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Les Paul: Inventing Modern Sound

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Les Paul, New York, 1947. Photo: William P Gottlieb. Prints and Photographs Division.

This is the soundtrack of a revolution.

The speakers inside this studio in the Virginia foothills are blasting out “Brazil,” a 1930s classic performed over the years by Frank Sinatra, Placido Domingo and Carlos Santana and danced to by Donald Duck in a Disney cartoon travelogue.

The version playing now isn’t just something different, it’s something else — two-plus minutes of record-making innovation pulled off with primitive equipment and advanced thinking, a groundbreaking recording made by a man whose name would become synonymous with rock and roll guitar.

This “Brazil,” with its light Latin rhythm and impossibly fast fretwork, was both performed and recorded by guitarist Les Paul seven decades ago in his garage studio in Hollywood. Working there, Paul helped revolutionize record-making and pave the way for some of the greatest recordings in pop music history.

Conservationists at the Library of Congress today are working to preserve the original material that forms the foundation of Paul’s legacy.

The Library acquired his archive in 2013 — thousands of recordings, films and papers that, like “Brazil,” chronicle the man’s life and work. This year, audio specialists finished preserving and digitizing the sound recordings held at the Library’s Packard Campus for audiovisual conservation, located in the Virginia countryside about 75 miles southwest of Washington, D.C.

Paul was both a virtuoso country, jazz and blues guitar player and a brilliant technical innovator.

In the 1940s and ’50s, he pioneered recording techniques and effects — close miking, delay, phasing, overdubbing, multitracking — that later became standard. He also played a key role in developing the new solid-body electric guitar that would inspire generations of great riffs and rockers: Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, Duane Allman, Slash and countless others. He is the only person ever inducted into both the National Inventors Hall of Fame and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Paul lived a life of invention, building and modifying musical instruments and recording equipment, experimenting with recording techniques to get the sound he heard in his head down on record.

“It’s called curiosity, and I got a double dose of it,” Paul wrote in his autobiography, “Les Paul: In His Own Words.” “I’ve never stopped trying to figure out what makes things work or how to make things work better.”

As a child, he invented a flipable harmonica holder. At 13, he embedded the needle from his mom’s record player into his acoustic guitar and wired it to the speaker — his first amplified guitar. He built his own machine to cut records, using a nail, the flywheel from a Cadillac and belts from a dental drill.

In 1941, he built one of the world’s first solid-body electric guitars, an experimental instrument he dubbed “The Log,” by stretching guitar strings over a 4×4 piece of pine mounted with pickups — the primitive ancestor of guitars used years later by rock’s greatest players.

In 1946, Paul withdrew to his garage recording studio for two years, intent on creating a “New Sound” that would help revolutionize record-making.

“It was me and my little circle of engineering buddies,” Paul would write, “and no idea was too crazy to try.”

There, he pioneered early forms of overdubbing and multitrack recording that allowed his wife, singer Mary Ford, to harmonize with herself and Paul to play multiple guitars on the same song.

He would record one layer of instruments on a disc, then add another layer by playing along to the disc he’d just made and recording both to a new disc, then repeat the process over. His final version of “Brazil” is a composite of nearly a dozen separate performances, each captured on a separate disc now in the Library’s collections.

After Bing Crosby gave him one of the first commercial tape recorders, Paul quickly modified the machine so that he could carry out what his experiments on tape, too.

The innovative records Paul made alone and with Ford — “Lover,” “Brazil,” “Tennessee Waltz,” “Vaya con Dios” and “How High the Moon” — blew minds and sold millions of copies.

At the Packard Campus, audio specialists are working to preserve that important legacy.

The master copy of “Brazil” before cleaning. Photo: NBRS Staff.

They cleaned and stabilized the discs — the “Brazil” discs began the process covered with white powdery exudation but finished a shiny black, as if they’d just been cut. The records’ sounds then were preserved as super-high-resolution digital files. To preserve heavily damaged discs, specialists used the Library’s IRENE system, which employs high-resolution cameras to take images inside the grooves then uses software to translate the images into sound.

The copy of “Brazil,” transformed. NBRS Staff.

Paul logged the discs and tapes in a gray ledger that documents his work: early records he made in the 1930s as a country performer styled Rhubarb Red; his experiments with techniques and equipment; his groundbreaking and bestselling work with Ford; his work producing other performers, such as the cowboy band The Plainsmen, whose digitized harmonies sound as amazing today as when they were captured decades ago.

These recordings are the sound of innovation, as Paul heard it in his own studio.

“Les Paul operated at the highest technical and creative levels,” recorded sound curator Matt Barton said. “On his own and with Mary Ford, he made the most advanced recordings of his time — recordings that had to be modified just so they could be heard on the consumer playback technology of the day. As popular as these recordings were, audiences didn’t know just how good were. So, they were also, in a sense, made for a sonic future that is now with us and can be heard in the preservation work done at the Library.”

Bryan Hoffa, an audio preservation specialist, at work on restoring Paul’s recordings. Photo: Mark Hartsell.


This article appears in the Library of Congress Magazine Nov.-Dec. issue. Subscribe to the blog— it’s free! — and the largest library in world history will send cool stories straight to your inbox.

Comments (7)

  1. Great article! Information I was not aware of.
    Thank you!h

  2. In the 1950’s the local record store couldn’t keep up with the demand for Les Paul and Mary Ford 45 records. Little Rock Getaway was my favorite

  3. Les also received the Presidential Medal for the Arts from President George W Bush..

  4. The lathe and the sound on sound machine referred to in the article are proudly displayed as part of a permanent exhibit at the Mahwah Museum. The museum hosts many programs related to the life of Les Paul. Check out the website at Become a member and receive updates. New material will be added here soon.

  5. How does one get a chance to hear these digital versions? Especially the the separate disks/tracks the it took to make the final product. How many other songs is the Archive digitizing?

    • Try the people in our recorded sound division. They might transfer you out to the National Audio-Visual Conservation Center. Easiest way is online at this link:

      Good luck,

      • Better yet, looks like you might want to ask for Steve Rosenthal specifically.

        This, from a recent article about a NAVCC demonstration in the Jefferson Building:

        In another session, sound engineer Steve Rosenthal demonstrated how guitarist and recording artist Les Paul developed multitracking, playing tracks from such Paul hits as “Lover” and “Bye Bye Blues” individually, then together. The Library has Paul’s archive.

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