Buoyed by the success of 'The Log' on the live stage but hungry to improve his solid body guitar concept still further, Les soon had another idea for making a breakthrough. "Dad said his next adventure was quite interesting because in 1941, after he took 'The Log' to Gibson, he had a flash of inspiration while performing with the Andrew sisters," Gene said. "And the flash was: why not try aluminum? So he made an aluminum guitar, and it was so innovative. It was great - and wonderfully odd-looking - everything was wonderful about it. It sounded good.  So what could go wrong?

Well, he's on stage.  And, of course, when he took his solo, they put a spotlight on him, and the heat from the spotlight changed the tuning because of the conductivity of the metal.  So the only time he could play the damn thing would be in the dark [laughs].  But he kept it and eventually used it on some of his hit recordings.  It was marvelous, but the story was better than the guitar."

Now, several years into his quest, with some failures and a few successes to show for it, it would have been understandable if his enthusiasm for chasing his solid body dream had waned.  But giving up wasn't in his nature, Gene explains.  "I don't think people understand what the hell this guy went through from getting that note at the barbecue stand till the time he finally got Gibson lit.  Because this was 24/7.  I mean, he once said to me, 'Do you realize how many light bulbs Edison made before he found the one that worked?' He spent close to 30 years on this before Gibson finally said, 'Hey, we ought to try it, you know?'

So anyway, it's now 1941.  And Dad's still sitting there thinking, 'Okay, they hear with their eyes.  Maybe what I should do is get a stock Epiphone guitar.' So he got one from Epiphone and immediately put a metal plate in it.  I mean, nothing was safe [laughs].  But he called this guitar the 'Klunker' and made three of these guitars from 1941 to 1946.  After his modifications one of the Klunker's,' turned out so right that he didn't touch or modify from then on.  And believe me; you had to put him in a straitjacket to prevent him from modifying a guitar because that was his whole being on the planet.  But this guitar turned out so good it was the one that he used for  'Jazz at the Philharmonic' and Bing Crosby.  It was also the guitar he used on all of Les and Mary's run of recordings with Capitol.  So now it was like, 'Wow, I really got something.'"


After trying for so long to get the tiniest break, things started moving fast. It was 1950, and Gibson had a new competitor in Fender who brought the first solid body electrics - the Esquire and the Broadcaster - to market, confounding critics by scoring a hit with his new designs with traditionalists initially derided them as 'canoe paddles.'

Until that time, I thought every father made his own guitars and had  his own eight-track studio, [laughs]...  That was the environment I was living in, so I didn't think anything different.  But when I got on the road, that was really the time when I soaked it all in and figured out that it wasn't just a case of 'father knows best.'  I realized this guy was doing something else.  I was playing in the orchestra when Mary and Les were on stage and really got a sense of: Wow, this is not my Dad now, you know.  People were coming up and asking for autographs.  And I saw him in his element, and that's when I really started to appreciate the adventure of my Dad's life."

Gene says that despite being an unusually gifted man who was as skilled at inventing audio equipment as he was at playing the guitar, Les didn't brag.  In some ways, he was so modest that even his family wasn't fully aware of all his achievements.  Using the skills he learned in his father's studio, Gene became an award-winning engineer and producer.  Joining Atlantic Records, Gene worked with legendary artists such as Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, Carole King, Bette Midler, Hall & Oates, Willie Nelson, and Roberta Flack as well of many others on numerous milestone albums.  

Surprisingly, that mission didn't start with a direct approach to a major guitar maker but with household appliances.  "Growing up, my Dad was the type of a kid who would make do with what he's got," Gene says, "his mother would let him do anything, so he felt free to do anything.  He had a Sears and Roebuck guitar, which was his first guitar, and he wanted to amplify that a little bit to see if he could make his guitar louder.  So he got hold of his mother's phone and radio and figured out how to amplify the guitar a little bit.  But he had something in his head telling him, 'This ain't it, you know?' "So he and a buddy went out looking for something more solid than an acoustic guitar body and changed the sound from an acoustic guitar to something in his head.  He didn't know what it was but had a vision he couldn't clarify.  Anyway, they had a railroad track that went by the house, and he and his buddy took a little wagon and went over to see if they could find something more solid than his acoustic guitar.

The story was no less than a full account of how Les battled for years to make his dream of a solid-body electric guitar a reality.  A guitar whose voice could rise above a full orchestra and that summoned up the pristine sounds that Les, a Grammy award-winning master of the instrument, could not achieve with the acoustic arch-tops he started his career on back in the 1930s.  The guitar that young Gene held in his case in 1959 was his father's fabled number one, the first approved Les Paul production model, to be presented to Les prior to the model's launch in 1952.  To Les himself, this unique guitar sitting in its plush case didn't represent the beginning of something, but the triumphant end of a near 30-year struggle to make a dream that he pursued obsessively finally come true.  For the first time, Gene Paul is ready to tell Guitarist Magazine the full story of how it all happened.

This was the next step in the evolution because he sat there and said, 'Well, this is different.'  The fact that it worked intrigued him, and when he showed his Mom, she asked, 'Lester, when have you ever seen a cowboy on a horse playing a railroad track?' Knowing Mother was right again, he started stuffing an acoustic guitar with shorts, t-shirts, socks, and anything he could find to deaden the response.  That did something, but more was needed.  Then he went to the next step, which was plaster of Paris, and he put that in his guitar, which was even better, but it didn't quite make it."  The crazed vision of Les Paul pouring plaster into his guitar shows how feverishly dedicated he was to developing a solid-body guitar.

However, it took until 1938 for Les to find the ideal laboratory for his experiments on the electric guitar.  "Les had moved to New York by this point," Gene explained, "and was looking for a workshop where he could build his dream instrument."  Handily, he came across a rising guitar maker willing to let him use his premises.  "Epiphone was in New York then, and they had a shop.  Les talked his way into it and made friends with everybody," Gene recalls.  "Les started working with a four-by-four plank of wood, which became the guitar he called 'The Log.'

That was another turning point in his life because that was the first time he found something that didn't weigh a ton but did provide what he was looking for in his solid platform.  So he put a neck and his strings on it.  By then, they had some pickups going, and he used those, too."  With this crude but functional prototype up and running, Les decided to take 'The Log' out to a gig - and there, he discovered something about guitar design that had held true from 1938 to the present day.  "He took 'The Log,' went to a nightclub, and played, and nobody responded," Gene recalls.  "So he returned to the house, and Mom was there and asked him what happened.  She was expecting a great response, but he said, 'It didn't go well...they didn't respond.'  

But with his usual persistence, I mean this guy was never defeated... the cup was always half full.  So he said, 'Well, maybe it has to look like a guitar?'  So he went back to Epiphone and put the wings on it," Gene says, adding two curving sections of wood attached to the central plank to lend 'The Log' a regular jazz guitar outline.  "They didn't change the sound at all," Gene explains.  "They just made it look like a guitar.  So then he returned to the same club, the same song, performed it again, and went home that night.  Mom asked him again, and he said 'it was great.'  She was so happy, and he was amazed by it.  He said to her, 'I think I learned something tonight.' What's that, she asked?  And he said, 'I think they hear with their eyes....'"

Now that 'The Log' had proven itself at its first gig, he could continue his work on perfecting his pickups as the next stage of his creation.  Les decided the time was right to approach a major guitar maker.  And he chose Gibson.  



Gene recalls that it was around 1959 when he first showed me that guitar.  "And when I first opened the case, my dad said something I didn't understand.  'The second time was the charm,' was what he said.  And I was sitting there trying to figure out what he meant.  So I asked him, and he said, 'Well, sit down, and I'll tell you about it.'" His father then told him the following story.

"One day in the 1930s, when Les's career was beginning, he played a gig at a barbecue stand," Gene remembers.  "The gig was an ordinary affair, but what happened afterward changed Les's life and guitar history forever.  After my dad finished playing, this gentleman sent him a note.  It said, 'I heard the voice great.  I heard the harmonica great but couldn't hear the guitar.' At that point in the story, my dad stopped for a moment and said, 'If there's one regret I really wish I could fix, I wish I could have known who that guy was because that note is what made this guitar happen.  Because after I got that note, I went home and started to work.'" The note started Les on a 30-year quest to make his playing heard properly, then ended with the creation of one of the most famous guitars of all time.

But as he discovered one day, there were some classic records he knew nothing about, much closer to home. "After Atlantic Records, I ended up in mastering. One day, my partner Joel came into the mastering suite, smiling. So I asked, OK, what's so funny? He answered, 'You'll never guess the next project.' His answer surprised me. He said, 'It's an early Decca jazz album of your Dad.' I said, Really? I never heard that. Dad would always play Django Reinhardt in the house, but he would never play any of his early jazz stuff. So, I'm sitting there mastering this album, hearing it for the first time in my life and was amazed at what I heard... so he had his secrets. But this guitar was the biggest one he ever had," Gene says, his mind returning to the day his father told him to fetch his 'Number One.'

They found a metal railroad track, a small piece, and they brought it back to the house and rigged it so he could put his strings on it. But because it did not have any natural acoustics he amplified it using the his mother's radio and the telephone as a pick-up.

Realizing that change was in the wind, the team at Gibson approached Les, Gene recalls, and this time, they were all ears. "Well, this is the time that Uncle Gibson knocks on the door and says, 'Oh, by the way, seeing as you have all these hits and you're making all this noise with this electric guitar you're using as well as Fender getting hot on our heels... maybe we should talk. Are you interested?'  And before they finished the sentence, Dad said, 'Let's go.'" This was the moment Les had referred to cryptically at the start of the story he told Gene in 1959 - the second time was indeed the charm, except this time round, Gibson was coming to him.


To tell that story, Gene explains it's necessary to go back to the beginning when Gene was a child, and Les seemed in some ways not all that different from other dads.  A trip to the theater provided the first inkling that his guitar-loving father was, in fact, a major force in American music.  "My earliest memory of him playing guitar was in Chicago," Gene Paul recalls.  "I lived with my mom and was about eight years old.  Dad came to town with Mary Ford, and they were playing at the Chicago Theater.  He brought me down to the theater with them, and I saw him perform there.  

So he had his eyes on Gibson and told me, 'I wanted to take it to Gibson.  I was ready.  I had something.  'The Log' went to the club.  It worked.  It was accepted.  Gibson's going to take this and run with it.'  But, of course, they basically told him, 'Thanks, but no thanks.' Have a nice day, you know?" Gene laughs.  "And privately, they even called it 'the broomstick with pick-ups on it.' But Dad wasn't taken aback by that at all.  Not at all.  He thought, 'Okay, this is going to give me time to experiment and try some more ideas.  And one day, I will put this guitar with Gibson, and we will make it together.  I don't care if it takes another ten years or 20 years.  I'll wait and keep going.' And that's what he did."

"Gibson was first class," Gene observed.  "I mean, they made not only guitars, but they made mandolins, upright bases, cellos, violins. They had the whole nine yards covered. And Dad admired the craftsmanship of the woodwork of the violins and all of those things.

He really dug that...

PS: Not long after Gibson released the Les Paul Solid-Body Electric guitar, Dad fulfilled his concert obligations and participated in Gibson's promotional photos. But once that was completed, he replaced all the electronics, installed his own Lo-Impedance pickups, and continued chasing his sound for the rest of his life. He just couldn't help himself.

It was in his DNA.

And when he told me this, he looked at me and said, 'This is it...this is my 'Number One.'

And he just had that little smile on his face.  His eyes were wide open - He had a definite bond with that guitar without a doubt more than any other, and I'm not saying this because of the auction or any of that - as far as I'm concerned, my dedication is to his legacy.  Still, this guitar was the one that meant quietly, personally, everything.  Dad had many dreams in his long life, many of which came true, but this one was special.

This was his moment."


Gene says the sense of validation was a huge relief, and now Les could roll his sleeves up and embark on creating something genuinely new with one of the greatest guitar makers in American history. "Dad could finally take a breath and say he's at the door, and they're not throwing him out," Gene reflects,

"But it still took two years of going back and forth after that [to get the guitar right]—Dad said that he got some guitars for approval that couldn't even be played. He had big hands, so the regular neck wasn't right for him. His playing technique required low action for his strings and binding on the neck. They did the bridge wrong; this was wrong, and that was wrong. However Gene says that Dad was grateful to Gibson and knew he couldn't have achieved this dream without their help - and willingness to listen to what he wanted from a solid body electric guitar. For example, Dad mentioned that Maurice Berlin, [founder of CMI, which owned the controlling stake in Gibson], was the one who came up with the idea of having an arched top like a violin. Maurice said, 'Would you be interested in that being on your guitar?' And Dad said, 'I didn't know you could do that.' He went back and forth with these guys, and finally, he received the guitar that was right, the one he could approve.