Les Paul, So Much More Than a Guitar

Everything fascinated young Lester Polsfuss, but most of all he wanted to know about sound.

Early Years

Les was born in Waukesha, Wisconsin in 1915 when the small city was ending its heyday as a resort destination. He was the second son of Evelyn and George Polsfuss. Les would say, “My brother Ralph flipped a light switch and as long as it turned on it was fine, but I wanted to know how the switch turned the light on.”

It was George who first called his son “Red” because of the boy’s flaming hair. Les recalled often riding in his father’s car through the streets of Waukesha and stopping at popular Goff’s Restaurant for lemon meringue pie. (See Lemon Meringue Pie with Dad.) George was a gambler who liked his beer. Les chuckled reminiscing how his father won Waukesha’s Schlitz Hotel in a game of craps and lost it the next night.
Much of Les’ Waukesha, including the Schlitz Hotel, remains a vibrant historic destination. (See Les Paul's Waukesha Tour.) The fact that Les’ parents divorced when it was rare, taught him to make the best of his circumstances.
Preschooler Lester banged on every pot and pan from his mother’s cupboards as he listened to the different sounds. Evelyn responded to her disarrayed kitchen by telling Les how well he “played” the pots and pans.

As Les experimented with everything in his mother's house, Ralph often yelled, "Ma, the kid's at it again!" Evelyn always responded, "Leave him alone. He needs to find out how things work."

Evelyn was always looking for ways to clear the path for Lester's talents to flourish. She took five year old Lester to local service club meetings. Tiny Lester stood on table tops to sing.

Les learned from everything around him. His boyhood home was across the street from railroad tracks. He puzzled why trains vibrated the windows. Why did the train sound differently as it progressed? He mused over tone change when he slowed his mother’s phonograph. Yet tone did not change when he covered and added holes to a roll from his mother’s cherished player piano.

Les remembered his mother sitting at the piano, singing out her sadness. “I didn’t know it at the time, but she was singing the blues and I learned from that.”
When Waukesha added water mains near Les' house, he sat at the edge of the ditch mesmerized by a ditch digger's harmonica. The worker called, "Hey kid, why do you just sit there?" In response to Les' enthusiasm, the worker gave Les the harmonica. Evelyn insisted on sanitizing the instrument in boiling water. Thus Les' bluesy harmonica was born.

Always searching for the perfect sound, Lester experimented with everything. His first Sears acoustic guitar ended up “stuffed with socks and rags and filled with plaster of Paris.”

While in junior high, Lester continued his search for new material for his guitar. The trains again offered inspiration.

Les convinced four of his friends to drag a borrowed wagon under a bridge, load two feet of rail onto the wagon and cart it home. So began the first “log” for Waukesha’s “Tom Sawyer”. Evelyn’s response was, “That will be the day when you see a cowboy riding a horse playing a rail and singing.” (See The Les Paul Legacy: Guitar Innovations.)

In Les' two-story childhood home, vertical wood panels adjoined the stairway. Les snickered relating how each night as he climbed the stairs he would "play the xylophone”. Asked to explain, Les laughed, "The different lengths of wood sounded differently." In another test of his mother's support, Lester "tuned" the wooden boards. Responding to, "You did what?" Les laughed, “I trimmed a couple of the boards that were out of tune so I could play songs." To the obvious, "Did you get in trouble?" Les replied, "Heck, no. Ma thought everything I did was clever."

When guitar-playing Pie Plant Pete came to Waukesha, not only did Evelyn secure concert tickets for her talented son and herself, she made a sailor suit for Lester to wear to ensure sailor-clad Pie Plant Pete would notice young Lester.

Les’ later moniker of Rhubarb Red was a play on his hero’s name.

Evelyn lived all of her life in Waukesha and as long as she was alive she told everyone about her talented son. Les would say, "Two women in my life made me who I am: my mother and Mary." (See The Wizard's Mother.)


Few people knew of Les’ multiple challenges including receiving a very serious electric shock, losing his hearing in both ears, and having quadruple by-pass heart surgery. But, that was how he wanted it. He wanted to focus on playing the perfect notes on his guitar and entertaining the adoring crowds who flocked to see him.

Referring to his 1948 car accident, Les would say he was the luckiest guy in the world, not because he survived, but because he had been living life too fast. Lying in the hospital for months gave him time to evaluate his life and design a new guitar. In his later years, as arthritis froze one finger after the other Les shrugged and proclaimed, “I just keep teaching myself a new way to play the guitar.”  (See Les Paul Living History: Car Wreck.)

Les faced emotional challenges of his parents’ divorce, growing up in a home with limited finances, his own divorces and the death of his infant daughter. In a 1992 interview on National Public Radio Les was asked how he played with his arthritic hands. He responded, “The key to that is that the same will, the same power that you have to destroy yourself you can use to make yourself well.” He continued, “…if you want to (do anything) hard enough you can do it.” For more information about Les' challenges, see: Les Paul talks about adapting to physical challenges.



Les the Entertainer

Being in the audience watching Les was much more than listening to a virtuoso guitarist. Les was the quintessential storyteller and he loved weaving in humor. A frequent line when someone tried his hand at humor was, "I'll do the funny stuff, fella," followed with Les’ trademark laugh. Les invited others to join him on stage. Internationally known musicians to young musicians performed and bantered with the guitar godfather.

Les performed from the time his mother took him to sing for local fraternal organizations until his last days.

The inventor

In addition to inventing the solid body electric guitar, which bears his name, Les holds the patent for the 8-track tape recorder and several patents related to the guitar. Today’s musicians regularly credit Les with the birth of Rock and Roll because of his multiple recording innovations including reverb, echo, sound-on-sound, tape delay, over-dubbing, phase shifting and close miking. Les was fond of saying that the reason he invented so many things was because they weren’t available in a store.


Les Paul & Mary Ford

In the early 1950s, Les and his wife Mary Ford had hit record after hit record. Les’ licks, fretting techniques, trills, timing and chording sequences and Mary’s crystal voice matched with Les’ cutting-edge recording techniques set a new standard for pop music.

Les and Mary kept a hectic pace of recording their stream of hit songs in addition to having their own radio and television shows while they traveled across the country doing live performances. Their unique recording of “Vaya con Dios” became their top-selling record, but “How High the Moon” might well be their signature recording.

The “Les Paul & Mary Ford” television show was filmed in their New Jersey home and ran in the 1950s for five minutes, five times a day, five days a week. To replicate their recorded hits, Les invented the “Les Paulverizer”, which led to several amusing adaptations on their shows. The’ black box Les Paulverizer is on display at Discovery World’s “Les Paul’s House of Sound” exhibit in Milwaukee.

Ironically, Les’ new sound captured the attention of upcoming guitarists, who displaced Les and Mary’s style with Rock and Roll.

Throughout his career, Les greeted each person with genuine curiosity. He met people where they were. His blue eyes absorbed who was in front of him; nothing else mattered for that moment. He switched with ease from technical conversation to discussing music intricacies to charming pleasantries, never losing his Midwestern charm.

Les toldhis own story in Les Paul in His Own Words, which is available here.

Les chose to be buried in his hometown. You can see his memorial at Prairie Home Cemetery in Waukesha.

Sue Baker, Waukesha, Wisconsin

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