Far more than just a name on a guitar and a recording pioneer, Les Paul was a skilled player who knew how to please an audience. Douglas Noble examines his style.
It’s no exaggeration to say that Les Paul was a giant in the fields of electric guitar development and multi-track recording – but he was also a virtuoso guitarist with a distinct sound and a daring style, and, uniquely, he used his work in guitar construction and recording techniques to showcase his playing.
Les Paul’s first guitar was an acoustic with a movable bridge. ‘I discovered that moving the bridge changed the intonation… I was into customisation right away.’ Long before the days of the internet and even guitar tuition books, he recalls a charming story of when he only knew three chords and wanted to learn the F chord. He went to see Gene Autry perform, and whenever Autry played an F chord Paul would switch on his torch and make a note of where Autry’s fingers were placed. Autry noticed, as Paul recalled: ‘He thought, why in the world does that light come on just when I hit an F? So I confessed, and he called me up on the stage to play my guitar an sing. I was the hit of the town.’
Les Paul was influenced by country, blues and jazz musicians, but also by his mother, who once commented that she found it difficult to distinguish her son’s playing from other guitarist’s, so he began to enliven his music with flashy moves such as the slurs explored in Exercise 7.
Les Paul: The Absolutely Essential 3CD Collection, from which the following examples are taken, brings together the finest moments from his long performing and recording career. Like his contemporary and acquaintance Django Reinhardt, whose finger mobility was severely limited after a fire, Paul overcame physical obstacles; he took two years to recover from a serious electrocution in 1940, and after a car accident in 1948 that crushed his right elbow he had his arm set in a position that would enable him to play the guitar. ‘I think, however,’ he once said, ‘that I am proudest of having invented multi-track recording.’
1. DIMINISHED FIFTH LICK (2/2 TIME)
Here’s a couple of relatively easy licks to ease you into Les Paul’s technique. It’s based on a diminished fifth interval on the top two strings, using the major sixth and flattened third degrees of the scale. The first bar is similar to a phrase in How High The Moon at 0:02, and the second bar is similar to a phrase which you’ll hear in The World Is Waiting For The Sunrise at the 0:55 mark.
2. CHROMATIC PASSING TONES (2/2 TIME)
Let’s briefly look at one of Les Paul’s compositional techniques. In his soloing he occasionally used chromatic passing notes, shifting one fret at a time, to create interesting and smooth-sounding phrases. The first three bars of the exercise show a phrase using the E mixolydian mode (E F# G# A B C# D# E). The three bars that follow are the same phrase, but with the addition of chromatic notes wherever possible to link notes. So, instead of starting with G# to F# we add in the chromatic tone inbetween these notes to give a smoother and more colourful G#, G, F# line on the top string. Paul plays a phrase similar to this in Guitar Boogie Shuffle at 1:07.
3. JAZZ CHORDS IN C MAJOR
Here are three jazz guitar chord voicings in the key of C major that we are going to use as the backing for the melody in Exercise 3. Jazz guitar chords are typically voiced using all fretted notes and no open strings so they can be played staccato; once the chord has been struck if you relax the pressure of the fretting hand and immediately stop the notes sounding. This enables them to be played in a rhythmic, staccato manner simply not possible with open string chords.
This C major chord is the basic A chord barred at the third fret, with the third finger lying flat across strings four, three and two. There’s only one note different between this and Cmaj7 – the third string is played at the fourth fret instead of the fifth. Similarly, only one note changes between Cmaj7 and C6 – the third string is played at the second fret, not the fourth. This uses the first finger to barre strings four and three at the second fret.
4. TARGET NOTES (4/4 TIME)
In his soloing Les Paul occasionally liked to home in on ‘target notes’ – that is, notes that are integral to the accompanying progression. The phrase shown below is similar to one found at the start of the solo in It’s Been A Long, Long Time at 1:02 and is played over a progression using the chords from Exercise 2 – a stock progression of C, Cmaj7, C6. In the phrase shown in the exercise, the note that makes a chord change is targeted when the chord change occurs. For example, as explored in Exercise 2, the only note that changes from C to Cmaj7 is a B note, and Les Paul strikes this note exactly when this change happens on the third beat of the first bar. Similarly, for the change from Cmaj7 to C6, where the key note is A, Les Paul strikes this note at the start of the second bar, where the chord change occurs. Note also the use of chromaticism – that is, notes moving one fret at a time, in bar 1, beats 2 and 4.
5. TREMOLO PICKING AND GLISSANDI (4/4 TIME)
Tremolo picking is essentially plucking the string as quickly as possible whilst playing a melody consisting of repeated notes. Les Paul can be heard using this technique in Nola at 1:30, albeit on a speeded-up guitar part. One closely-related technique is his glissando tremolo picking lick – he starts tremolo picking on a note then slides down the fretboard using the same fretting hand finger, often ending on an open string. This produces a dramatic and flashy effect, often used by jazz pioneer Django Reinhardt, who Paul knew well. Don’t worry about playing precisely – it’s the overall effect that is important, not playing the lick exactly as written.
6. REPEATED NOTE LICK (4/4 TIME)
Les Paul occasionally plays a lick that consists essentially of one note, but played on two adjacent strings with the note slid up to on the lower of the two strings. This exercise shows this lick on the top two strings, using C notes. This phrase alternates between C on the top string, eighth fret, and C on the second string, 13th fret, with a slide up to the C on the second string. These notes are played on the beat in the first bar, then in a syncopated rhythm in bar two. Paul can be heard using licks like this in In The Good Old Summertime at 0:43 and 0:58. Jazz guitar pioneer Charlie Christian played a lick similar to this before Les Paul did, and later rock’n’roll innovator Chuck Berry played a similar lick in the intro of Johnny B Goode, although he used bends instead of slides.
7. PATTERNS ACROSS STRINGS (2/2 TIME)
Les Paul had a distinctive way of playing patterns across the strings. This exercise is similar to a phrase in The World Is Waiting For The Sunrise at 0:42. It’s a series of slurred triplets, alternating between strings one and two, and gradually working down the fretboard, with a modification to the shape from bar 1 to bar 2. Notice how some of the notes clash with the accompanying chord; Les Paul had a refreshingly daring and cavalier attitude to such clashes, and would plough on regardless, producing some interesting harmonic effects. He liked this lick so much that he used it again in an edited form later in The World Is Waiting For The Sunrise at 1:13.
8. SLURRED LICKS THAT TURN AROUND (4/4 AND 2/2 TIME)
Les Paul often used repeated licks an uneven number of beats long, so each successive version of the lick starts on a different part of the beat. Furthermore, he would often alternate a note in these repeating licks. The first line below is similar to a phrase in In The Good Old Summertime heard at 0:51, while the second line echoes a phrase in How High The Moon at 0:52. Notice how both these phrases consist of a repeating five-note pattern, using a hammer-on and pull-off, with an alternating note between each playing of the pattern. A similar phrase to these can also be heard in The World Is Waiting For The Sunrise at 1:02. For sake of illustration, the phrases shown in this exercise repeat in a predicable manner, but in practise, Les Paul would not play these types of phrases in quite so regimented a fashion but rely on the inspiration of the moment, further adding to the level of interest and excitement.
9. DESCENDING SLURS (2/2 TIME)
We’ve already looked at chromaticism in Les Paul’s playing in Exercise 2 and in the second half of Exercise 5. Here’s another chromatic-based lick, similar to the one heard in The World Is Waiting For The Sunrise at 1:09. It starts off with a major second interval, then moves down the fretboard and changes to a minor third interval, then it’s the same interval moved all the way down the fretboard. For maximum effectiveness, make sure all the hammer-ons and pull-offs are performed as crisply as possible.
10. TRANSPOSED MELODIES (4/4 TIME)
Les Paul would record melodies with the tape player’s speed altered, so when played back at normal speed a part could be heard outside the normal range of the guitar. If the part was recorded slowed down to half-speed, when it was played back it would sound an octave higher. Altering the speed also had an effect on the guitar’s tone; such tape manipulation can be heard in Nola, Lover, Song In Blue, Mockin’ Bird Hill and Johnny Is The Boy For Me. A similar effect can be created by using a pitchshifter to transpose the notes an octave higher. This exercise is similar to a phrase in Nola at 0:16; play the notes as written with a pitchshifter set one octave higher.
11. JAZZY CHORDS
Here’s some jazzy chord voicings used by Les Paul in Guitar Boogie – no need for tablature here. This voicing of A9#11 is used at 0:49 – Paul hits the open fifth string, shortly followed by the rest of the chord. These voicings of E9 and E9b5 are used at the very end of this instrumental, the E9b5 chord giving the tune an interestingly dissonant and unresolved end.
LES PAUL’S EQUIPMENT
In his early days, at the start of his search of an amplified guitar sound that could reach a wider live audience, Les Paul fitted a pickup to a Gibson L-5. He made his first recordings under the name of ‘Rhubarb Red’ – a reference to his red hair – on an acoustic guitar, backing blues singer Georgia White.
Forming a trio in 1937, Paul played a modified Gibson ES-250. In 1940, after having been given access to the Epiphone factory, Paul built ‘The Log’ – one of the first electric guitars as we now know them. It was basically a chunk of wood fitted with homemade pickups, plus an Epiphone neck and fretboard, all flanked on either side by a sawn-up Epiphone semi-acoustic.
Not surprisingly, Les Paul’s main electric in later years was the Gibson Les Paul, although he preferred to fit his instruments with his own pickups. It was a struggle, he claimed, to get the Les Paul model into production. ‘It was difficult to convince them that a plank of wood with strings in it was the way to go.’
An important part of Les Paul’s set-up was the ‘Paulverizer’, a switch that enabled him to play along to pre-recorded backing tracks. Although recording long before the use of guitar effects, Les Paul also made considerable use of slap echo, as can be heard in In The Good Old Summertime.