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New York City
September 2002

More Les Paul
By Andrew Schiff

Throughout history, education has usually placed emphasis on the teacher-student relationship. Socrates taught Plato, Anne Sullivan taught Helen Keller and other examples flood the history books. Modern education, with its emphasis on classroom learning, has brought a new dynamic to the student-teacher relationship. With such strong emphasis on the teacher-student system, less attention has been centered on self-education. Probably one of the greatest examples of success in self education is that of the inventor Les Paul.

In the world of rock music, Les Paul, who was born Lester Polsfuss in Waukesha, Wisconsin on June 9, 1915, is seen as an icon. He not only invented the electric guitar— arguably the most important invention in music history, at least in the twentieth century—he also invented the guitar amplifier and sound effects such as reverb, delay, chorus and flange. He also was the inventor of sound-on-sound recording , a precursor to the multi-track recording used today.

Interestingly, Paul’s education, however, was not in a university setting under the guidance of professors with doctoral degrees. In fact, Paul never finished high school.

Paul’s formal education ended when he accepted an offer to join virtuoso guitarist Joe Wolverton in Saint Louis to be part of a musical duo (Paul, who also was a fabulous self-taught guitarist in his own right, played harmonica in the duo). Prior to teaming with Wolverton, Paul had actually replaced Wolverton in the very jazz band he had been performing with. There he earned $12 a night, outstripping the weekly $8 he would have earned doing neighborhood chores. Because of his music talent, his guitar and the harmonica playing virtually led him from the classroom to the ballroom.

“I look back now and I say what I learned from actual experience, I would have never learned in high school. That doesn’t sound right, but in high school they didn’t teach music and I wouldn’t have learned electronics; [besides] there is nothing like b$ing taught where it’s hands–on.”

Paul’s curiosity led him from being merely a musician to being someone interested in recording. Paul eventually took his stereo and phonograph and turned it into a recording studio. Later, Paul decided that he needed to learn more about electronics to improve the sound of his recording. He journeyed to the local radio station that was transmitting the songs he had heard on the radio. Paul asked the engineer to teach him what he knew. So every Sunday Paul would study with the engineer and would augment his learning by going to the library and taking out books on electronics until he became well versed in the field. Later, when he ran his own recording studio during the 1940s, Paul would offer free recording sessions in exchange for the opportunity to experiment with different recording techniques. Some of his clients included Bing Crosby, Billy Holiday, the Andrews Sisters and Dina Shore. He developed a reputation as a great producer because of his willingness to learn and experiment. By the early 1950s, Paul also released his own material with his wife singer Mary Ford. Together they recorded some of the greatest hits of the decade like “Vaya Con Dios,” “How High the Moon,” and “Mockin’ Bird Hill.”

Regarding advice to parents, Paul has this to say: “Parents should understand what their child is qualified to do. Today, you’ll find a lot of young men in their late twenties and early thirties who are still trying to figure out what to do with their lives.”

One of the keys to his success Paul says is that he knew early on what he wanted to do and his mother was there to encourage him. But he set realistic goals for himself as well.

“I made sure that I didn’t set my sights so high that I would drop it,” Paul said. “I am a believer; I knew what I was going to be and set out to do that.”

When asked about the kind of things he would advise kids interested in a particular field Paul said, “I know that they are going to have to work hard. But I also know that you’ve got to love what you do. You really have to love your job.”

One thing that fans of Les Paul have been doing for the past fifty years is loving the job that Paul has done.#


All material is copyrighted and may not be printed without express consent of the publisher. © 2002.