The following interview took place on July 19, 1999 at the Iridium jazz club across from Lincoln Center in New York City.
Denver Smith: I just wanted to ask you some questions about things you've invented. I know that you have invented some medical technology. Is that true?
Les Paul: No
Denver Smith: Not at all?
Les Paul: No
Denver Smith: I had read that somewhere that you did. When you first invented the solid body guitar, is it true that the first version you made, you called it a log?
Les Paul: No, the first one was a piece of a railroad track. Another one I made at the same time was nothing but a stick. Just a plank, a 2x4 plank, with a string stretched on it and a pick up on it. That was the very first time I ever made a solid body guitar. Everything else was refinements, or making a better block of wood with a string on it.
Denver Smith: The face that you originally put on it was to disguise it so the audience would think that it looked like a more normal guitar.
Les Paul: Yes, the first one was the log, I called it the log, it was a 4x4. I took it into a club and it wasn't received very well.
Denver Smith: Did they boo?
Les Paul: No they just didn't respond. As soon as I put wings on it, and fastened two sides on it so that it looked like a guitar, then they applauded. So I realized that many people hear with their eyes.
Denver Smith: You had a radio show for many years.
Les Paul: Many.
Denver Smith: You also did some work as far as technology in radio? The story I heard was that after World War II, someone had found what came to be the tape recorder after raiding a German base.
Les Paul: I'll tell you what happened. When the Allies went in to Hitler's occupied territory, most of the things the Germans tried to destroy. The one thing they didn't attempt to destroy. They didn't think it was important, was a tape machine, which was invented by the Germans.
DS: This is before tape as we know it?
LP: We knew wire recorders, we didn't know tape recorders. When the Allies came over, several of these people were dear friends of mine. These friends of mine brought back the tape machine that they captured when they went into the occupied countries.
DS: This was in France?
LP: In France. What they did was they brought the tape machines back to the United States. Then the U.S. government gave them to the people who had brought them back. Then they were able to copy these machines and manufacture them. One of these people was Colonel Ranger. One of them was Jack Mullins. Another was Captain Orr. These people were all in the U.S. Service. When they brought the machines back, Colonel Ranger approached me, and told me in 1945 that he had a tape machine. I asked him, ‘What did he have?' He said, ‘a tape machine.' I had never heard of that. I'd heard of a wire recorder. And so he was the first one to show me and play for me a magnetophone.
DS: Was this tape, because I had heard that it was a type of paper with certain chemicals on it.
LP: It's been said that it was paper. You could tear it like paper. I have the tape at home. It was a plastic type of tape.
DS: So it was similar to recordable tape as we know it?
LP: Again, this is a refinement, what you see today, with the plastic, polyester, and acetate.
DS: How did that come to be used for radio?
LP: What happened is that I was the person that invented sound on sound recording, making it possible for multitrack recording. I went from sound on sound to the actual one inch tape with eight tracks on it. I was the first one to invent, to create and use sound on sound, multitrack recording.
DS: Was the first application of that for radio?
LP: It was for me, for experimenting. It happened to be that I was doing it for a radio show.
DS: Was this after you already had your radio show?
LP: It was my radio show. That's what I invented (multitrack recording) for. To replace the disc, and go to tape, to make a multitrack recording. Sound on sound recording. Later to take it and make the one inch tape with eight tracks and stereo.
DS: I have a couple more questions about your guitar. When it was first mass produced in the 50's, it wasn't popular right away, because it was heavy, is that correct?
LP: I wouldn't say that. I thought it was very popular. I think what you are saying and what you've read and what you've heard is true, in that I don't believe that the manufacturers that a solid body guitar was going to be successful as it was. They were reluctant to make a solid body guitar. Not the people. The people surprised them, when they went gung-ho over the solid body guitar, and it did become popular.
LP: When it came out, yes.
DS: And that was the early 50's?
LP: The first that they made in 1951. I think the very first ones that were made, there was four. The next month they made one hundred. And then it immediately went into the thousands. It didn't take them long to be convinced that there was a market out there for a solid body guitar.
DS: Didn't they try to redesign it a few years after that, in the mid- or late 50's? And you were upset with that?
LP: No, you've got some strange information there, but that's o.k.
DS: There was one version called the Les Paul Jr. Right?
DS: Were you happy with that?
LP: Fine. The one I wasn't happy with was the SG. That happened in '60 or '61. When that guitar came out, I told them to take my name off of it until they got it right.
DS: You weren't happy with the sound, isn't that right?
LP: No, I was physically unhappy with it because it would play out of tune if you pulled on the neck or leaned on it. It was very fragile. It was not strong enough between the neck and the body. So what I did was I put the heat on them until they made a better one. In the mean time, and this is where I think people are getting a little confused, my wife (Mary Ford) and I were going through a divorce, and until the divorce was settled, there were to be no guitars made with my name. Gibson didn't do very well without the name Les Paul on that guitar. There was a lapse between 1961 until I finished my divorce. Then we made a new deal in '66 and started talking about making a new Les Paul guitar. That's what happened. It was a matter of waiting until my divorce was settled.
DS: So the version that came out in '66 was a new design?
LP: It was the same as the old one, but it was a new agreement and contract. Until that time, there was only one guitar that could be made (by Gibson). That was the SG and could not have my name on it. At that time, any guitar that had a pickup on it, they had to pay me a royalty.
Ds: Is that still true?
LP: No. Now only the Les Paul. In the original contract in '51, it was anything that had a pickup on it.
DS: Did you have a patent on the pickup?
DS: Did you invent it?
LP: I'm not saying I invented it. I was the one that way back in the 20's made my rendition of probably the first solid body guitar that was made of wood and seriously was out there not as a novelty, but as an honest to God guitar. I was the first one to do that.
DS: Is there anybody that you particularly like now as far as modern guitar music or any other type of music?
LP: A lot of them, not necessarily right now, whether it's Jimi Hendrix, or Eric Clapton, or Jimmy Paige, Al Dimiola. There's many pickers down in Nashville that are great country players. I like Ricky Skaggs. It's staggering as to how many great players there are.
DS: Since you did invent multi-track recording, I was wondering what you thought of the technology now and the music that is made as far as using samplers and using production as an instrument, particularly rap music or dance music.
LP: It's o.k. It's great. I think synthesizers are great. It doesn't happen to be at this point one of my favorite devices. Of course, I like sampling, drum machines, synthesizers, all the digital electronics, the whole nine yards. All of it is interesting. Some of it is better than other things in my opinion, but I'm glad to see it all happening. These are tools to work with. I think it's great that the studio engineer running all this equipment is being forced to be knowledgeable. Not like the old days where the engineer had a very tough time communicating with the musician. Today a musician has to know quite a bit about his electronics to even get his act together to go out and play. If he is going to survive, he has to know a lot more than in the old days when he was ignorant of most of the things around him. The whole nine yards of what I did back there when it was a rare bird is now common, and so is recording in your basement or bedroom studio. It used to be a freak thing. Now anybody can do it. It's great because it's the way it should be.
DS: Thank you very much for answering my questions.
LP: Thank you, Denver.