Les Paul Documentary Shines Light on Guitar Pioneer

Directed by Evan Haiman
MVDvisual #0392D

Only one person is in both the Rock 'n Roll and the National Inventors Hall of Fame; his name is Lester William Pulsfuss–better known as Les Paul (1905 – 2009). When Michael Braunstein, director of the Les Paul Foundation, remarked, "Les Paul is the Father of Modern Music," he was stating fact, not engaging in hyperbole or organizational promotion.

Les Paul certainly made his mark musically. He hit the road at age 13, when country music was in its recording adolescence, and left it behind in the 1930s when he discovered Django Reinhardt and began playing jazz with Art Tatum. At the height of that success, he pivoted again because he was displeased with how the acoustic guitar sounded when attached to electric pickups. He played a different kind of axe pumped through a different kind of sound system when he resurfaced in 1948 to make hit records with country singer Mary Ford, his second wife (1948-64).

Les Paul did not invent the solid body electric guitar –Adolph Rickenbacker and several others did that– but he made it sound better. It started when Paul sawed an Epiphone acoustic in half, inserted a "log"– a 2 x 4, some magnets, and some wiring— under its surface and tinkered until he finally got Gibson to produce "The Broadcaster" in 1952, the prototype of a guitar still favored by legions of rock 'n rollers. Along the way, he did a few other things. Through Ford, he experimented with close microphone singing, which gave vocals a whole new feel, and he also pioneered in multi-track recording and playback. In all, Les Paul held more than 450 patents.

A recent DVD pays tribute to Les Paul's achievements. It's largely a 2006 interview merged with a Hollywood concert held that same year to honor Paul's 90th birthday. Edgar Winter asks, "Where would rock n' roll be without the electric guitar?" and the concert fittingly trots out some top players to strut their stuff on instruments inspired by Paul's designs. The lineup includes: Joe Perry (Aerosmith), Slash (Guns n' Roses), Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Steve Lukather (Toto), Robben Ford (KISS, Miles Davis), and Neal Schon (Journey). Highlights include Winter belting out "Superstition," and a nice ensemble turn on "Rock n' Roll Hootchie Koo," but three performances really stand out: Joe Satriani's innovative solo, Buddy Guy killing it on "Hootchie Coochie Man," and Shayne Steele delivering turn-back-the-clock Aretha-like power vocals.

The footage is rock at its best—loud, aggressive, and fronted by muscular guitar gods.  Concert material is interspersed with interview clips. I'd be lying if I said any of this was remarkable filmmaking. A lot more attention should have been paid to structure. Like many fans, the director and producers of this film assumed too much—even though the point is made early on that Les Paul is an underappreciated figure. A more linear script with strategically placed information would have fleshed out basics (so I didn't have to in this review). But maybe this is because the film's central figure, though no saint, tended toward self-effacement. Of the post-1960s guitar giants, Paul remarked, "I started and they kept it going." Toward the film's end, though, some of Paul's puckish humor creeps in. When commenting on the new wave he commented, "Each guy has something to say. It's what inside that makes it unique." He followed with a twinkle and an impish grin: "But they all got it from me."

Yep. If you don't know, watch and learn. If you do know, pick up your air guitar and play along.

Rob Weir

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