He doesn’t rock around the clock, or play that old time rock ‘n’ roll, and he has never, ever, rocked the Casbah.

But if there’s a rock ‘n’ roll heaven, surely they’re saving Les Paul a seat.

The electric guitar that Paul invented fueled a music genre he had nothing to do with.

Paul was simply looking for a way to spice up his jazz and country tunes when he first shunned his hollow acoustic guitar and attached some strings and a primitive amplifier to a solid hunk of wood.

And while he may never have developed a taste for the likes of Led Zeppelin or Jimi Hendrix, Paul says he has “a very warm feeling” for the youngsters who turned him into a legend.

Paul, who will turn 90 in June, still performs.

Every Monday night, he holds court at the Iridium Jazz Club in New York City, where guitarists from all over the world come to jam with their hero.

Like a father encouraging his children to pursue their passion, he invites them on stage to play.

He doesn’t care if his guests are celebrities or an 8-year-old lugging in her Christmas present. He doesn’t mind if they want to rock, play classical or join him in the jazz numbers he loves so deeply.

He’s pretty sure that most nights, half of his audience doesn’t understand English.

No matter, Paul says. Electric guitar transcends all barriers.

As a kid growing up in Waukesha, near Milwaukee, Paul always was looking for new sounds. He would experiment by altering the components of phonographs, telephones, radios, even a piano.

At 13, he was playing guitar and harmonica with his own band. Red Hot Red, the Wizard of Waukesha, he called himself.

That’s when the idea of the solid-body electric guitar first manifested itself.

Paul landed a gig at a barbecue stand near Milwaukee, where customers complained they had trouble hearing him from their cars.

He rigged up a microphone using a telephone mouthpiece and a broomstick, and stuck a phonograph needle into his guitar. He wired both to a radio and turned up the volume.

When that caused a howling feedback, he tried shoving socks, shirts and rags into the hollow body of the guitar. No good.

So he filled the guitar with plaster of Paris. “That showed promise,” Paul said, “but it wasn’t quite the answer.”

Knowing he needed a very dense piece of material, Paul and his buddies carted home a 3-foot hunk of discarded railroad track, to which he attached strings and a makeshift amplifier made from telephone parts.

“The railroad track was perfect!” Paul said. “It resonated like an acoustical guitar.”

His mom, however, had trouble picturing a cowboy on a horse strumming a piece of railroad track.

She sent him back to the drawing board, where Paul decided to configure a piece of pine instead.

In the years that followed, Paul’s musical career soared. In addition to his own bands, he toured with the likes of Bing Crosby, The Andrew Sisters, Dinah Shore and Jack Benny.

He met and married Mary Ford, and the pair became the top musical duo of the 1950s with hits like “The Tennessee Waltz,” “Vaya Con Dios” and “How High The Moon.”

But it was in 1941, during a stint with Fred Waring and the Pennsylvanians and their national radio show, that his backyard experiment came back to him.

In his off hours, Paul would jam with other musicians in Harlem night clubs. One night, he showed up with a 4-by-4 rigged with strings, a neck and pickups. “The log,” as it came to be called, didn’t win any fans.

Remembering his mom’s admonition about appearance, Paul added some curved sides so it looked like a guitar.

“I went back to the same club and played the same songs and they went crazy. It became apparent to me that people also hear with their eyes,” Paul said.

He showed the log to acquaintances at Gibson, but the guitar manufacturer laughed him out of the room.

“For the next 10 years, I got nowhere,” Paul said.

At least not with Gibson.

But Paul was about to become the talk of the industry.

He played his electric guitar on Waring’s radio show, where the instrument was becoming a star, much to the chagrin of the other musicians.

“The thing about the electric guitar is you could turn the volume up as loud as you wish, and you were no longer an apologetic guitar player. You were king of the roost,” he said.

With a controversy brewing, Waring decided to settle the matter with a little experiment.

Since the orchestra played two separate programs to accommodate different time zones, it was decided Paul would play the acoustic for one program and the electric for another.

Paul received few comments from the acoustic audience, but fan mail poured in from those treated to the electric show.

The sound also appealed to Bing Crosby, who lured Paul to Hollywood and got him a record deal.

Gibson couldn’t ignore “the log” anymore, especially with arch rival Fender fooling around with electric prototypes.

They called Paul in to help design their line, and in 1952 the Gibson Les Paul model was born. It was gold, shapely and arched like a violin, characteristics that had nothing to do with sound quality, but Paul had learned his lesson.

“You think of the guitar as a beautiful lady, something you can hug. … It replaces the bartender, the housewife and the mistress,” he said. “It’s the last thing you want to see at night and the first thing you want to hold in the morning.”

The electric guitar wasn’t the only revolution Paul led.

In 1946, Paul felt compelled to scratch his inventor’s itch when he left the stage to “lock myself in my garage.”

When he came out, he revealed a new innovation called “sound on sound.” He would record himself playing an instrument, then play that phonograph machine in the background while recording himself singing or playing another instrument on a second phonograph.

“I layered the sound until it sounded like an orchestra. It cost $1.85 to make that record. The union wasn’t happy when they found out I was the only person on it,” Paul laughed.

For his next invention, Paul turned to a newfangled gadget found in Germany in the aftermath of World War II: the tape recorder.

After Bing Crosby dropped one off at his house so Paul would “have something to play with,” it dawned on Paul that the tape machine could be used for layered recordings.

Paul was so excited, he pulled his wife out of the laundry room, threw some luggage in the car and drove all the way to Chicago so he could present his idea for a two-head tape recorder to a manufacturer.

Next up: the even more versatile eight-track recorder.

Where dubbing a sound on top of a prerecorded tape essentially destroyed the original, Paul conceived the eight-track system that would keep each instrument and voice separate so they could be added or removed at will.

As Paul worked with a manufacturer to create the first multitrack recorders, something was happening to his beloved guitar.

The new “be-bop” sound had shoved it into the background again, and Paul lamented as Gibson cut its electric guitar line.

But he didn’t have to wait long to see something rather startling on the horizon.

For better or for worse, Paul’s invention has been credited with having the biggest impact on the direction of rock ‘n’ roll.

He can’t repress a laugh when he thinks about it. “There are probably a lot of parents cussing Les Paul out for thinking up” the electric guitar, he said.

Paul was very conscious of the new music style as it was emerging. He recalls he and his wife taking in a Bill Haley and the Comets show to see what the fuss was about.

“We could see what they were doing. We knew it was going to happen,” he said.

Paul recalled paying a visit to Gibson when he first noticed old, secondhand instruments were flying off the walls.

“The guitars they were no longer making were the ones most in demand,” Paul said. “I told them there was a type of music coming that was going to be based all around the guitar.”

He was right. At every step of rock’s evolution, the electric guitar only gained in prominence.

“So it was rock ‘n’ roll that came in and revived the guitar, and that’s why I have a very warm feeling for my friends who brought this about,” he said.

Not that the music ever appealed to him. When Capitol Records suggested he and his wife put a rock beat into their recordings, they said no way.

Their resistance was echoed by artists of other music genres, who found they could adapt the electric guitar for their own use without selling out.

Jazz purists jumped on the bandwagon. Classical musicians and country stars learned to wield the wicked instrument.

Today, Paul is content knowing that the electric guitar finally found its place.

And that place is everywhere.

“You can be Stevie Ray Vaughan or Andres Segovia or a cowboy on a horse,” he said. “It doesn’t matter what you want to say. You can say it with electric guitar.”


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