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Guitar's leading man comes to ASU

Man behind the music: Les Paul celebrated in 1-day exhibit at ASU.
February 25, 2016

Les Paul’s Big Sound Experience at ASU for one-day exhibit about the famed musician and inventor

Popular music has produced some towering figures over the years, from Elvis Presley to Beyoncé, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, to name a few. But when you gauge the entire history of pop music, Les Paul might be more important than all of them.

We’re talking about the man, not the guitar.

Yes, the Les Paul-designed guitar — with its iconic curves and smooth, full sound — has become an industry standard, played by everyone from Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin to guitar god Eric Clapton. But the man behind the guitar is just as worthy of adulation as an accomplished jazz and country guitarist, television personality, the facilitator of guitar-oriented rock and, perhaps his most noteworthy exploit, the inventor of multi-track recording.

Not bad for a kid from Wisconsin.

ASU’s School of MusicASU's School of Music is part of the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts. and the Les Paul Foundation are sharing his creativity, innovative spirit and love of sound in an intriguing, free mobile experience Friday, Feb. 26, at the Tempe campus, continuing a tour that began last summer in honor of what would have been the icon’s 100th birthday.

“A lot of people outside of music don’t know who Les Paul is or they just say, ‘Oh yeah, he’s that guitar guy,’ ” said Jeff Salmon, a trustee with the Les Paul Foundation who was also a longtime friend of the legend.

“We knew we had to do something to honor his contributions to music and technology, and preserve his legacy. So we decided to bring this to the people in a way that promotes creative and innovative thinking.”

“Les Paul’s Big Sound Experience” will be open from 10 to 11:30 a.m. Friday adjacent to the Sun Devil Fitness Complex. It will also be on campus later that day from 6 to 11:30 p.m. as part of Devilpalooza, which will feature a free Hunter Hayes concert later that night on ASU's Sun Devil Fitness Center East Field.

The attraction is 1,000 square feet of entertaining, inspiring and innovative interactive digital experiences. Through several double-sided listening stations, 3-D animations and graphic displays, attendees can learn about the personal story of Les Paul (pictured above with Paul McCartney) and his never-ending search for a unique musical sound through decades of experimentation. Users can marvel at his performing techniques, mix and share music and even get their picture taken with the legend.

“Les Paul is an important figure in the history of the guitar, and this is a great opportunity for students to learn more about this man and what he contributed to music,” said Frank Koonce, a professor of music in ASU’s School of Music. “My students are mostly classical guitarists, but most of them have a background in electric guitar playing and still do play styles other than classical. I think we should embrace Les Paul, know he’s part of our heritage and see what a remarkable man he was.”

Koonce saw Paul play about a decade ago at the Iridium, a famed New York City nightclub, when the icon was in his 80s.

“I was amazed by how good he was at that point in his life,” Koonce said. “He was still a very fine player.”

Lester William Polsfuss — who later adopted Les Paul as his stage name — amazed a lot of people during his lifetime, which started in 1915. As a young boy, he taught himself the harmonica, piano, banjo and guitar. A few years later he invented musical devices such as a neck-worn harmonica holder, which was made out of a coat hanger; constructed from scratch an amplifier for his guitar; and eventually, the first solid-body guitar, often credited for making the sound of rock ’n’ roll even possible.

As a musician, Paul first made his foray into country music in the Midwest and later developed an interest in jazz-pop. He moved to New York in the mid-1930s, where he formed the Les Paul Trio and recorded with such luminaries as Nat King Cole, Rudy Vallee and Kate Smith.

In 1941 Paul sought to improve upon the common amplified guitar by his constant tinkering and perfectionist tendencies. The result was the first solid-body electric guitar, on which he continued to make refinements for the next decade.

Beyond his licks, trills, chording sequences and fretting techniques, Paul is credited with revolutionizing many recording and technical innovations including his pioneering use of overdubbing, multi-tracking, audio effects and speeding up the sound on his guitar on recordings with his wife, Mary Ford, with whom he scored a long string of hits, including a pair of No. 1 songs, “How High the Moon” (1951) and “Vaya Con Dios” (1953).

In that same decade, Paul introduced the first eight-track recorder and the “Gold-Top” solid-body electric guitar that bears his name. Gibson’s Les Paul Standard went on to become one of the most popular electric guitars of all time and made disciples out of Clapton, Page, Steve Miller, Jeff Beck, Duane Allman and Eddie Van Halen.

Grammy artist Laurence Juber, who was lead guitarist for Paul McCartney’s Wings, said he bought a 1957 Gold-Top at Manny’s Music in New York City in January 1980.

“This model was one of the first to be fitted with ‘humbuckingA humbucking pickup is a type of electric guitar pickup that uses two coils to "buck the hum" (or cancel out the interference) picked up by coil pickups. — Wikipedia’ pickups and, while not being as coveted as the sunburst Les Pauls of the era, it was a desirable instrument,” Juber said. “It was more money than I had ever paid for a guitar, but I knew that it would be a good investment, not to mention a killer ‘axe.’ ”

Today Juber’s guitar is estimated to be worth in the area of six figures.

Others invested in Paul’s judgment of sound.

Jimi Hendrix consulted Paul on the construction of Electric Lady Studios, as did Capitol Studios, where Paul designed a series of eight trapezoidal echo chambers with 10-inch-thick concrete walls dug 30 feet deep below the mythical Capitol Records Tower building in Los Angeles. It was the favorite studio of Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Nat King Cole, and where Juber played on hundreds of recording sessions and recorded five albums, including his latest, an untitled holiday album set for release later this year.

“Every studio has its unique echo chambers,” Juber said. “Those at Capitol are particularly fine-sounding thanks to Les Paul’s keen ear and are a significant factor in the tone of many classic recordings.”

In later years, Paul’s legend burnished.

He is the only person to be included in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the National Inventors Hall of Fame. In 2005, at the age of 90, he recorded his final album, “American Made, World Played.” It featured Keith Richards, Sting, Jeff Beck and Eric Clapton, and garnered Paul two Grammy awards.

At the end of his life, Paul continued tinkering in his basement in Mahwah, New Jersey, working on making improvements to hearing aids, according to Salmon.

“He may have been losing his hearing later in life, but certainly not his spirit because Les kept plugging away,” Salmon said. “He was Mr. Curiosity and often scratched his head when people called him a genius.”

Paul died Aug. 12, 2009, at the age of 94 from complications associated with pneumonia.

Jeff Libman, an instructor of jazz studies at ASU’s School of Music, says an exhibit of this nature at the college’s doorstep is a gift.

“To have this exhibit, which is devoted to an extraordinary musical life, and have it brought to this school where each guitar player can experience this, that’s an incredible opportunity,” Libman said.

But not nearly as incredible as the man himself. 

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Year One: Life at ASU — Eric inspires future scholars

Year One: Life at ASU — Eric inspires the next generation of scholars.
February 25, 2016

"Year One: Life at ASU" is a periodic photo series following five freshmen navigating their first year at ASU. This installment checks in on Eric Arellano where the freshman, who is a Flinn Scholar, talks to high school students at a Flinn Scholar Day dinner. The 40 finalists for the scholarship had a recruitment visit at ASU where they explored the campus, its programs and what it has to offer the gifted high school seniors. Current Flinns, as well as college administrators, welcomed the prospective students and answered questions.