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Les & Leo: Pioneers of the Solid Body Guitar

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Les Paul and Leo Fender

The story of the solid-body electric guitar really involves three amazing men but for this story, we will be focusing on two: Les Paul and Leo Fender. 

Clarence Leonidas "Leo" Fender was born on August 10, 1909, to Clarence Fender and Harriet Wood, owners of a successful orange grove located between Anaheim and Fullerton, California.

Lester William Polsfuss (aka Les Paul) was born June 9, 1915 in Waukesha Wisconsin, to George and Evelyn (Stutz) Polsfuss.

Les & Leo were a half a dozen years apart in age but both were driven visionaries when it came to guitar design. Throughout the course of their careers and lives they, in effect, became their own support group / arms race that led to the development and success of the solid body electric guitar.

What was the genesis of these young men's guitar-driven passion and insight? It's difficult to nail down exactly, the first stirrings but it seems to have started for both at around age thirteen.

When Leo Fender was thirteen years old, his uncle, who ran an automotive-electric shop, sent him a box filled with discarded car radio parts, and a battery. The following year, Leo visited his uncle's shop and was fascinated by a radio his uncle had built from spare parts and placed on display in the front of the shop. Leo later claimed that the loud music coming from the speaker of that radio made a lasting impression on him. Soon thereafter, Leo began repairing radios in a small shop in his parents' home.

Leo Fender 1929 High School Graduation Picture

By the time he turned thirteen, Les Paul was performing semi-professionally as a country singer, guitarist, and harmonica player. While playing at the Waukesha area drive-ins and roadhouses, Paul began his first experiment with sound. Wanting to make himself heard by more people at the local venues, he wired up a phonograph needle to his guitar and connected it to a radio speaker, using that to amplify his acoustic guitar. As a teen Paul created his first solid body electric guitar using a discarded 2-foot piece of rail from a nearby train line.

Les Paul at 13 Years Old

Les began developing a prototype solid-body electric guitar as early as 1941 was deeply involved in the process when he headed to California in spring of 1943 and set up a "musician's central" house (LPIHOW, page 126). In 1943, Joaquin Murphy brought Leo Fender and Paul Bigsby to Les Paul’s Hollywood home where they saw Les playing the prototype that he called the “Log”. 

On PAUL BIGSBY'S contribution to the electric solid-body guitar from The Story Of Paul Bigsby by Andy Babiuk 

"It's widely accepted that Les Paul and Leo Fender were responsible for sparking the electric guitar revolution and making invaluable contributions. However, their work might not have been possible without the man who had designed and built the very first modern solid-body guitar. That man was Paul Adelbert Bigsby. He made the very first modern solid-body electric for Merle Travis, completing the instrument in May, 1948. His instrument provided the inspiration and technical details for many other guitar makers."

Right there in southern California near where Les and Leo were already deep in the middle of their guitar plans. 

On LEO, LES AND PAUL BIGSBY Regarding the loose, freewheeling atmosphere in Les' Hollywood digs, in Les' own words, LPIHOW, pages 162-3,

“All the sound guys were showing up. Leo Fender, Paul Bigsby, they practically lived in my back yard, and it wasn’t because they liked the shape of my nose. They were chasing some of the same problems and knew something important was going down, and they didn’t want to miss it. There were country artists, too, guys like Spade Cooley and Tex Williams. And where are they? Out in my backyard. And what are they playing? Electric guitars. They were more interested in the electric guitar sound than the recording stuff, and if they’re going to be playing through a speaker, Fender wants to be there to find out what’s right and what’s wrong. Everybody wants to know what we’re discovering so they can add it to what they’re doing, and we were doing the same thing.

This was the wonderful part of what I had there, the fact that you’d step out of the garage where all this great stuff was happening, and there’s a big, open patio with a fireplace and a couple of orange trees and some chairs. It was our meeting place, and Leo and Bigsby and I, everybody, we would sit there for hours just goofing off, talking and jamming with our ideas about guitars and amplifiers and speakers.”

More on Les's home studio atmosphere from The Story Of Paul Bigsby by Andy Babiuk on Les & Leo

Paul Bigsby: "Les remembers Bigsby as a great guy. Whenever we were doing a date, Leo would say hey, you want to go over to Les's? and they'd come over, so Paul and Leo would come over a lot. They wold listen to the group that was recording, to the amplifier and the guitar and talk about what changes they were going to make. Of all the country & western players, they had ten favorite people and they'd pick their brains. How to make the equalization in the guitar; the pickups, what speakers should sound like; what size cabinetss to use; the tuning pegs - the this-and-that of the guitar.'

There is a high probability that Les' home may have been the fertile ground in getting Leo interested in building similar solid-body guitars (and Bigsby interested in building vibratos."

It is said that all great inventions must arrive at the right time in order to be great...was this the time for Les' Log?

ON GIBSON & THE LOG: In LPIHOW, page 116, Les writes,

“Not long after I got back to Chicago, still in ‘41, I went to the Gibson people with the Log. They thought it was a joke and I was laughed at, not scoring too well with the idea of a solid body guitar. They called me the character with the broomstick with pickups on it. It was another ten years before they saw the light.”

Yes, too soon. 

 Les with The Log

Mary Ford and Les Paul with The Broomstick (eh, we mean, The Log)

Fast forward into the late 1940s...Pickup-equipped arch-tops were the guitars of choice in the dance bands, but the increasing popularity of roadhouses and dance halls created a growing need for louder, cheaper, and more durable instruments.

  Fender's Radio Service 1944 to 1951 in Fullerton, CA.

Players also needed 'faster' necks and better intonation to play what the country players called "take-off lead guitar." In the late 1940s, solid-body electric guitars began to rise in popularity, yet they were still considered novelty items, with the RickenbackerSpanish Electro guitar being the most commercially available solid-body, and Les Paul's one-off home-made "Log" and the Bigsby Travis guitar made by Paul Bigsby for Merle Travis being the most visible early examples.

At this point in time (probably mid-1947), Leo Fender decided to give Les Paul the first Fender prototype. It was unnamed and simply says “Fender” on it. Leo kept it until he died.

Leo and NoCaster

Les Paul with his Nocaster given him by Leo Fender

Move forward to 1948: Leo Fender asked Les to go into business with him. Les declined, determined to get Gibson to sign him.

Leo Fender then formed the Fender Electric Instrument Company and in 1950 launched the Broadcaster.

Then, out of the blue (after ten years of hounding Gibson and hearing nothing but no's from them), Les Paul got the fateful call from Gibson.Their company president had issued an order to “find that nut with the broomstick with pickups on it and sign him up!” Les' broomstick invention's time had arrived. A direct quote from Les Paul 

“...the Gibson people came to me and got me to sign with them to make the first Les Paul guitar and it was all because of Leo Fender. Leo did me a huge favor. I couldn’t move Gibson with an atomic bomb. It took Leo Fender to wake Gibson up." 

The first Gibson Les Paul electric guitar prototype was made in New York City from a four-by-four piece of lumber. Les added wings on it for cosmetic purposes. It had two pickups and an Epiphone neck. It was truly ugly

Now, jump to 1963 and Les Paul's term contract with Gibson was just about up. Les was also going through a divorce and didn't want to re-sign with Gibson until the divorce was settled. Leo Fender somehow heard about what was going on with his pal and once again asked Les to instead, consider signing on with Fender.

This was an "Aha!" moment for Les. 

Les, now realizing that he had some leverage due to Leo's offer, called Maurice Berlin (then president of Chicago Musical Instruments that owned Gibson at the time) to discuss Fender's offer with him.

Much to his surprise, instead, Berlin told Les that they had just sold off the Kalamazoo factory and were phasing out the electric guitar.

Les would not, could not allow that to stand. The next day, a Friday, he got on a redeye to meet with Maurice and convince him to change his mind.

By Monday, Gibson was back in the guitar making business. And still is.

The final takeaway is that these two visionaries both competed with yet complemented each other throughout their careers. They drove each other forward as friends, competitors and pioneers developing two completely different visions of what the perfect solid body guitar was and perhaps unintentionally used their interlocking strengths that propelled both of their visions/careers.

Together, they gave the world the two most iconic guitars in existence. We celebrate them both.


* LES PAUL'S REAL NAME -- Les never legally changed his name. His death certificate shows Lester William Polsfuss. 

** LES' HOLLYWOOD RECORDING STUDIO -- Regarding the year Les built his Hollywood recording studio, in 1942 Les was living in Chicago. Les was inducted into the Armed Forces in 1944 and he built his Hollywood recording studio after he was out of the Army. It would be safe to say sometime in the late 1940s.”

Sources and excerpts from: 

Les Paul Foundation: www.lespaulfoundation.org

Les Paul In His Own Words (LPIHOW) by Les Paul

The Story Of Paul Bigsby by Andy Babiuk

Rockers, Jazzbos and Visionaries by Bill Milkowski : https://goo.gl/gcVRdL


- Leo_Fender: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leo_Fender

- Les_Paul: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Les_Paul

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