Les Paul, the man who did so much to build and develop the solid-body electric guitar, died Thursday at the age of 94. Famously giving helping design the Gibson Les Paul, his name is as synonymous with the electric guitar as Leo Fender. The thick, heavy sound his guitar made when being pumped through a Marshall stack is the sound of pretty much every RAWK record you’ve ever heard (or at least, until ‘80’s poodle rock came along). And if you want to hear loads of those songs, you’ve come to the wrong place.
Sorry, that was a bit abrupt. But I’m not a huge RAWK fan. Whilst I’m always partial to a bit of Led Zep or Guns’N’Roses, my thing’s always been at the more esoteric end of the rock spectrum. So, when I heard the news of Les Paul passing away, my thoughts didn’t go to Slash, they went to The Pixies, Manic Street Preachers, and Low.
Because Low, one of the quietest bands ever to grace this fair earth, play Les Pauls (or rather, Alan Sparhawk does). Seeing them live some years ago, they came on and started playing “When I Go Deaf”. As they suddenly kicked off into the loud part, Alan started sawing and pulling at his Bigsby-rigged Les Paul for all it was worth, and carried on even after the drummer and bassist had stopped playing. A fantastic moment.
For a band whose whole ethos is pretty much the negative image of the Les Paul-toting rock gods, it’s a great trick to use the same instrument to create slow, (mostly) quiet beauty, as they had used to play songs like Kashmir.
It’s the same with The Pixies. Although Black Francis used a Fender Tele (with the occasional Strat), Joey Santiago was a Les Paul man. And it was unlikely that such a truly unique sound had ever been made before Joey strapped on his plank. I can still remember hearing “Bone Machine” on John Peel one night, back in 1988. Sounding like nothing I’d ever heard, the lead guitar was discordant and twisted, screaming in unison with Black Francis.
And more was to come, with Doolittle taking Surfer Rosa’s twisted goodness and adding a huge hit of pop nous.
Mmmm, a gold Les Paul.
Last off, The Manic Street Preachers exploded out of Blackwood, South Wales in the early ’90’s. Can’t say I was a massive fan of them at first, what with me not liking The Clash and all that, but eventually James Dean Bradfield’s fantastic singing and playing, and their great way with a tune, won me over.
They always said they wanted to sound like Guns’N’Roses, and on “Motorcycle Emptiness”, they sound like what Guns’N’Roses would have been if Slash had spent his childhood listening to Nick Drake.
So, three bands all using Les Pauls in ways that probably made Les Paul himself come out in a rash. Rest in peace, Les, and thanks for making music so much better.