The Perfect Tone

Illustration by Sean McCabe Iridium is a sexy hostess for New York City’s jazz elite. Seven nights a week, the club on 51st and Broadway houses the real cats, and Mondays belong to Les Paul, the guitar legend I’m here to interview. A lot of clubs like this one have come before in this city, some losing their beauty to the years and folding, a few like the Village Vanguard managing to cross that elusive line between wayworn and classic. Iridium’s a bit inelegant in the afternoon without her makeup on but pulls it together when it counts: showtime. I…

Illustration by Sean McCabe

Iridium is a sexy hostess for New York City’s jazz elite. Seven nights a week, the club on 51st and Broadway houses the real cats, and Mondays belong to Les Paul, the guitar legend I’m here to interview. A lot of clubs like this one have come before in this city, some losing their beauty to the years and folding, a few like the Village Vanguard managing to cross that elusive line between wayworn and classic. Iridium’s a bit inelegant in the afternoon without her makeup on but pulls it together when it counts: showtime.

I take an overturned chair from one of the naked, tightly packed club tables, sit and try not to stare at the entrance. Instead, I focus my attention on Paul’s guitar – retrofitted with all sorts of mysterious knobs, buttons and switches – perched ready on the stage. A few others sit around the club, obviously waiting for Paul, too. The nervous energy is palpable.

Twenty minutes later, Paul arrives, his presence adding a twinkle to Iridium’s bagged eye. A manager who has been laying into the wait staff – “You ever heard of a f—ing razor?” – changes his tone as the headliner, the man who has kept his weekly date with sold-out audi-ences for 21 years, reaches the landing.

Paul sheds his black nylon Gibson Guitars jacket, revealing his trademark blue cotton turtleneck. He makes a beeline for his guitar. Everyone who enters his line of sight is greeted with a smile, nod or wink. The only person who receives less than warmth is a guy who offers to help him up the steps of the stage. Paul pulls his elbow from the offered hand, looks at him like he’s nuts, smiles, then ascends the steps with the ease of someone half his age. Paul is 90.

I had been promised an interview by his agent, but like the others waiting in the awakening club, I have no idea what the protocol is for approaching Les Paul. The man is busy making subtle tweaks to his equipment, painstakingly turning knobs but making no perceivable difference to the sound as he incessantly plucks his strings. I begin to think that this process of refinement might go on indefinitely. After all, the search for “perfect tone” has defined Paul’s life.

The first to take a chance and approach Paul is a man who arrived earlier with drums in soft cases. I thought he was a band member.

“Sir Paul?” he interrupts gently.

Before even looking up from his fretboard to see who is standing in front of him, Paul’s hand comes up, offering to shake.

“I was wondering if maybe I could sit in tonight,” the man asks delicately.

“Sure! Set your drums up right over there,” replies Paul enthusiastically.

Here is a guy that Paul has never heard play, and he accepts him into his band as if he were one of the masters who have shown up at Iridium to jam with him over the years: Paul McCartney, Keith Richards, Tony Bennett, George Benson – the list goes on and on.

Put at ease by Paul’s graciousness, I’m the next to approach.

“Excuse me, Mr. Paul?”

Again the hand extends reflexively. I explain why I’m there and ask if perhaps he could spare a few minutes to talk.

“Sure,” he replies without the slightest hint of a grudge. I thank him and return to my seat.

The procession of interruptions continues. Someone brings him a fruit basket. A manager for a young singer from Nashville tells Paul a long, disjointed story about how she knows someone he once knew and blah, blah, blah. There is no doubt that even without the cozying tactic, the answer to the ultimate question would have been the same: “Sure, the girl can sing a few with us.”

The tone-tweaking and niceties continue for another half-hour, and I begin to worry that Paul didn’t really get what I asked him. Maybe “sure” is as reflexive as his handshake. Maybe he forgot. I start to really worry when: “Milwaukee, where are you?” he asks into a micro-phone. Amused by his wit, relieved by his presence of mind, I grab my notepad and tape recorder and meet him at the bottom of the stage steps. I don’t offer to help him down.

One of Iridium’s staff members leads us to a tiny room backstage adorned with a small worn couch against one wall, a mirror behind it and a folding chair backed against the opposite wall. I take the chair; Paul sits cross-legged on the couch, a non-alcoholic beer placed in his hand by the staffer with obvious routine. Our knees are almost touching.

“So,” I begin, the sound of my own voice stark and tinny as it slaps back in the miniature, solid-bodied room. I turn the bass dial up a bit on my vocal chords and begin again. I can feel the preciousness of his time.

“Why did you start playing every week after such a long break?” I ask.

“My doctor thought it would be good therapy,” he explains.

Les underwent quintuple bypass surgery in 1980. He had largely quit performing in 1964 following the development of severe arthritis in his fingers; a divorce from Mary Ford, his life and performing partner; and a huge drop in popularity of both his music and the solid-body electric guitar. Rock-’n’-roll dominated commercial play lists, and those playing it preferred the sound of acoustic or hollow-body electric guitars.

“I put the guitar away and forgot about it,” he says.

Paul continued to experiment with electronics during this time.

But “mostly,” he laughs, “I got drunk.”

Paul’s relationship with rock-’n’-roll is chock-full of irony. After it all but erased his name in the late 1950s and early ’60s, a new breed of musician that had grown up copying his nimble licks came of age in the mid-’60s. Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page helped redefine electric guitar with Les Paul guitars and huge amps, readily dropping Paul’s name as an influence. Gibson renewed its production of the Les Paul in 1965, after discontinuing it four years prior. It is still one of the most popular guitars in the world. “You pick up a Les Paul and it’s heavy and it really means something,” Jeff Beck once said. “It means business.”

Coincidentally, as we sit and talk, the release of Paul’s very first rock record (his first album since 1978), American Made World Played, is just hours away.

“I’m not sure how it turned out,” he jests. “I’ll read the reviews in the morning and find out.” American Made is a strong record, and the reviews have been generally positive, aside from almost universal complaints that Paul can’t be distinguished in the mix of some of the tracks.

Sting, Keith Richards, Buddy Guy, Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton, -Peter Frampton, Billy Gibbons, Sam Cooke, Kenny Wayne -Shepherd, Richie Sambora and Joe Perry all make appearances. Paul let his guests pick the tunes (mostly classic rock and blues) but gave them a very stern mandate: “Don’t hold back.” Not playing your best is tantamount to trying to help Paul up the stairs.

In addition to his plans to record and release five new records (“the next one will be country and western, the one after that will be blues, the one after that, jazz…”), Paul is still actively inventing. “I’ve been working on a new hearing aid,” he says proudly, turning his head to show off the prototypes nestled almost invisibly in his ears. “Normal hearing aids are made to help you hear. These are designed to reproduce sounds correctly. It’s taken a lot of work, but if you play a Stradivarius, you hear a Stradivarius.”

Paul would know. He was born with perfect pitch.

I mention the guitar on the stage with all of the mysterious controls and how it looks nothing like a traditional Les Paul model. “That’s an experimental guitar that I screw around with,” he says. “It’s very advanced compared to other guitars. It reproduces the sound of the string correctly. Guitar makers follow one another and continue to go down the same path. The electric guitar is a retarded instrument, but I’m about ready to come out with my new guitar, which will be the first big, big revolution in the instrument since it was invented.”

He takes a sip of beer. “I better hurry,” he laughs.

As my list of prefab questions dries up, the conversation becomes fluid. He tells me a great story about how he met one of his (and my) favorite guitarists: the late gypsy jazz master Django Reinhardt.

“I was on the sixth floor of the Paramount in 1946, and the doorman shouted up the elevator shaft, ‘Hey Les, there’s some guy named Django who wants to come up and see you.’”

In a classic example of Paul’s quick wit and humility, he shouted back: “Send up Jesus Christ and a case of beer.’”

Reinhardt, whose unique sound was characterized by acoustic guitar, fell in love with Paul’s tone and switched to electric guitar (he never went back).

“I urged him not to do it,” says Les. “He was a sweet man; meeting him was a highlight in my life.”

“Everything’s been a highlight,” he adds, “a highlight or a tragedy.” There was a near career-ending car accident in Oklahoma in 1948 (he had doctors set a severely fractured right arm at an angle so he could still strum his guitar; it remains fused that way), his divorce, the death of Mary Ford in 1977, the disintegration of his career in the late ’50s. But the memories don’t seem to weigh him down.

Rather, the “tragedy” adds an enhancing contrast to “selling millions of records, having a guitar that is sold around the world that is ul-tra-ultra famous, playing for President Roosevelt, meeting someone as talented as Mary, being inducted in one hall of fame or another, winning a Grammy.… It never ends.” Everything that happens in a lifetime, according to Paul, “is about getting there.” But, he says, “I don’t know if you ever get there. You just keep going.”

It’s often said that age does wonders for tone. I’ve owned at least a dozen new guitars in my life, and every time I play a vintage Les Paul, I’m reminded of this truth. Until I met the man with the same name, I never thought about how similar human character – and what determines its quality – is to that of instruments.

Tone is primarily about the accurate expression of character and honesty. But honest doesn’t mean perfect. A guitar must be built with great care. What goes into an instrument is what is returned as its tone. Les Paul has been developing his tone his whole life. At 90, he no longer refers to the ideal as “perfect,” but that doesn’t mean he’s stopped chasing after it.

Later that night, I return to Iridium for Paul’s sold-out 10 p.m. set. The emcee introduces him as “The Wizard of Waukesha.” Occasion-ally throughout the set, he turns to the drummer, who struggles to keep up, and helps him find the beat. He always does it with patience and a smile.

The cute singer from Nashville comes up for a few, and Paul interacts with her with an innocent flirtatiousness and humor that suggest how it must have been with Mary. The arthritis in his fingers prevents his hands from accomplishing some of the music in his head, but he finds ways to work around it (he holds his pick between sandpaper, et cetera). Gone are some of the fleet lines and quicker tempos that characterized his playing in the 1940s and ’50s.

But at 90, his tone is the best it’s ever been.


1915: Lester William Polsfuss is born in Waukesha.

1928: Begins playing “hillbilly” music around metro Milwaukee as Red Hot Red.

1930: Receives the nickname “Rhubarb Red” from “Sunny” Joe Wolverton.

1932: Living in Minneapolis playing in Joe Wolverton’s KMOX radio band.

1934: Begins experimenting with “sound-on-sound” recording.

1936: First two records released. One credited to Rhubarb Red; the other as a backing guitarist for blues singer Georgia White.

1941: Builds his first solid-body electric guitar out of a 4-by-4 piece of wood and an Epiphone neck, dubbed “The Log.”

1944: Plays with Nat King Cole at the inaugural “Jazz at the Philharmonic” concert in Los Angeles.

1945: Introduced (by Gene Autry) to vocalist Mary Ford, with whom he will go on to record hits like “How High the Moon,” “Vaya con Dios” and “Mockingbird Hill.”

1946: Takes his design for the solid-body electric guitar to Gibson. They call it a “broomstick with pickups” and reject his proposal.

1947: Capitol Records releases “Lover,” which was recorded in Paul’s garage using wax discs to layer eight guitar parts atop each other.

1948: Almost killed in a car accident on Route 66 near Chandler, Oklahoma.

1949: Marries Mary Ford.

1950: Begins working with Gibson guitars to design the Les Paul model.

1951: Adds an additional tape head to the Ampex machine to facilitate sound-on-sound recording. Multi-track tape-recording is born.

1952: The Les Paul model guitar released.

1953-1960: “The Les Paul and Mary Ford at Home Show” runs on television.

1956: Plays for President Eisenhower at the White House.

1961: Les Paul guitar discontinued by Gibson.

1963: Divorce from Mary Ford.

1964: Retires from performing.

1977: Releases Grammy-winning album, “Chester and Lester,” with Chet Atkins.

1977: Mary Ford dies of complications of diabetes.

1980: Quintuple bypass surgery.

1983: Receives Grammy Trustees Award for lifetime achievement.

1984: Begins playing a weekly gig in New York City.

1988: Inducted into the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame by Jeff Beck.

2005: Inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame.

Mario Quadracci is an assistant editor of Milwaukee Magazine.