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Guitar, studio wizard Les Paul dies at 94

  • Story Highlights
  • Les Paul, guitar and studio innovator, has died at 94
  • Paul's innovations included a solid-body guitar, multitrack recording
  • Paul had several hits with ex-wife Mary Ford in early '50s
  • B.B. King: "He was the founding father of modern music"
By Todd Leopold
CNN
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(CNN) -- Les Paul, whose innovations with the electric guitar and studio technology made him one of the most important figures in recorded music, has died, according to a statement from his publicists. Paul was 94.

Les Paul, whose innovations helped give rise to modern pop music, played guitar into his 90s.

Les Paul, whose innovations helped give rise to modern pop music, played guitar into his 90s.

Paul died in White Plains, New York, from complications of severe pneumonia, according to the statement.

Paul was a guitar and electronics mastermind whose creations -- such as multitrack recording, tape delay and the solid-body guitar that bears his name, the Gibson Les Paul -- helped give rise to modern popular music, including rock 'n' roll. No slouch on the guitar himself, he continued playing at clubs into his 90s despite being hampered by arthritis.

"If you only have two fingers [to work with], you have to think, how will you play that chord?" he told CNN.com in a 2002 phone interview. "So you think of how to replace that chord with several notes, and it gives the illusion of sounding like a chord." iReport.com: Do you play a Les Paul guitar?

Guitarists mourned the loss Thursday.

"Les Paul was truly a 'one of a kind.' We owe many of his inventions that made the rock 'n roll sound of today to him, and he was the founding father of modern music," B.B. King said in a statement. "This is a huge loss to the music community and the world. I am honored to have known him."

Joe Satriani said in a statement: "Les Paul set a standard for musicianship and innovation that remains unsurpassed. He was the original guitar hero and the kindest of souls. Last October I joined him onstage at the Iridium club in [New York], and he was still shredding. He was and still is an inspiration to us all."

In a statement, Slash said, "Les Paul was a shining example of how full one's life can be; he was so vibrant and full of positive energy." See how other famous guitarists are paying tribute to Paul »

Lester William Polfuss was born in Waukesha, Wisconsin, on June 9, 1915. Even as a child he showed an aptitude for tinkering, taking apart electric appliances to see what made them tick. Video Watch Paul dazzle on his guitar »

"I had to build it, make it and perfect it," Paul said in 2002. He was nicknamed the "Wizard of Waukesha."

In the 1930s and '40s, he played with the bandleader Fred Waring and several big band singers, including Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra and the Andrews Sisters, as well as with his own Les Paul Trio. In the early 1950s, he had a handful of huge hits with his then-wife, Mary Ford, such as "How High the Moon" and "Vaya Con Dios."

His guitar style, heavily influenced by jazzman Django Reinhardt, featured lightning-quick runs and double-time rhythms. In 1948, after being involved in a severe car accident, he asked the doctor to set his arm permanently in a guitar-playing position.

Paul also credited Crosby for teaching him about timing, phrasing and preparation.

Crosby "didn't say it, he did it -- one time only. Unless he blew the lyrics, he did one take."

Paul never stopped tinkering with electronics, and after Crosby gave him an early audiotape recorder, Paul went to work changing it. It eventually led to multitrack recording; on Paul and Ford's hits, he plays many of the guitar parts, and Ford harmonizes with herself. Multitrack recording is now the industry standard.

But Paul likely will be best remembered for the Gibson Les Paul, a variation on the solid-body guitar he built in the early 1940s -- "The Log" -- and offered to the guitar company.

"For 10 years, I was a laugh," he told CNN in an interview. "[But I] kept pounding at them and pounding at them saying hey, here's where it's at. Here's where tomorrow, this is it. You can drown out anybody with it. And you can make all these different sounds that you can't do with a regular guitar."

Gibson, spurred by rival Fender, finally took Paul up on his offer and introduced the model in 1952. It has since become the go-to guitar for such performers as Jimmy Page.

"The world has lost a truly innovative and exceptional human being today. I cannot imagine life without Les Paul," said Henry Juszkiewicz, chairman and CEO of Gibson Guitar, in a statement. "He would walk into a room and put a smile on anyone's face. His musical charm was extraordinary and his techniques unmatched anywhere in the world."

Paul is enshrined in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the Grammy Hall of Fame, the Inventors Hall of Fame and the Songwriters Hall of Fame. He is survived by three sons, a daughter, five grandchildren and five great-grandchildren. Until recently he had a standing gig at New York's Iridium Jazz Club, where he would play with a who's who of famed musicians.

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He admired the places guitarists and engineers took his inventions, but he said there was nothing to replace good, old-fashioned elbow grease and soul.

"I learned a long time ago that one note can go a long way if it's the right one," he said in 2002, "and it will probably whip the guy with 20 notes."

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