'The Log' Puts Paul in Ranks of Top Inventors
Monday, May 16, 2005
The way Les Paul tells it, he's 13 years old and providing entertainment at an outdoor barbecue restaurant, playing harmonica, singing and strumming the full-bodied mail-order guitar he got from Sears Roebuck for $2.95.
"There's a fellow sitting in the rumble seat of one of the parked cars, and he writes a note to the car hop. Then he drives away," Paul says. "Car hop" is what they used to call waitresses at drive-in restaurants. "She hands me the note: 'Red -- your voice is coming through fine, the harmonica is fine, but the guitar isn't loud enough.' "
The year was 1927 or 1928, and the weekend critic wasn't telling Paul anything he didn't already know. Guitars had a beautiful sound and worked great for accompanying a singer or showing off a picker's virtuosity -- but always, always in an intimate setting.
Put the guitar in a band, or in front of a crowd at the barbecue pit, and it disappeared. Like fanning your hand in thin air. Paul fled the barbecue. "I gotta make the guitar louder," he thought.
And he did.
On Saturday, Les Paul, less than a month shy of his 90th birthday, was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame, in Akron, Ohio, as the creator of the solid-body electric guitar, arguably the most important musical innovation of the past half-century, a device as common today in the nightclubs of Nairobi and Manila as in Bethesda on prom night.
The electric guitar brought Paul international renown as a musician, won him five Grammys, put him on television for eight years with his wife, Mary Ford, and made Gibson Guitar Corp.'s signature Les Paul Standard a guitar of choice for garage bands and virtuosos on five continents.
"In my wildest dreams, I never thought I would see so many people using them," Paul said in a telephone interview last week from his New Jersey home. "I owe it to the rock-and-roll players, especially the Jeff Becks, the Paul McCartneys and Jimi Hendrix. All of them were playing a Les Paul guitar."
The Hall of Fame, founded in 1973 by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office and the then-National Council of Patent Law Associations, will take nominations from anyone who gets to its Web site. Experts screen the nominees and recommend finalists to a panel that picks the winners. There are 235 inductees in all.
"We always have a mixture of the living and deceased," said Hall of Fame spokeswoman Rini Paiva. This year's 14 inductees included six living inventors, among them Paul, Dean Kamen (the Segway transporter) and Leo Sternbach (Valium). Among the posthumous honorees: Selman Waksman (streptomycin) and Clarence Birdseye (frozen foods). Edison is the lone charter member.
Paul's love affair with the guitar began in Waukesha, Wis., in the early 1920s when his mother suggested he ought to quit the piano, because he had his back to the audience and nobody would see his face when he sang and played the harmonica. "I tried an accordion, and pitched it into the city dump," he said. "Then I sent away to Sears. I was about 9."
Besides having musical talent, Paul, known professionally then as "Red Hot Red," was a natural tinkerer and very early figured out that he could use the mouthpiece of a wall telephone as a microphone. Make the family radio or phonograph into an amplifier and you had an instant public address system. This worked fine for the singing and the harmonica, but it wasn't enough for the guitar.