August 20, 2009

JUST ANOTHER REASON TO BE THANKFUL FOR RAILROADS:

Les Paul, 1915-2009: W.C. Fields on the legendary innovator: “The music you’re making sounds like an octopus. Like a guy with a million hands” (John Payne, August 19, 2009, LA Weekly)

Circa 1941, the carrot-topped Les was playing his first professional gigs as Rhubarb Red at a little roadhouse barbecue stand just outside Waukesha, on a custom PA system jerry-rigged from his mother’s radio, which he’d hooked up to a telephone mike. “I’m playing and singing and everything,” he said, “and some guy in the rumble seat of a car wrote a note to the carhop, and the note read, ‘Red, your voice and your harmonica are fine, but your guitar sounds lousy.’ He said the guitar wasn’t loud enough.”

Paul couldn’t stop thinking about that anonymous listener’s comment. It made him think about the ideal materials that ought to be employed to ensure a guitar’s maximum volume. He thought about the density and hardness of railroad track.

Paul’s idea was to combine that dense steel with wood: “Something,” he said, “where the strings would vibrate but not the object holding the strings — in other words, to add a piece of wood that would color the sound, and make it different than the string actually is.”

Thus he built two guitars, one of wood and one of steel railroad track.

Posted by Orrin Judd at August 20, 2009 7:59 AM
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