It’s amazing how casually history can be re-written in obituaries, often cobbled together in haste from library files by reporters with scant knowledge of the subject.
Most reports of the death of American electric guitar pioneer Les Paul, aged 94, give the impression he was single-handedly responsible for the creation of the solid-body electric guitar that made rock and roll possible. It’s as if Adolph Rickenbacker, Paul Bigsby, Merle Travis and (most crucially) Leo Fender never existed.
Most guitar historians agree that no one person can take credit for the “invention” of the electric guitar. Rather, it evolved over several decades. But if anyone can lay claim to the title of grandfather of the electric guitar it was surely the Swiss-born Rickenbacker (or Richenbacher, before he anglicised his name), who experimented with electrification as early as the 1930s. Rickenbacker’s company created the famous 1931 “frying pan” steel electric guitar, so named because of its shape. It was the first guitar to use electro-magnetic pickups.
Driven by the need for the guitar to be heard over other band instruments in noisy dance halls, Rickenbacker and the rival Gibson company also began putting pickups on acoustic guitars. By 1937 you could buy an electrified Gibson ES150, the model played by pioneering jazz guitarist Charlie Christian.
Country singer and guitarist Merle Travis, best known for writing Sixteen Tons (a hit for Tennessee Ernie Ford), collaborated with Paul A Bigsby in the late 1940s to produce the Bigsby-Travis guitar, a solid-bodied instrument that has been described as “closer to the modern idea of a solid electric guitar than anything that had been made before”. It was the first guitar with all its tuning pegs fitted on one side of the headstock – a feature later imitated by Fender.
So where was Les Paul (or Lester Polfus, to use his original name, which the Times obituary misspelled) while all this was going on? Well, he had tried unsuccessfully to interest Gibson in a primitive prototype solid electric guitar that he called “the Log”, made during 1939-41. But it wasn’t until 1952 that the famous Gibson Les Paul model made its debut.
By that time, Leo Fender and his partner George Fullerton had stolen a march on Les Paul by launching the Fender Broadcaster (subsequently renamed the Telecaster). Like the Gibson Les Paul, the Fender Telecaster has remained in production – and virtually unaltered in its basic appearance – ever since. The even more famous Fender Stratocaster, a design as evocative of 1950s America as the Chev Corvette, followed in 1954.
The names Rickenbacker and Bigsby also live on. Rickenbacker guitars were favoured by the early Beatles and it was a Rickenbacker 12-string that gave the Byrds’ hits their distinctive jangle. And while only a few Bigsby-Travis guitars were produced, the Bigsby vibrato unit or tremolo arm, which enabled players to bend notes, is still a standard feature on electric guitars.
But back to those obits. Perhaps overcome by sentiment on the occasion of Les Paul’s death, some obituarists have given the impression that the guitar that bears his name reigns unchallenged as the ultimate rock guitar. Pardon me?
Arguments about which is the greater guitar – the Fender Stratocaster or the Gibson Les Paul – are a bit like debates between Holden and Ford fans, and ultimately just as pointless. But judged by which guitar was more favoured by great players, the Strat would surely have the edge.
This is not to devalue Les Paul’s contribution to the electric guitar. The one thing he had over Leo Fender was that he was an accomplished musician as well as a designer, though some of his playing seemed more calculated to show off his dexterity – and his fondness for novel recording techniques – rather than his musicality.