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August 14, 2009

Remembering Les Paul (and Woodstock)

by Sara Tucker

Music icon Les Paul picked up his electric guitar this week and headed for the Great Music Festival in the Sky, just as thousands were making the pilgrimage to Sullivan County, New York, for a Woodstock 40th anniversary bash.

Nobody was more responsible for what happened on Max Yasgur's farm in the summer of '69 than the Father of the Electric Guitar. Without Paul, Keith Richards once said, "generations of flash little punks like us would be in jail or cleaning toilets."

Speaking at a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame tribute nine months before his death, Paul told the story of how he built his own pickup from radio and telephone parts in the '30s and turned a fencepost into a prototypical solid-body guitar known as "the Log." "What we did was take an acoustical instrument--which was a very apologetic, wonderful, meek instrument--and turned it into a pit bull," he told Spinner in a mesmerizing interview.

"Shortly after news of his death hit the Web on Thursday, Facebook and Twitter feeds lit up with tributes," noted Rolling Stone in its obit, "Slash, whom Paul referred to last year as a 'dear friend,' tweeted that the guitar innovator 'was one of the most stellar human beings I've ever known.'"

Paul himself "never played anything that sounded in the least bit like rock," points out the Boston Globe. His style was a highly distinctive combination of swing, country, and pop. Yet its hard to imagine the electric guitar becoming the king of rock without Mr. Paul having played kingmaker.

Blogger Debbi Tannock recalls some of the Woodstock musicians who played on Les Paul guitars in a fun post at "Carlos Santana stepped on stage as the fifth performer on the second day (August 16, 1969) and blew away the audience with his set. He played 'Persuasion,' 'Savor,' 'Soul Sacrifice,' and 'Fried Neckbones' all with a Les Paul guitar."

Of the two legends, Les Paul and Woodstock, the former left a clearer legacy. For a lucid analysis of why Woodstock still matters, and why we get all woo-woo with nostalgia just thinking about that mess of a music festival, read Dave White's post "The Legacy of Woodstock" at "So, why is Woodstock's 40th anniversary such a big deal?" he asks. "Just take a look at the ways in which the decade of the '00s looks like the decade of the '60s."

What doesn't look at all like the '60s is the site of this year's Woodstock memorial concert. The $70 million Bethel Woods Center of the Arts opened in 2006 with a send-off by the New York Philharmonic and won praise from the New York Times as an "elegantly appointed and landscaped" complex "far removed from the mud, chaos, euphoria and chemical wooziness for which its location is remembered."

"Too much can be made of comparing the magnificent scruff of the old festival and the new," warned the Times' music critic. "Woodstock could only happen once. This is a different time. Political and artistic nerve endings seem more dazed than raw."

Maybe the real reason we can't get over Woodstock is because we want to have it all: the mad, rebellious, angst-expunging mudfest and the violins and cushioned seats. What we want is impossible, of course--and yet, hanging over Woodstock 2009 will be the ghost of an elegant outlaw who knew how to straddle the line.


Les Paul and Sam Ash Music
Genius, Musician, Inventor, Storyteller gone at 94


Our friend Les Paul passed away today. I guess at age 94 he had nothing to complain about  he was a living, thriving, gigging 94, and I can only hope Im the same when I reach that age. In all of the times we have met, he never complained about anything except for New York traffic. He really was something else.

My family has shared a great friendship with Les for over 50 years. He was always there for us, eager to do a meet and greet or guitar clinic as long as it is in New Jersey! When we opened up our store in Paramus in 1975, Les was the first person to perform and introduce us to New Jersey, kind of like our coming-out party. To this day, it is still one of the biggest crowds we have ever had. I was in the hospital that night but he still took the time to reach out; 34 years later, I still have the personalized picture hed sent me, and I will never part with it. This year, he made a return and did a meet and greet back in the old Paramus store, and once again the line to meet this legend was out the door. He stayed longer than he said he would and signed almost everything that was put in front of him. He loved his fans, and they loved him back.

He was always a gentle soul, very quiet, but he always had a joke or funny line waiting to pop out of his mouth. The last time I spent any real time with him was at a private photo shoot we did together last year at Iridium, the club he played every Monday night until the day he died. I had a rare opportunity to share a stage with him and discuss his favorite guitar, his Les Paul Custom Ebony with Les Paul Recording electronics, another one of his many inventions. What almost made me fall over in my chair was that the guitar was a Factory Second as I saw stamped on the back of the headstock. It was like seeing Henry Ford driving an Edsel. When I asked about it, he just shrugged it off: Hey, its a good guitar! After the shoot was over and we had said our goodbyes, he just went quietly back to the stage and started to play guitar all by himself, lost in the music and memories I guess. He was playing How High the Moon as I left.

Long before I ever met the man, I was immersed in Les Paul life. My brother Richard was a Les Paul guitar lover, and I became one too. He played them, and we were always tinkering with them, changing pickups and parts. We even tried to do a refin (boy, was that a mistake). Today, I am still a Les Paul fanatic  I have more Pauls in my collection than any other electric guitar, and my 55 Gold Top is the jewel in my crown. There is a sound you get from a Les Paul guitar that cant be reproduced by any modeling software or genius builder. It was the first home of tone, period.

We still bask in the glow of my favorite Les Paul quote of all time: If I cant find what I need at a Sam Ash store, I try to build it. Since he usually found what he needed at our stores, we knew we were doing something right. As far as I am concerned, he was a true rockstar. He may not have lived the rockstar life, but he influenced them all. He was surrounded by musicians (mostly guitar players) at every celebration he had, and any famous guitar player in town on a Monday night would go to see his regular gig at the Iridium. There was always someone famous in the crowd.

About two months ago, my Uncle Paul took a bunch of us big shots at the company to see him play. Unfortunately he was ill that night, and it was one of the few times he missed the gig. Even though we were disappointed, Jose Feliciano and Bernie Williams sat in with the Les Paul Trio and it was still cool. The truth is, you didnt go to see Les to have your socks blown off by some riff. You went to hear the stories. He would play a little and talk a lot, and boy did he have stories to tell.

There has always been a lot of discussion as to whether Les or Ted McCarty really invented the Les Paul guitar, and they actually both had a big hand in it. Les couldnt build like Ted (just look at his famous log guitar), but Ted didnt know guitars or what guitarists really needed in a solid body instrument like Les did. When the Les Paul was invented, the concept of a solid body guitar was still very new and the first couple tries were a little off the mark&but when they nailed it, they really nailed it. The Les Paul is one the most iconic and recognizable guitars in the world. Often copied, never duplicated, in all its colors, variations, woods and electronics, it will always be one of my favorite guitars of all time.

We will miss you, Les. You were a one of a kind.
Sammy and the whole Ash Family

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