Written by Jim Bille
May 11, 2009 at 08:00 PM
ImageIn 1948, Les Paul single handedly revolutionized music by inventing the first solid body electric guitar. Frustrated with the feedback produced by electric hollow body guitars of the time, Paul experimented with a 4″ x 4″ chunk of pine with strings and a microphone pick-up attached; he called it “The Log”. Paul approached Gibson Guitars with his idea but was initially turned away by the company as they were convinced that the instrument would not catch on. Not long after, Leo Fender introduced his version of a new solid body electric. After Fender’s growing success with his instrument Gibson scurried Paul’s creation into production. The Gibson ‘Les Paul’ guitar was born.

Les Paul made his name as a flashy jazz guitarist on coast-to-coast radio programs in the 1930’s and 40’s. One of his major influences was the gypsy jazz guitar master Django Reinhardt. Paul’s style was hard-swinging and featured incredibly fast runs and precision playing. Although Paul’s playing speed has diminished due to being stricken with arthritis in his fingers he can still hold his own.

He has played with everyone from Bing Crosby, Nat King Cole and The Andrews Sisters to Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Slash and his God son Steve Miller. The list is endless.

Now 93 years old, Les Paul is still playing his ‘Les Paul’ every Monday at The Iridium Jazz Club in New York City and since I was in NYC last week I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to see the real guitar god for a second time.

The Iridium is one of New York’s premier jazz clubs and it might be one of the smallest. With a capacity of around 150, the place routinely sells out well in advance. Last Monday was no different. I arrived around 6:30 for the 8:00 show; Les Paul does two shows each Monday, and already seating was limited.

I first saw the man ten years ago so I was anxious to see what he had going on now. I must admit after seeing him walk on stage it was evident that I was the one who had aged. He still didn’t look a day over 83.

He took his seat stage right and with his long time trio started out the show with some hot swinging jazz numbers. After finishing the warm up tunes Paul took time to joke with the crowd and tell stories of his radio and recording days. The stories were basically a modern music history lesson that probably could have gone on for days considering his resume.

One of the cool things about seeing Les Paul is that he always keeps a spare guitar on stage with him. It’s not for him but for any surprise guests who may be at the show and would like to sit in and jam with the band. Les has shared his Iridium stage with the likes of Paul McCartney, Keith Richards, Steve Miller, Brian Setzer, Al Dimeola, and George Benson so you never know who might show up.

Paul did share the spotlight during my visit with a young guitar player from Canada named Conor Gaines. I did some research on the guy and his popularity is gaining some momentum in Canada. He has  played a few shows at BB King’s in Nashville and a date in Cleveland during a father and son rock and roll road trip of the U.S. a couple of years ago. Paul invited him onstage about halfway through the show. After unpacking his Fender Stratocaster guitar, Les Paul immediately remarked that his first mistake was playing a Fender. Gaines returned fire by saying Les Paul guitars were too expensive. Gaines essentially took over the show for the next two numbers leading Paul and company through some pretty hefty blues work outs. We may be hearing more from this wiz-kid in the future since he definitely has the gift going for him.

The rest of the show featured some of Les Paul’s hits from the past that included ‘Sweet Georgia Brown’, ‘Somewhere over the Rainbow’, ‘All of Me’ and ‘The Tennessee Waltz’.

These songs are probably not what the average young music fan listens to but you can hear Les Paul on more recent recordings such as his 2006 release ‘Les Paul and Friends: American Made World Played’ that features Les Paul, Eric Clapton, Buddy Guy, Billy Gibbons, Keith Richards, Rick Derringer, and Steve Miller. Paul won Grammys for Best Pop Instrumental “Caravan” and Best Rock Instrumental “69 Freedom Special,” both from this album produced at the age of 90.

Every guitar player on the planet needs to thank Les Paul for giving them the gift of the electric solid body guitar. Every music fan on the planet needs to go and see Les Paul live at the Iridium.