Les Paul’s journey to Gibson Guitars in 1951
September 3, 2008 by Chaz
Around the same time that George Beauchamp and the other early electric guitar pioneers were active in southern California, a guitarist and radio personality named Les Paul was in Hollywood working out his own vision of what the electric guitar should be. Born Lester Polfus, he became an established guitarist in the Thirties, performing country music under the names Red Hot Red and, later Rhubarb Red, and jazz as Les Paul. In 1939, Paul began to put together what he called “The Log,” a four-by-four length of solid pine to which he attached a Gibson neck, homemade pickups, a crudely fashioned bridge and vibrato tailpiece. Like many other innovators of the guitar, Paul wanted to eliminate the uneven harmonic response produced by an amplified hollowbody guitar.
Although he sawed an Epiphone hollowbody in half and attached the two sides of his four-by-four block of pine, this was more for aesthetic than acoustic reasons—to make the thing look like a real guitar. This supremely quirky instrument, now enshrined in Nashville’s Country Music Hall of Fame, is another sacred relic of the electric guitar’s evolution, the product of an inveterate tinkerer and one of the century’s most original musical inventors. Paul also pioneered multitrack recording and anticipated the home recording boom by a good 30 years.
Les Paul used the Log on recordings he and his trio made with Bing Crosby, the Andrews Sisters and others. But when he brought the instrument to Gibson’s headquarters in Kalamazoo, Michigan, in 1941, they laughed at him. “I took the Log to Gibson and I spent 10 years trying to convince them that this was the way to go,” recollects Les. “But it wasn’t easy. If it wasn’t for Leo Fender, I don’t think that ever would have come off. Leo saw more in it that Gibson did.”
True enough. A venerable company, with origins tracing back to the 19th century, Gibson had taken a conservative, classicist approach to the electric guitar, producing electric archtop hollowbodies like the ES-150, which was introduced in 1936 and adopted by jazz players like Charlie Christian. Other “old school” manufacturers like Epiphone, Harmony and Kay had taken a similar tack. But with the huge success of the Fender Telecaster in the early Fifties, Gibson decided to “go California” and get in on the solidbody market. Suddenly Les Paul’s Log didn’t seem like such a crazy idea. “Better go get that kid with the broomstick,” someone at Gibson is purported to have said.
The man who made it happen was Ted McCarty. A shrewd businessman with a good eye for design and a flair for building teams of like-minded visionaries, McCarty is another towering figure in the early development of the electric guitar. Originally a buyer for Wurlitzer, McCarty joined Gibson on 1948, and in 1950 he was made president of the company. It was McCarty who oversaw the design of Les Paul’s “LOG” Guitar.