AFP

NEW YORK

Asked to name music superstars, few in the general public would immediately think of Les Paul. But 100 years after his birth, his many admirers are hoping to promote him as one of modern music’s indispensable figures.

Paul, who died in 2009, was an acclaimed jazz guitarist but also a prolific inventor. He paved the way for the rock era by pioneering the electric guitar and revolutionized how artists record music. On what would have been his 100th birthday Tuesday, a foundation dedicated in his legacy set up a mini-museum for the day in New York’s Times Square with a tribute concert in the evening.

“We’re reintroducing Les. We sometimes joke around that Les is the most famous person nobody knows,” said Michael Braunstein, the executive director of the Les Paul Foundation. “When you ask children, or a certain generation, they think Les Paul is (only) a guitar,” he said, referring to the Gibson instruments that bear his name.

Braunstein — who, along with his grandfather and father, served successively as Paul’s manager — argued that the guitarist’s impact was unique for its wide scope. “We argue that Les is the most influential and important individual in the music industry ever,” Braunstein said.

Even if one does not rank Paul using such superlative terms, he is the only person enshrined in both the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the National Inventors Hall of Fame. Paul’s key innovation as a luthier was to create a solid-body electric guitar. Unlike an acoustic guitar, whose hollow body let the sound reverberate, the solid instrument sustained the plucking of the strings — which could then be amplified.

“I want sounds that have never been heard on Earth. I want new sounds,” Paul said in a quotation on the exhibition wall. Paul also created his own recording system in the 1940s that allowed him to play along with a previously taped track. While such mixing is now possible even with basic mobile devices, Paul’s technique was groundbreaking by allowing guitarists to record themselves playing multiple parts in the same song.

“Every guitar player should think about him every time they go and plug into an amplifier, that if it was not for Les, there wouldn’t be that,” said Neal Schon, guitarist of classic rock band Journey. Schon told AFP that Paul belonged to a rare group of guitarists with “distinctive voices that set them apart,” including blues legend B.B. King, who died last month.

“There are so many YouTube videos of guys shredding up and down the fretboard,” Schon said. “It’s up to you to try to do it your own way, to where it sounds somewhat new and has some personality to it. “I think that’s the hardest thing for young kids to figure out. It’s not the dexterity.” Schon is among musicians to take part in the tribute concert along with blues rocker Steve Miller and harder-edged guitarists including Joe Satriani and Zakk Wylde, who is best known for playing with Ozzy Osbourne.

Paul was born as Lester Polsfuss in Waukesha, Wisconsin, then a small town before white flight from Milwaukee turned it into a major suburb. One of his first inventions was a harmonica holder worn around the neck, a design that is still in popular use. Waukesha and Manhattan both declared Tuesday to be Les Paul Day, while the Discovery World museum in Milwaukee is holding an exhibition.

Despite paving the way for heavy metal, the so-called “Wizard of Waukesha” was known for his mild manner and played jazz every Monday evening for 13 years at New York’s Iridium club until his death at age 94. “He was so vibrant and full of positive energy,” guitarist Slash of Guns ‘n’ Roses fame wrote in the exhibit, calling Paul “a shining example of how full one’s life can be.”