Les Paul: The Original Looper

Was he cheating with his 8 foot, $10k Octopus?
Aug 29, 2021

Over many decades, Lester William Polsfuss has been meme'd down to the shape of his solid-body guitar. I'm guilty of this myself. I own a Les Paul (by Gibson) and know little about the Wisconsin man behind the name. Little did I know he was the original live looper, and people hated him for it.

I knew Les Paul was a guitarist, but bucketed him into the realm of guitar craft. I've always feared that guitar collections, maintenance, and craft were tool-fetishes that would take away from songwriting. Time was limited. As long as I can tune the thing and write a song, let there be dents and mold. (There were consequences though - when I needed a guitar service, I was at the mercy of either a three-week wait at Sam Ash, or the wild card from the Astoria shop who was a known jerry-rigger.)

But algorithms through Spotify and YouTube wouldn't let me stay in the dark forever. Les Paul seeped into my Discover Weekly. I was floored by his song Smoke Rings without knowing it was him. The song was from 1952, and I thought it was strangely beautiful how layered both the guitar and vocals were.


Two years later, I found Les Paul again at the bottom of a YouTube rabbit hole: "Les Paul shows his guitar omnibus." What the hell is that thing? The video shows him standing in front of an 8 foot tall guitar pedal. It looks like a switchboard from the Intrepid. Les is flicking light switches, and the interviewer is joking about the whole thing catching fire. He referred to it as an "electronic machine," like a "cyclotron," but Lester's buddies called it "The Octopus."


Turns out Les Paul was the first musician to use multi-track recording. This whacky loop machine was invented by Ross Snyder in 1955, and sold to Les for $10,000. Some of these early recordings have 24 tracks (12 guitar, 12 vocals). This explains that mysterious sound in "Smoke Rings." At the time, in the early 1950's, most recordings were captured by a single mic in a room, capturing a full band. With a looper, you can add all sorts of layers and harmonies.

Les Paul was the first one-man band. He laid down everything from the rhythm to harmonized lead-licks, and then Mary layered on gushing harmonies. It sounded original, and apparently, it aggravated people.

There was a kind of technophobia around using a looper. If you're writing music through a machine, you must be cheating. Alaister Cooke, the interview, felt the need to address it:

"Ladies and gentleman, this is the final demolition of this popular and ignorant rumor, that the basis of Les Paul and Mary Ford's music is "electronics." They make music the way people have made music since the world began. First of all, they are musicians. They have an accurate ear for harmony. They work very hard. They have a lot patience, and they take advantage of the trick, which, granted, electronics makes possible, that you can record one part of a song, and then you can play it back to yourself, and then you can accompany that part, and keep on recording. That, I think, is the basis. And now, quite seriously, they have a setup which is nothing more than tape recorders in their own home, and in fact, they are working day and night."

An expensive "machine" that modulated traditional country sounds wasn't to be trusted. I never considered that loopers would've been considered inauthentic. Now, especially during the pandemic, it's the only way I can make demos. Multi-track recording is something I've taken for granted my whole life.

There's another YouTube of Paul and Mary playing live together in the 1950s. The whole thing is a Flight of the Conchords style gag poking fun at their concept of looping. It's basically a, "Look, we can do it live too, WITHOUT the machine!" It wasn't pre-recorded or lip-synced, which was extremely rare for the times. It's a traditional country song, that would break into guitar duels between Les and Mary. During these duels, Les would play a lick, and Mary would copy him identically. (Damn, she could keep up - who knew?). It even ventured into absurd territory. They would purposely make odd sounds, play "pop goes the weasel," or even shred until they break a string.

"This is almost avant- grade.A standard country song absolutely buggered with discordances. And on broadcast tv." - Man on YouTube

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