Duly noted on the science page of the Washington Post was the induction into the Inventors’ Hall of Fame of guitarist Les Paul who, with wife Mary Ford, produced some hit records in decades past with their electric guitar duets. “The World Is Waiting For the Sunrise,” was one. Ironically, it was Les Paul’s invention that spelled “sunset” for much of the world’s music. His brainchild made possible rock ‘n’ roll, played by anybody, and as loudly as anybody wished.
Paul is credited by the Hall of Fame with inventing the electric guitar. As he tells it, he was an acoustic guitar player (the ones you see Spaniard flamenco artists strumming, the ones with the ovalesque boxes in which the sound is produced from strings vibrating above an aperture, no cords protruding, the ones Andre Segovia played). But in the late ’20s Paul’s friends complained they couldn’t hear his guitar offerings for the rest of the band’s sounds. As part of the rhythm section, an acoustic guitar was all but lost. True, there were acoustic guitars with amplifiers, but they didn’t work well and were dogged by feedback.
A tinkerer as well as musician, Paul went to work in the early ’40s. He junked the pretty box where the sounds were made and strung strings on a stick with a magnet underneath. And through a process of transduction, the variations in the string vibrations were transformed to electrical current which was sent to an amplifier whose speakers transmitted the variations as sound — as much damn sound as you might want, and probably more.
Paul himself called his invention “The Log.” He later carved up an acoustic guitar and attached its curving body to the log in order to make audiences believe the thing he was playing was really a guitar. It wasn’t. And it isn’t. It was a stick with strings. The only resemblance the electric log has to the guitar of Segovia is the fret system, and the changes wrought to pitch according to the placement of the fingers along those frets. But the sound is all electronic and has little or nothing to do with the skill of the player. And the volume? The Post quotes Paul as saying, “I designed some amps that were pit bulls, and when I put my speaker beside a sax player, he reacted like he had a heart attack. And we could walk all over the rhythm section. We had a knob,” he added, “and all we had to do was turn it.”
They’ve been turning it ever since. Little boys whanging away on these stringed sticks made to look like real guitars turn up the volume knobs as far as they will go and can be heard in the next block from the garage in which they “practice.” Two or three electrified sticks and a drum can constitute a band. Add undecipherable lyrics and you’ve got a hit as the vocalists scream too close to the mikes and whack away at the plugged-in logs.
It must be said that Paul, and Mary Ford, were musicians first, electricians later. They could “play” a guitar, acoustic or electric, with the knob turned down, and not lose the melody. The music they played had melody.
Nearing 90, Les Paul enters the National Inventors Hall of Fame probably thinking, like Alfred Nobel, that he has done a good thing. Fortunately, one of his fellow inductees is Leo Sternbach, inventor of Valium.