Les Paul truly was an American legend. He was an extraordinary musician, inventor, and innovator who greatly influenced popular culture.
Although Les Paul did not invent the first solid-body electric guitar as is frequently claimed, he was an electric guitar pioneer and virtuoso musician who should be best remembered for his inventions related to sound recording. Paul’s revolutionary recording techniques—including multi-tracking, overdubbing, and reverb—forever changed how the world hears music.
In 1996, the Smithsonian Institution awarded him the James Smithson Bicentennial Medal along with Julia Child and other luminaries. That same year, Paul was featured in the Lemelson Center’s “Electrified, Amplified, and Deified: The Electric Guitar, Its Makers, and Its Players” program series at the museum. While he was here, he was thrilled to get a chance to hold his 1941 “Log” guitar (pictured at left), which was on loan from the Country Music Hall of Fame for the Lemelson Center’s temporary exhibition From Frying Pan to Flying V: The Rise of the Electric Guitar.
Over the years many museum staff members—including me—enjoyed meeting Paul, who was a wonderful storyteller. A few even had the opportunity to interview him on camera for projects including the documentary Les Paul—Chasing Sound.
My last encounter with Les Paul was seeing him perform at the Iridium club in New York City in July 2007. At the age of 92 his love for playing the guitar, entertaining people, and mentoring young musicians was clearly evident and very inspiring. As my colleague, curator John Hasse said, Les Paul was “a man of amazing energy, stories, and legacy.”
Monica Smith is Exhibition Program Manager for the Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation at the National Museum of American History.