Every great guitarist has a great guitar. Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page has three: his iconic Ying Yang Danelectro, a surprisingly affordable piece of plywood that he managed to make sound utterly transcendent; his double-neck custom Gibson SG, which he used to play the 12-string parts on ‘Stairway To Heaven’ during live performances; and his 1958 Les Paul Standard.
Those last two Gibson models are practically synonymous with Page’s legacy as one of the most iconic and influential rock guitarists of all time. Back in 1968, he opened up about the importance of music Gibson’s golden boy Les Paul, without whom Led Zeppelin’s blend of rock simply wouldn’t have been possible.
Reviewing one of Les Paul’s records with Mary Ford, Page began by establishing the importance of the musical pioneer: “Les Paul – he’s the man who started everything: multitrack recording, the electric guitar – he’s just a genius. I think he was the first to use a four-track – or was it an eight-track – recording machine. I met him once, and apparently, he started multitrack recording back in 1945. Jeff Beck and myself have always dug him.”
Les Paul first got the idea for the first multitrack recorder back in 1953 while he was filming his TV show. Working with film audio inspired him to build an eight-track recording machine with all eight heads evenly aligned. In his own words: “My invention was to stack the heads one on top of the other so they were all aligned in the same place, and you could use the same multiple head for recording and playback, and everything would be in sync. It didn’t really become functional until 1957, when we finally re-designed it ourselves to get it right. I worked on it for four years and it cost me about $36,000 total before I ever recorded the first song on it.”
The value of the multitrack recorder cannot be understated. Without this piece of recording equipment, the sonic experimentations that defined the sound of the 1960s wouldn’t have been possible. It allowed bands and engineers to listen to a track they had just recorded and then add layers of ‘overdubs’ in real-time.
This allowed for greater creative control and, by extension, greater creative freedom. “The extra playback had enabled us to hear what we had recorded on the previous pass,” Paul recalled in his memoir. “And as we heard it, we sang and played along with it, and the whole thing combined was recorded as a new track on the same tape.”
While most commonly remembered for crafting one of the earliest solid-body electric guitars (The Les Paul) back in 1952, Les Paul also shaped the landscape of studio recording. So many decades later, we’re still relying on Paul’s pioneering inventions. So the next time you listen to a Led Zeppelin album, take a moment to remember that none of it would have been possible without one Lester William Polsfuss.