WHITE PLAINS, N.Y. - Les Paul, who pioneered the solid-body electric guitar later wielded by a legion of rock 'n' roll greats, died yesterday of complications from pneumonia. He was 94.
According to Gibson Guitar, Paul died at White Plains Hospital. His family and friends were by his side.
As an inventor, Paul also helped bring about the rise of rock 'n' roll with multitrack recording, which enables artists to record different instruments at different times, sing harmony with themselves, and then carefully balance the tracks in the finished recording.
The use of electric-amplified guitars gained popularity in the mid-to-late 1940s, and then exploded with the advent of rock in the mid-'50s.
"Without Les Paul, we would not have rock and roll as we know it," said Terry Stewart, president of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum. "His inventions created the infrastructure for the music, and his playing style will ripple through generations. He was truly an architect of rock and roll."
A tinkerer and musician since childhood, he experimented with guitar amplification for years before coming up in 1941 with what he called "The Log," a four-by-four piece of wood strung with steel strings. He felt that a solid body would give the instrument a different sound from a traditional hollow guitar with an electrical pickup added to it.
"I went into a nightclub and played it," he recalled. "Of course, everybody had me labeled as a nut." He later put the wooden wings onto the body to give it a tradition guitar shape.
Leo Fender's Broadcaster was the first mass-produced solid body electric on the market in the late 1940s. In 1952, Gibson Guitars began production on the Les Paul guitar.
Pete Townshend of the Who, Steve Howe of Yes, jazz great Al DiMeola and Led Zeppelin's Jimmy Page all made the Gibson Les Paul their trademark six-string.
Guitarist Joe Satriani called Paul "the original guitar hero," saying: "Les Paul set a standard for musicianship and innovation that remains unsurpassed."
In the late 1960s, Paul retired from music to concentrate on his inventions. His interest in country music was rekindled in the mid-'70s, and he teamed up with Chet Atkins for two albums. The duo were awarded a Grammy for best country instrumental performance of 1976 for their "Chester and Lester" album.
With Mary Ford, his wife from 1949 to 1962, he earned 36 gold records for hits including "Vaya Con Dios" and "How High the Moon." Many of their songs used overdubbing techniques that Paul had helped develop.
"I could take my Mary and make her three, six, nine, 12, as many voices as I wished," he recalled. "This is quite an asset."
Paul was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2005.
Paul was born Lester William Polfuss, in Waukesha, Wis., on June 9, 1915. He began his career as a musician, billing himself as Red Hot Red or Rhubarb Red. He toured with the popular Chicago band Rube Tronson and His Texas Cowboys and led the house band on WJJD radio in Chicago.
In the mid-1930s he joined Fred Waring's Pennsylvanians and soon moved to New York to form the Les Paul Trio, with Jim Atkins and bassist Ernie Newton.
Meanwhile, he had made his first attempt at audio amplification at age 13. Paul was playing a working prototype of the electric guitar in 1929.
His work on taping techniques began in the years after World War II, when Bing Crosby gave him a tape recorder. Drawing on his earlier experimentation with his homemade record-cutting machines, Paul added an additional playback head to the recorder. The result was a delayed effect that became known as tape echo.
Paul's next "crazy idea" was to stack together eight mono tape machines and send their outputs to one piece of tape, stacking the recording heads on top of each other. The resulting machine served as the forerunner to today's multitrack recorders.
He had met Ford, then known as Colleen Summers, in the 1940s while working as a studio musician in Los Angeles. For seven years in the 1950s, Paul and Ford broadcast a TV show from their home in Mahwah, N.J. Ford died in 1977, 15 years after they divorced.