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lespaul.jpgWhere did rock ‘n roll come from? Campfire hootinannies down south in the 1940s, sure. From Elvis’s hips. From the Beatles’ insanely inventive recording sessions. But most of all, it came from a guitar player and electronic tinkerer named Les Paul, who died yesterday at the age of 94. In the late 1940s and early ’50s, Paul laid the foundation for the modern music industry by reinventing the electric guitar and inventing the multi-track recording system.


Paul is such a foundational figure in music that some people responded to yesterday’s news by asking, “There was actually a guy named Les Paul?” Paul’s method of taping music quite simply changed everything about how music was made. His system allowed singers for the first time to mix several performances together, combining the best vocal and instrumental takes. It is unimaginable to think of making an album today without Paul’s technological breakthrough.
But Paul’s contribution was more than a way of recording, even more than a brand of guitar. His name stands, certainly, for the stylish Gibson guitar model he designed, but also for attention to–not to say veneration of–rock instruments as embodiments of culture. His guitar was louder, finer and prettier, and invited us to think of the guitar as something with the power to change the world. Without him, we may have gone on to question authority. We may have found a different way to say Down with the Man. In the history of rock ‘n roll, however, Paul was, in every other sense, the man.

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