in the laboratory.
Tell me about your current equipment?
Well the current equipment is three 16 track Ampex machines, the original eight track I made, which, incidentally, is still superior in signal to noise and distortion and it's a better machine than any on the market today. The cross talk is way down, about 16 db down.
So why is it still better?
It's the design of the head, number one. We are working at a very low impedance on one inch tape. The new machines like MCI, like 3M, like Ampex 1100 are basically using two heads, an erase head with identical record and playback heads so it's a compromise. The reason the record and replay heads are identical is that they'll have equal response in self-synch but they're cheating because they're taking a beating by using the playback head as a record head so I don't want that. So on my machine I have an erase head, a record head and a playback head and make the record head when you're in self-synch flat response so that you're monitoring to it and you can also group these up and put them on a single track if you wish and you've got linear or flat response, OK?
What desk are you using now?
At this moment I'm using my old original desk, an old tube job but by the time I get home we should have our new re-mix board in, which is 24 track, but we'll be using it for 16. It's a cross between an MCI and Neve. Built in our home, the modules are to all intents and purposes Automated Process so it's a real hybrid.
As the inventor of multi-track you must have spent more time mixing than you ever have recording.
No. This is the ironic thing. My son goes in to go rat-a-tat-tat on his drum and in ten minutes its done. I don't do what the kids do and take a month to mix it. I'm in and out of there so fast. I go down to Chet Atkins... he says "Can you come down Wednesday?" ...I say "OK", I go there Wednesday. Check in a place, we record Thursday afternoon and Friday morning I'm going home. Chet says "The hurricane just left" and I'm all done.
Is that just experience?
That's right, I know just what I'm going to do and I lay it down and I don't expect someone to go in there with scissors and start operating and doing a hysterectomy on my chords. I got it all laid out. It can happen now. I pick up a guitar and start playing 'Caravan' and Chet says "Can I play it in D" and I say "Fine." Don't make no difference to me what key it's in. The difference between Chet and I is that Chet says "I'm going to do mine over again" and I say "Don't touch mine it's all done."
I'm a "back to Mono" man...
...I am too.
...and one of the main problems, I believe, with the multi track system you're responsible for, is the things you lose through multi-track techniques. You get a vast technical facility but it seems that you can lose so much from the music – which is what recording's about, after all.
There you are... the feeling.
How have you managed to fight the problem you've created..?
About a year ago my mother said to me "Lester, you wouldn't get mad at me if I showed you something would you? I said "Well I don't know until you show me." She said "You played better before you got all that equipment. She dug out the old "Whispering" I made and the new "Whispering" I made. Technically the new "Whispering" was better but the old "Whispering" has the best feeling. I believe that the feeling is much more important than any thing else.
I'm stacked up with 16 tracks and I walk in and I only use two or three tracks. The biggest secret of all is that machine... I put it to someone the other day... the secret is that man runs the machine, the machine does not run man. The kids today let the machine run them and when the machine tells you what to do, you've got a problem. So when I make a recording and send it to Capitol records they say "Well the record's not done yet, you must have sent us the wrong tape." I say "No you've got the right tape." They say "But there's only one voice on there and one guitar". I say "What's wrong with that?"
This goes for equalisers, echo, everything. Guys in studios start grabbing knobs, patching. I come in and pull all the patch chords out, turn all the controls to flat and then start recording.
I'm the guy who started close-miking techniques. It started because I had such crummy equipment that if I pulled back that far I'd be getting so much noise it would kill everything. I was doing low level mixing with pots across the mike line. In my studio you're never going to see a drummer in a separate room and you're never going to see a bass player in a separate room. I guarantee you they've got studios where the classical guitar player is in another room and they're linked by cans. The guy doesn't know when he comes down to cut a record whether it's Motown, or Atlantic, or Columbia or what it is. The guy just plays and then "Next" and they're out. Then the next section comes in and you get records with 99 people on them and most of them have never met each other. You get recording dates where the guy starts in LA, he's in Denver mixing and he's in London cutting it. That's just for one song. We do it another way round. We just switch on and play it and in 15 minutes or half hour it's done.
I believe that the musician should know before he goes in there what the hell he's doing. He should know. I walk in. I say "What are you using for monitors, how've you got them placed, how much are you wiping off that top end, are you shelving it or are you drooping it, what size are your speaker cabinets, where's the resonance etc. etc."
I call them the great pretenders. You go into a recording studio and there's four or five great pretenders, right? You play out there and it sounds like something, you come in here and it sounds like something else. The kid's got 10,000 watts out there and he wants 10,000 watts when he comes into the control room. You can't give him that. Turning up ten speakers is lying to you. When it gets that loud it's a phenomenon of the human ear that it flattens out. So it starts to go flat on you. You ever hear a guy tune loud? He's flat. So he turns the volume down and he's tuned sharp. That's why I tune to one note and say to the other players "Don't do me any favours." My guitar's going to be different in intonation to anyone else's so I have to tune to myself.
Do you get angry with your playing today?
Does it bother you so much that you have to practise?
No, I just wait until tomorrow. It's just like a guy who plays baseball and finds he's in a slump. So this baseball player divorces his wife, leaves his kids, changes his stance and he becomes a mess. He's in a slump and he knows it will soon be over and things will be fine. I feel I never play bad but pretty often I can sure as hell play better.
Do you surprise yourself as a player?
You saw it, I look up and I say "Thank you God" and that's it. I surprise myself all the time. I made a run at Carnegie Hall I never thought I'd make in 25,000 years. It didn't come from my head, it came from my fingers, my brain was in my fingers. I just let go with a run and went up that goddam board and it was so clean that if I sat down and tried it again I'd never do it in a 1,000 years.
What's the stimulus?
It's the adrenalin that comes from up here because they're out there. You walk out with the attitude "I'm not going to make it tonight" and they aint going to make it, you got to make it. They ain't going to react for you. For every action there's a reaction. They're a bit like judges, but they paid to get in. Judges don't pay to get in. Entertainment is what music is about, give them what they want. If I'm Miles Davis I'd want to kill them. I'm saying I constantly adjust to that audience and I can tell immediately if I've gone too far to the left or too far to the right. I want dead centre right down the line. So if it isn't happening I'm not going to play funky blues when these old ladies are there with cherries in their hats.
What's the weakest part of your technique?
Probably the weakest thing that I've got is that I get into that terrible trap of playing for a musician. If I start playing to impress the musician and lose my audience I'm very angry at myself because I'm playing for one guy and I can't do that. If Benny Goodman is in the audience and I think "I'm going to show him" I catch myself real fast and try to keep my feet on the ground.
What's the best thing you do on guitar?
I don't think I do anything any good.
If we can allow you to be totally immodest...
Listen you got the most un-modest man you could meet. If I played good I'd be the first one to tell you.
What gives you the most satisfaction in your playing then?
I know what that is, that's heart. It sounds like I need money, like I'm broke. I play like a coloured man who's a slave, like he's really in trouble. He cries. In fact I've said many a time, I don't want to know how much money I've got and I don't want to know what the conditions are I just want to let it all hang out. I love the blues, but it's not easy to play. I almost have two types of show. One is a jazz show and one is a commercial show. Invariably they keep putting me in a jazz position and I never considered myself a jazz musician even though I was the first one to play jazz at the Philharmonic. I made Norman Granz a millionaire. I've been playing with Lester Young and Art Tatum and Oscar Petersen and you name it. But I never considered myself a jazz player. Personally I have no desire to have a plaque on the wall as a jazz guitarist.
I think every guitar player I've spoken to finds himself subject to patterns that appear within a certain number. Do you find a group of patterns that jump up and want to be used? And how do you break down this barrier to play something new?
Great question. I'll tell you what you do. You book Carnegie Hall and it's Thursday eight o'clock. I say, "We're going to meet on stage." He looks, he looks and everybody says, "You're kidding." George Benson's been practising for 50 days to do this thing and we don't meet until we're on stage. I walk out say hello to the audience and then I look over to Bucky and I say "Are you ready, Mary" The audience cracks up, we all start laughing and we're into it. I don't tell them what key it's in, I don't tell nothing. The whole show is strictly like he's on his toes, he doesn't know what's going to happen next, I don't know what's going to happen next and you're flying strictly by ear. The show comes on great and any time you rehearse it's going to fall into a pattern when a guy says "Hey, play that again, remember what we played last night?" – the guy starts copying himself and the feeling has gone.
By its very nature the guitar is a very limited instrument. How do you break those limits when you're arranging or composing?
Yes it's a beast. In arranging I think of a piano because if I close my eyes and picture a guitar keyboard I'm going to go insane. I play piano and when I close my eyes I can see a chord on the keyboard and that's the way I arrange something. If I play and arrange something on guitar I not only know what part 2 will be like I know how parts 3 and 4 are going to sound. The first and second harmonies are OK, the third one's more difficult and part 4, that's all Arab music, you should send it to Egypt.
When you get up in the morning and pick up a guitar for the first time is there always one particular lick you'll play?
Yeah I loosen up. I have something that sorts me out. I relate to baseball again. You throw a pitch over and see if you can lay it in the strike zone. And you find if you lay four or five of those in a row and you've got him with your curved ball or whatever you say "Today is cool, it's OK." And there's another day you pick the thing up and it's like you've picked up the worst thing you could ever pick up in the world, nothing is right. 99 per cent of it has got more to do with your head than with your hands. I can go out on stage with my chops all off and if my head's together I can go out there and kill them.
I've got to play three or four runs to know that I'm pitching right over that plate. So I have what I call a junk box. I have my frozen licks and they'll tell me. Those frozen licks are things that will always get you out of trouble as well. You'll never need them if the show's cooking but if you get into trouble you can dive right back into them. They're simple and good and they're tried and tested and they can certainly get you out of trouble.
Incidentally one of the toughest things at Carnegie Hall is that there's no place for you to warm up. The instrument is out there and plugged in and you walk out there, put the thing over your neck and zonk! I can't go there and tune for five minutes, that's for amateur night. That's what gets so tough. In show business it's easy to get on and tough to get off and the first impact counts with the jury.
mu:zines is the result of thousands of hours of effort, and will require many thousands more going forward to reach our goals of getting all this content online.
If you value this resource, you can support this project - it really helps!