The Rock Hall, and Les Paul!

Ace Frehley talks! Photo by Gary Rice

The Rock Hall, and Les Paul!  What A Week! Rockin' Educational Treasures Just Down the Road From Us!

I finally met Les Paul. Dad did too.

Of all the luminaries in the world of the guitar that I had hoped to meet, Les Paul was the one I'd wanted to meet the most. Ever since I was a young lad in the Pennsylvania hills, the music of Les Paul and Mary Ford had resonated from our radios and phonographs. Their sound-on-sound, multi-tracked recordings could literally take your breath away.

As far as I'm concerned, of all the world's guitarists, Les is the king. What he did for the guitar, and for the world of music, is truly beyond measurement.

For the last thirteen years, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum, in collaboration with numerous other sponsors, has supported the American Music Masters series of concerts, symposiums, and reflections of the lives and creations of various luminaries in American music. During the week of November 10-15 this year, the life of Les Paul was celebrated. This year's tribute was supported by the Rock Hall, Case Western Reserve University, Gibson Guitars, Playhouse Square, the Ohio Humanities Council, and the Cuyahoga County Public Library.

By now, after writing some eighty columns for you, and roughly the same number of columns for several music periodicals as "Guitar Guy Gary," I think the time has come for me to write some really good ink about the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame--particularly in the context of the celebration of Les Paul's life.

The reason I have not written too much about the Rock Hall before is that I've always regarded my own work with the Rock Hall's guitar collection to be a private subject, best left between myself and the Hall. The facts concerning my own involvement with the Hall's guitars are simple enough. When I was called upon to evaluate the Rock Hall's guitars in the winter of 1995, I quickly realized the enormity of what was being expected of me. I immediately asked that we bring two other "guitar guys" into the picture, and this was done in order to have more than one person's opinion concerning the instruments. Between the three of us, we addressed issues with a number of the Rock Hall's guitars, primarily in the months prior to the Hall's September 1995 opening day.

When I was further asked by Rock Hall management to participate in an interview for Guitar World magazine in October of 1995, the public legend of "Guitar Guy Gary" was born. Over the years, from time to time, it has been an honor to help the Rock Hall with their instrument questions as a consultant. In my columns for Guitar Digest and Folknet's Continuum, I've tried to assist others with their guitar-related problems as well.

The real point of this column, for me, is that I think it's time we recognize and celebrate some of the tremendous educational programs that have been and continue to be put forth by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum.

The week-long series of activities honoring Les Paul included a Rock and Roll Night school, an intimate visit with Henry Juszkiewicz , CEO of Gibson, an equally intimate discussion with Ace Frehley of KISS fame, an evening with Gibson luthiers (guitar builders), a teachers' event, and a showing of the Les Paul documentary film Chasing Sound.

All of the above events, that is ALL, were free. FREE, that is. To be admitted, all you had to do was ask. Just to get a reservation. That was all. To see Gibson's Henry Juszkiewicz? Free. To see Ace Frehley? Also free.

There was also to be a no-reservations guitar clinic on Friday with the great Jennifer Batten. Friday happenings were to be capped off by a Wilbert's Downtown concert by Webb Wilder and The Beatniks for the nominal admission price of $15!

On Saturday, at Case, there was an all-day reflection of Les Paul's life and his contributions to the world of music. There were fantastic participants, including Ideastream's David C. Barnett and Robb Lawrence, the author of The Early Years of the Les Paul Legacy 1915-1963. Rock Hall inductees The Ventures also participated with a live performance, and there was a great interchange with Les Paul himself. The cost for the entire day was only $30 including lunch! Les Paul spent an hour with a large and highly appreciative audience at Case, answering questions and inspiring others with his presence. He seemed delighted to talk with my dad, Robert Rice. Both men were WWII veterans of Army musical groups, and were close in age. His response to Dad about Bing Crosby was detailed and at great length.

The evening of the 15th marked the tribute concert at Playhouse Square's State Theater. Although Dad and I unfortunately missed that event, it was a star-studded affair, with numerous luminaries scheduled to perform, including the Ventures, Jeff "Skunk"Baxter, James Burton, Duane Eddy, Eric Carmen, Lonnie Mack, Billy Gibbons, and Slash, among others, including the Les Paul Trio. Tickets for that stellar event started at only $30 as well.

The week's activities were coordinated with Case Western Reserve University through Mary Davis, associate professor at Case, and incoming Chair of the Music Department. I had the pleasure of sitting with Mary at the Hall during the Tuesday event with Ace Frehley and Henry Juszkiewicz. She's been doing the Case/Rock Hall liaison for 10 years now. She felt this was an incredible program for the community. I can only editorialize my full agreement with her. The educational aspects of contemporary American music studies provide a rich field of academia for anyone interested in the music of our times.

Les Paul is a guitarist and consummate inventor. It can truly be said that without Les, so many aspects of American music might never have happened. Not wanting to sound like other guitarists, and frustrated by the howl of electronic feedback (notes that became too resonant at certain frequencies), Les embarked on a search for the perfect guitar tone. He attached strings to wooden boards and even railroad tracks to try to discover what materials would help those strings perform better. He was allowed into the old Epiphone guitar factory in New York, where during the off-hours, he built a guitar that he called "The Log." This guitar had a solid center and hollow wings, allowing for even sustain and a smooth, fluid, even tone that marked the beginning of the "Les Paul sound." Les approached the Gibson company about the possibility of building him a similar instrument, but initially, they declined to do so.

When Les and his former wife, Mary Ford, began their TV appearances, he became a household word. By 1952, his collaboration with Gibson guitar design finally came about. In addition to his guitars, Les is known for inventing sound-on-sound recording techniques and varying the speed of recordings (creating octave and delay effects). He was a pioneer in magnetic tape recording techniques. He has also been an inspiration to many (including myself!) who have battled physical challenges, due to his overcoming a shattered right arm from a 1948 automobile accident. He had the arm set into a permanent guitar playing position!

Originally, the Les Paul guitars did not sell well, as they represented a radical departure for the Gibson company. They even stopped making the original style in 1960, but by 1968, with the advent of arena rock, the original Les Paul guitar had once again found a home. Since then, the instrument has been in the hands of just about every rocker at one time or another, and certain original Gibson Les Paul guitars--particularly some 1958-60 models--can easily out-price just about any home in Lakewood!

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum and its co-sponsors have scored another real winner with this tribute to Les Paul. The music explored during this event has truly been emblematic of our times. The pulse of this city, and so many others, was enriched beyond measure by the work of Les Paul. Thanks to the Rock Hall, Case, and all of the supporters of this event! A special thanks to you too, Les! You continue to inspire us all!

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Volume 4, Issue 25, Posted 8:56 PM, 11.15.2008