Paul was born Lester William Polsfus outside Milwaukee, in Waukesha, Wisconsin, to George and Evelyn (1888–1989) (née Stutz) Polsfus. His family was of German ancestry and Paul's mother was related to the founders of Milwaukee's Valentin Blatz Brewing Company and the makers of the Stutz Bearcat automobile; his parents divorced when he was a child. The Prussian family name was first simplified by his mother to Polfuss before he took his stage name of Les Paul. He also used the nicknames "Red Hot Red" and "Rhubarb Red".
While living in Wisconsin, he first became interested in music at age eight, when he began playing the harmonica. After an attempt at learning the banjo, he began to play the guitar. It was during this time that he invented a neck-worn harmonica holder, which allowed him to play the harmonica hands-free while accompanying himself on the guitar. Paul's device is still manufactured using his basic design. By age thirteen, Paul was performing semi-professionally as a country-music singer, guitarist and harmonica player. At age seventeen, Paul played with Rube Tronson's Texas Cowboys, and soon after he dropped out of high school to join Wolverton's Radio Band in St. Louis, Missouri, on KMOX.
Paul migrated to Chicago in 1934, where he continued to perform on radio. His first two records were released in 1936. One was credited to "Rhubarb Red", Paul's hillbilly alter ego, and the other was as an accompanist for blues-artist Georgia White. It was during this time that he began playing jazz and adopted his stage name.
Paul's jazz-guitar style was strongly influenced by the music of Django Reinhardt, whom he greatly admired. Following World War II, Paul sought out and befriended Reinhardt. After Reinhardt's death in 1953, Paul furnished his headstone. One of Paul's prize possessions was a Selmer Maccaferri acoustic guitar given to him by Reinhardt's widow.
Paul formed a trio in 1937 with singer/rhythm guitarist Jim Atkins (older half-brother of guitarist Chet Atkins) and bassist/percussionist Ernie "Darius" Newton. They left Chicago for New York in 1939, landing a featured spot with Fred Waring's Pennsylvanians radio show. Chet Atkins later wrote that his brother, home on a family visit, presented the younger Atkins with an expensive Gibson archtop guitar that had been given to Jim Atkins by Les Paul. Chet recalled that it was the first professional-quality instrument he ever owned.
Paul was dissatisfied with acoustic-electric guitars and began experimenting at his apartment in Queens, NY with a few designs of his own. Famously, he created several versions of "The Log", which was nothing more than a length of common 4x4 lumber with a bridge, guitar neck, and pickup attached. For the sake of appearance, he attached the body of an Epiphone hollow-body guitar, sawn lengthwise with The Log in the middle. This solved his two main problems: feedback, as the acoustic body no longer resonated with the amplified sound, and sustain, as the energy of the strings was not dissipated in generating sound through the guitar body. These instruments were constantly being improved and modified over the years, and Paul continued to use them in his recordings long after the development of his eponymous Gibson model.
While experimenting in his apartment in 1940, Paul nearly succumbed to electrocution. During two years of recuperation, he relocated to Hollywood, supporting himself by producing radio music and forming a new trio. He was drafted into the US Army shortly after the beginning of World War II, where he served in the Armed Forces Network, backing such artists as Bing Crosby, the Andrews Sisters, and performing in his own right.
As a last-minute replacement for Oscar Moore, Paul played with Nat King Cole and other artists in the inaugural Jazz at the Philharmonic concert in Los Angeles, California, on July 2, 1944. Also that year, Paul's trio appeared on Bing Crosby's radio show. Crosby went on to sponsor Paul's recording experiments. The two also recorded together several times, including a 1945 number-one hit, "It's Been a Long, Long Time." In addition to backing Crosby, The Andrews Sisters and other artists, Paul's trio also recorded a few albums of their own on the Decca label in the late 1940s.
In January 1948, Paul shattered his right arm and elbow in a near-fatal automobile accident in Oklahoma. Doctors told him that they could not rebuild his elbow so that he would regain movement; his arm would remain permanently in whatever position they placed it in. Paul instructed the surgeons to set his arm at an angle—just under 90 degrees—that would allow him to cradle and pick the guitar. It took him a year and a half to recover.
Paul's innovative guitar, "The Log", built after-hours in the Epiphone guitar factory in 1940, was one of the first solid-body electric guitars. Adolph Rickenbacker had marketed a solid-body guitar in the 1930s and Leo Fender also independently created his own in 1946. Although Paul approached the Gibson Guitar Corporation with his idea of a solid body electric guitar, they showed no interest until Fender began marketing its Esquire and Telecaster models. Gibson designed a guitar incorporating Paul's suggestions in the early 1950s and presented it to him to try. He was impressed enough to sign a endorsement contract for what became the Gibson "Les Paul" model, originally only in a "gold-top" version (official name: "Les Paul Standard"), and agreed never to be seen playing in public, or be photographed, with anything other than a Gibson guitar.
The arrangement persisted until 1961, when declining sales prompted Gibson to change the design without Paul's knowledge, creating a much thinner, lighter, and more-aggressive-looking instrument with two cutaway "horns" instead of one. Paul said he first saw the "new" Gibson Les Paul in a music-store window, and disliked it. Although his contract required him to pose with the guitar, he said it was not "his" instrument and asked Gibson to remove his name from the headstock. Others claimed that Paul ended his endorsement contract with Gibson during his divorce to avoid having his wife get his endorsement money. Gibson renamed the guitar "Gibson SG", which stands for "Solid Guitar", and it also became one of the company's best sellers.
The original Gibson Les Paul-guitar design regained popularity when Eric Clapton began playing the instrument a few years later, although he also played an SG and an ES-335. Paul resumed his relationship with Gibson and endorsed the original Gibson Les Paul guitar from that point onwards. His personal Gibson Les Pauls were much modified by him—Paul always used his own self-wound pickups and customized methods of switching between pickups on his guitars. To this day, various models of Gibson Les Paul guitars are used all over the world by both novice and professional guitarists. A less-expensive version of the Gibson Les Paul guitar is also manufactured for Gibson's lower-priced Epiphone brand.
On January 30, 1962, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office issued Paul a patent, Patent No. 3,018,680, for an "Electrical Music Instrument."
In 1948, Capitol Records released a recording that had begun as an experiment in Paul's garage, entitled "Lover (When You're Near Me)", which featured Paul playing eight different parts on electric guitar, some of them recorded at half-speed, hence "double-fast" when played back at normal speed for the master. ("Brazil", similarly recorded, was the B-side.) This was the first time that Les Paul used multitracking in a recording (Paul had been shopping his multi-tracking technique, unsuccessfully, since the 30's. Much to his dismay, Sidney Bechet used it in 1941 to play half a dozen instruments on "Sheik of Araby"). These recordings were made not with magnetic tape, but with acetate disks. Paul would record a track onto a disk, then record himself playing another part with the first. He built the multitrack recording with overlaid tracks, rather than parallel ones as he did later. By the time he had a result he was satisfied with, he had discarded some five hundred recording disks.
Paul even built his own disc-cutter assembly, based on automobile parts. He favored the flywheel from a Cadillac for its weight and flatness. Even in these early days, he used the acetate-disk setup to record parts at different speeds and with delay, resulting in his signature sound with echoes and birdsong-like guitar riffs. When he later began using magnetic tape, the major change was that he could take his recording rig on tour with him, even making episodes for his fifteen-minute radio show in his hotel room. He later worked with Ross Snyder in the design of the first eight-track recording deck (built for him by Ampex for his home studio.)
Electronics engineer Jack Mullin had been assigned to a U.S. Army Signal Corps unit stationed in France during World War II. On a mission in Germany near the end of the war, he acquired and later shipped home a German Magnetophon (tape recorder) and fifty reels of I.G. Farben plastic recording tape. Back in the U.S., Mullin rebuilt and developed the machine with the intention of selling it to the film industry, and held a series of demonstrations which quickly became the talk of the American audio industry. Mullin's second demonstration was witnessed by Murdo MacKenzie, technical director for Crosby's radio show.
Within a short time, Crosby had hired Mullin to record and produce his radio shows and master his studio recordings on tape, and he invested US$50,000 in local electronics firm Ampex. With Crosby's backing, Mullin and Ampex created the Ampex Model 200, the world's first commercially produced reel-to-reel audio tape recorder. Crosby gave Paul the second Model 200 to be produced. Paul immediately saw its potential both for special effects like echo, and eventually its suitability for multitrack recording, of which he is considered the father. Using this machine, Paul placed an additional playback head, located before the conventional erase/record/playback heads. This allowed Paul to play along with a previously recorded track, both of which were mixed together on to a new track. This was a mono tape recorder with just one track across the entire width of quarter-inch tape; thus, the recording was "destructive" in the sense that the original recording was erased and replaced with the new recording.
Paul's re-invention of the Ampex 200 inspired Ampex to develop two-track and three-track recorders, which allowed him to record as many tracks on one tape without erasing previous takes. These machines were the backbone of professional recording, radio and television studios in the 1950s and early 1960s. In 1954, Paul continued to develop this technology by commissioning Ampex to build the first eight-track tape recorder, at his expense. The machine took three years to get working properly, and Paul said that by the time it was functional, his music was out of favor, so he never had a hit record using it. His design became known as "Sel-Sync" (Selective Synchronization), in which specially modified electronics could either record or play back from the record head, which was not optimized for playback but was acceptable for the purposes of recording an "overdub" (OD) in sync with the original recording. This is the core technology behind multitrack recording.
In 1965, Paul went into semi-retirement, although he did return to the studio occasionally. He and Ford had divorced in December 1962, as she could no longer cope with the traveling lifestyle their act required of them. Paul's most-recognizable recordings from then through the mid-1970s were an album for London Records/Phase 4 Stereo, Les Paul Now (1968), on which he updated some of his earlier hits; and, backed by some of Nashville's celebrated studio musicians, a meld of jazz and country improvisation with fellow guitar virtuoso Chet Atkins, Chester and Lester (1976), for RCA Victor.
By the late 1980s, Paul had returned to active live performance. In 2006, at age 90, he won two Grammys at the 48th Annual Grammy Awards for his album Les Paul & Friends: American Made World Played. He also performed every Monday night, accompanied by a trio which included guitarist Lou Pallo, bassist Nicki Parrott and pianist John Colianni, at the Iridium Jazz Club on Broadway in the Times Square area of New York City.
Composer Richard Stein (1909–1992) sued Paul for plagiarism, charging that Paul's "Johnny (Is the Boy for Me)" was taken from Stein's 1937 song "Sanie cu zurgălăi" (Romanian for "Sledge with Bells"). A 2000 cover version of "Johnny" by Belgian musical group Vaya Con Dios that credited Paul prompted another action by the Romanian Musical Performing and Mechanical Rights Society.
For many years Les Paul would sometimes surprise radio hosts Steve King (radio) and Johnnie Putman with a call to the "Life After Dark Show" on WGN (AM) in Chicago. These calls would take place in the wee hours of Tuesday Morning following his show at the Iridium Jazz Club. Steve and Johnnie continue to honor Les on Tuesday Mornings at 2:35 AM with their segment "A Little More Les" drawing from around 30 hours of recorded conversations with Les.
On August 12, 2009, Paul died of complications from pneumonia at White Plains Hospital in White Plains, New York. His family and friends were by his side Paul is survived by his four children and his companion Arlene Palmer. His attorney told the media Paul had been "in and out of the hospital" because of illness..
Upon learning of his death many artists and musicians paid tribute by publicly expressing their sorrow. After learning of Paul's death, former Guns N' Roses and current Velvet Revolver guitarist Slash called him "vibrant and full of positive energy." U2 guitarist The Edge said, "His legacy as a musician and inventor will live on and his influence on rock and roll will never be forgotten."
On August 21, 2009, he was buried in Waukesha at Prairie Home Cemetery which indicated that his plot would be in an area where visitors can easily view it. Like his funeral in New York on August 19, the burial was private, but earlier in the day a public memorial viewing of the closed casket was held in Milwaukee at Discovery World with 1,500 attendees who were offered free admission to the Les Paul House of Sound exhibit for the day.
Paul was initiated into the Gamma Delta chapter of the Tau Kappa Epsilon fraternity at the University of Miami in 1952. He has earned the Presidential award from the Tau Kappa Epsilon fraternity.[dead link]
In 1979, Paul and Ford's 1951 recording of "How High the Moon" was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame. Paul received a Grammy Trustees Award for his lifetime achievements in 1983.
In 1988, Paul was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame by Jeff Beck, who said, "I've copied more licks from Les Paul than I'd like to admit." In 1991, the Mix Foundation established an annual award in his name; the Les Paul Award which honors "individuals or institutions that have set the highest standards of excellence in the creative application of audio technology". In 2005, he was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame for his development of the solid-body electric guitar. In 2006, Paul was inducted into the National Association of Broadcasters Hall of Fame. He was named an honorary member of the Audio Engineering Society. In 2007, he was awarded the National Medal of Arts.
A one-hour biographical documentary film The Wizard of Waukesha was shown at the Los Angeles International Film Exposition (FILMEX) March 4–21, 1980, and later on PBS television. A biographical, feature-length documentary titled Chasing Sound: Les Paul at 90 made its world première on May 9, 2007, at the Downer Theater in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Paul appeared at the event and spoke briefly to the enthusiastic crowd. The film is distributed by Koch Entertainment and was broadcast on PBS on July 11, 2007, as part of its American Masters series and was broadcast on October 17, 2008, on BBC Four as part of its Guitar Night. The première coincided with the final part of a three-part documentary by the BBC broadcast on BBC ONE The Story of the Guitar.
In June 2008, an exhibit showcasing his legacy and featuring items from his personal collection opened at Discovery World in Milwaukee. The exhibit was facilitated by a group of local musicians under the name Partnership for the Arts and Creative Excellence (PACE). Paul played a concert in Milwaukee to coincide with the opening of the exhibit.
Paul's hometown of Waukesha is planning a permanent exhibit to be called "The Les Paul experience."
In July 2005, a 90th-birthday tribute concert was held at Carnegie Hall in New York City. After performances by Steve Miller, Peter Frampton, Jose Feliciano and a number of other contemporary guitarists and vocalists, Paul was presented with a commemorative guitar from the Gibson Guitar Corporation.
On November 15, 2008, he received the American Music Masters award through the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame at a tribute concert in the State Theater in Cleveland, Ohio. Among the many guest performers were Duane Eddy, Eric Carmen, Lonnie Mack, Jennifer Batten, Jeff "Skunk" Baxter, Dennis Coffey, James Burton, Billy Gibbons, Lenny Kaye, Steve Lukather, Barbara Lynn, Katy Moffatt, Alannah Myles, Richie Sambora, The Ventures, and Slash.
In August, 2009, Paul was named one of the ten best electric guitar players of all-time by Time Magazine.
He was an honorary board member for Little Kids Rock, a non-profit organization dedicated to bringing free musical instruments and music instruction to underfunded schools across the U.S.
Paul married Virginia Webb in 1938. They had two children, Gene (Lester Jr.), born in 1941 and named after actor-songwriter Gene Lockhart, and Russell (Rusty), born 1944, before divorcing in 1949. Later that year, Paul and Mary Ford (born Iris Colleen Summers) were married. They adopted a girl, Colleen, in 1958 and their son Robert (Bobby) was born the following year. They had also lost a child, who was born prematurely and died at four days of age. Les Paul and Mary Ford divorced in 1963.
Paul was the godfather of rock guitarist Steve Miller of the Steve Miller Band, to whom Paul gave his first guitar lesson. Miller's father was best man at Paul's 1949 wedding to Mary Ford.
Paul resided for many years in Mahwah, New Jersey.