Chet Flippo – “Les Paul: The Rolling Stone Interview” (1975)

October 14, 2010 at 9:39 am (Music, Reviews & Articles)

A long interview from the pages of Rolling Stone (Feb. 13, 1975 — issue #180) of the late, great guitar and recording pioneer Les Paul…

 

I Sing the Body Electric 

If you don’t step lively, Les Paul is likely to run you down somewhere in the 29-room mansion he fills to bursting in the woods near Mahwah. He’s a genius — he’ll tell you so — and his energies and ambitions just can’t be confined. One minute he’s racing through the large, well-equipped recording studio (still in commercial use), pausing to show you the first, the original eight-track recorder that he built in 1954 and which has “lasted like a Sherman tank” and a second later — shirttails flapping behind him — he’s hurtling up a staircase to rummage through a teetering stack of Les Paul Gibson guitars: 200 guitars that list from $525 to $765 fill several rooms and protrude from closets and bathrooms. Some are being torn apart and rebuilt, the others already have been. “I’ve completely rebuilt every guitar I ever had,” he said, stopping to ransack a closet. He came up with a spanking new Gibson Oxblood Artist Case and opened it. “Look at this,” he was amazed, “a brand new Les Paul Custom.” He regarded it with the clinical air of a mechanic inspecting a trashed Buick transmission: an imperfect object to be rebuilt.

That’s why Les Paul may well be the most important figure in popular music in the last two-and-a-half decades. He is not interested in music per se; he is an electronics technician and inventor (sell taught) whose mania is music delivery systems. True, he and Mary Ford (born Colleen Summers: Her name was completely changed by Paul — whose own real name is Lester Polfus — upon their marriage in 1949) had an incredible list of hit songs that started with “Lover” in 1949 and ran right on through the Fifties with “Nola,” “Tennessee Waltz,” “Mockin’ Bird Hill,” “How High the Moon,” “The World Is Waiting for the Sunrise,” “Just One More Chance,” “I’m Confessin’,” “Smoke Rings,” “Bye Bye Blues,” “Tiger Rag,” “I’m Sitting on Top of the World,” “Vaya con Dios,” “I Really Don’t Want to Know,” “I’m a Fool to Care,” “Whither Thou Goest,” “Hummingbird,” “Moritat,” “Cinco Robles,” “Put a Ring on My Finger” and “Jura.” Les Paul’s success was largely due to the shimmering, spatial quality unique to his recordings, which was the result of his electronic expertise — his pioneering in multitrack recording and overdubbing and his perfection of the solid-body electric guitar, an idea he had been toying with since the Thirties. He built the prototype in 1941′: He called it “The Log” and it was nothing but a four-by-four wooden log with strings, a pickup and a plug. It took him several years to convince Gibson that the concept could work and the company finally issued the Les Paul Standard in 1952. By then, however, he had already built and was using the extremely complicated Les Paul Recording Guitar which he only allowed Gibson to issue in 1971. Les Paul guitars are generally regarded by musicians as the standard and today are played by musicians as diverse as Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck, Leon Russell, Richard Betts, Mick Taylor, Leslie West and Pete Townshend. The Les Pauls, most musicians agree, have the hottest pickups and the longest “sustain” ability.

Now 58 years old and a bachelor (he and Mary Ford were divorced in 1963), Paul leads the life of an inventor, working from late afternoon till sunrise amidst thousands of tapes, miles of wiring, banks of consoles, stacks of amplifiers and his guitars and oscillators. During the past year he has played a few concerts, leading Capitol to release The World Is (Still) Waiting for the Sunrise, more or less a Les Paul/Mary Ford greatest hits package.

Of medium height and build, he bears an astonishing resemblance to a pale George C. Scott but talks about twice as fast. He’s a wisp of a man, with thin, orangeish hair and his most distinctive feature is his piercing eyes. His right arm is permanently bent: After a bad car wreck in 1948 the elbow joint was knocked off, and he told the doctor to set the arm at an angle so he could still play guitar.

As the interview began, he seated himself at the kitchen bar, which was covered with stacks of papers and schematic drawings. He offered to make coffee but once he began talking he forgot all about it and hours later was still holding empty coffee cups before him. If ever there were a single-minded man, Les Paul is he. Interestingly, the only person he compared himself to was inventor Thomas Alva Edison. “He used to,” marveled Paul, “when he had something big going, he would move a cot right into the plant and stay there till the project was done.”

Les Paul built his plant around himself.

What’s behind the Les Paul disappearance and recent reappearance onstage?
I retired ten years ago — okay? — and in retiring I went into some of the projects that I’d been wanting to do but had been too busy for. So in those ten years I was busy inventing different items, many of which you know about — guitars and pickups and so on. [He holds patents on a floating bridge pickup and the LP 70 electro-dynamic pickup and was the first person to put two pickups on one guitar, the first to build a guitar with 14 frets, and he “discovered” the echo effect in recordings.] But I also invented different types of transducers and patented them and sold them and the last one I sold went for half a million dollars. Highly successful. Them about a year ago a friend called and said, “Les, can you help me out? I’m in a real bind and I need a guitar player.” I hadn’t played guitar for ten years and so I was embarrassed because I never practice and rarely do I ever pick up a guitar except when I’m performing, which is unusual.

So you went and played …
Let me just explain, give you background to understand what’s going on. Now, I said if you’re in that much of a bind, I’ll come in as long as you don’t mention my name, don’t say who the hell I am. In no time at all, Count Basie was in there and every guitar player and musician. God, they came from all over the place and they enjoyed it. Then I got a fan letter from a high school kid out in Hempstead, Long Island, wanting me to play out there. They enjoyed that very much and kept Yelling out for “How High the Moon” and things I thought high school kids never heard of and could care less about, so this continued on and I started playing jazz concerts and playing more but still working on my projects here.

Did you ever have any electronics training whatsoever?
None. It all came about because in 1929 a guy was winding turns of wire on an oatmeal box and I said, hey, Harry, what are you doing? He said, “I’m building a crystal set.” I said what in the world is a crystal set? So he told me and drew out the schematic and this phenomenon is that it can actually pick up a radio station. I became so intrigued with it that I built one and at the same time they were putting in sewers on front of my house and this fellow on his lunch hour was playing the harmonica and that intrigued me. I asked him where I could get one and he said, “Here, take this one.” So I started playing blues harmonica on it and I became the first guy in Waukesha [Wisconsin] to play a harmonica backwards.

How did you know to do that? Were you just experimenting?
No. I listened to WSM from Nashville and to guys like Sonny Terry. In learning harmonica I figured that I better get a guitar or banjo to go with it. So I got a banjo.

And was that when you made that “shotgun” harmonica holder?
Right, right. Nobody’s ever made one better. You can flip the harmonica over with your chin while you’re playing. And my mother had an electric piano — not electric, a pump piano — which I made electric, I figured I ain’t gonna pump this damned thing all the time. I also went farther ahead than that — I started to do multiples [over-dubbing] on the piano by punching in my own holes on the rolls.

Didn’t you learn music then by watching the keys and marking them?
Yeah, I saw this key go down when that note was played so I finally figured that was C and this was D-flat and so forth. All this just grew and then inside of a year I was playing a lot of radio stations, singing and playing country music and I didn’t even know there was a depression.

What kind of guitar were you playing then?
An L5. This was 1929, my first L5. I started out with the finest guitar. No, I gotta retract that. I started out with a Gene Autry guitar, a five-dollar guitar.

Is that old story true that you took the back off that guitar and stuck a phonograph arm…
No, no, I didn’t take the back off. I just took the phonograph needle and stuck it right in the guitar, so instead of hearing the record, you heard my guitar. Now the reason I did that was because on Friday and Saturday nights they had roadhouses in those days where I would play. And I would play a drive-in hamburger place. Everybody in their cars couldn’t hear me so the first thing I did was build a PA system. They could hear my voice then but not my guitar so I made an electric guitar.

Right. I was making like a hundred dollars a week. Then a cowboy band came to town and they had a guitar player — there just weren’t any guitar players then — I went nine miles out of town and sneaked in the bathroom window of the roadhouse and listened. He played beyond the third fret and I had thought there was nothing up there past the third. He was going up and down the board like a streak of lightning and I said my God almighty! He said, “You play guitar, kid?” I said yeah and he said to play him something so I did and he said, “Hey, kid, you’re all right.” So during the break he showed me some chords and harmonics and showed me what a diminished was and an augmented. Next, the boss of the band heard me and asked me to join the band. I said I’d have to ask my mother — I have half a year yet to go in high school and I’m 13 years old. He said, “Well, tell your mother I can pay you $8.” She said, “Why would you want to do that for $8?” and I said I think I can get $9 but mostly I want to because of this guitar player. I could learn so much from him.

This guy should be immortalized for teaching Les Paul. What was his name?
Joe Wolverton. So I joined the band and the first thing I found out was that they paid $9 a night, not a week. So I was the highest paid guy in the band and who did they let go right away but Wolverton. And I had wanted to be with him, not with the band. But that got me away from home and to Chicago and on the WLS Barn Dance.

And then at the age of 17, you were both the house bandleader and a hillbilly star at WJJD there?
Yeah, but then I stopped being a hillbilly — I was “Rhubarb Red” — because I was being torn between two names. And I wanted to be a jazz artist. Something was pulling me toward progressive music and country music was becoming dull to me. Now, parallel to all this I had made my third recording machine. The first one was back before I joined this band when I built my PA system. I stared at my mother’s radio and I figured if that speaker is putting out that sound, then it would just seem logical that if you took a pickup and put it where the speaker is, you’d feel it with the needle and I tried it and it worked. It wasn’t long before I would take an aluminum disc and gouge out a record and I heard myself and I still have the record and this was a great, great step.

Were you also listening to other guitarists on records?
Oh, yeah. I would get records by Nick Lucas and Carson Robison, Gene Autry and the Three Keys. Eddie Lang intrigued me, he ended up with Bing Crosby and when I heard Bing’s radio program for Primo Cigars and I heard this guitar player behind him and of course I had to figure out what he was doing. Now they didn’t have picks in my time so I took a piano key, carved it down and shaped it into a pick. And now, I’m saying to myself, I gotta make an electric guitar — gotta go to electric because in a jazz group you couldn’t really hear an acoustic and I’m worried about the guy in that barbecue stand or whatever.

Was this before you built the Log?
The Log came in ’41. So the first thing I did was to build a pickup. In building this pickup, it was mighty crude but it evolved from an earphone off my crystal set headphones and I held it over a string and it reproduced the sound and I said, well, if it does it with one, it’ll do it with six. So, if I can duplicate this under each string I will have it. And then I finally made one that went under all six strings and that became the pickup. In 1934 I was broadcasting on NBC on the electric guitar and it was my own contraption and everybody could hear me and in 1937 I was well on my way to New York.

How did you make the transition from country to jazz?
I’ll make this story short. I had two guys who had enough nerve, with no money — I had money, they didn’t — to go to New York and I said a little lie. I told them I knew Paul Whiteman very well and had a lot of pull in New York. I didn’t really know anybody in New York but I had to get them to go with me, the whole Les Paul Trio. So we rehearsed for two years — it was Jimmy Atkins, Chet’s brother, singing, and Ernie Newton on bass. After two years, we only knew two numbers good, but we had those two down pat — “After You’ve Gone” and “Out of Nowhere.” So we came to New York and ended up at the Chesterfield Hotel. The other two guys were broke and they said, “So are you gonna call your friend Whiteman?” Whiteman hung up on me of course and the two other guys said, “What did he say?” I said he said he wanted to see me right away. We went over there and the secretary slammed the door on me. They’re looking at me in amazement and in the meantime there’s Fred Waring standing there waiting for the elevator.

So we just started to play and Jimmy was singing. Waring listened and said, “Come on with me.” This was in the Ed Sullivan Theater at 53rd and Broadway and Paul Whiteman is on the 13th floor or something and Fred Waring is on the 11th. So he takes us into rehearsal and stopped everybody — 62 Pennsylvanians or whatever — and said, “If you like this trio as much as I do, I’m gonna hire ’em.” And we did the two numbers and of course the amplifier blew a fuse right in the middle and we had to finish it acoustically. But he said, “You’re hired.” And we’re now in New York with Fred Waring and we stayed with him for five years.

Once you got to New York, did you find other guitar players to jam with, to learn from?
There were probably three or four other guitar players and it was very important that I find them because if there was one that had something that I didn’t have I made it a point to find out what it was. Also, I virtually lived up in Harlem. At 11:15 when that program signed off on NBC I was in that car in a flash and I was right uptown and jamming with all the greats in the music business that you can name. There was no one that I wasn’t playing with in the after-hours joints: Art Tatum playing the piano, Herman Chittison and Ben Webster, Louis Armstrong and Stuff Smith. At that time there were only two guitar players around in New York that really had their heads together and one was a fellow called Leonard Ware who played four-string guitar that was very good and then there was myself.

The rest of them had their heads somewhere else, they weren’t into jazz really. Now, there was a guy named Floyd Smith who played good blues with Andy Kirk’s orchestra. And it was then — sometime in the late Thirties — that in walked a kid named Charlie Christian and we became very good friends and so he asked me, “What have you got there?” And then he got a guitar like mine and a pickup like mine but he played his own thing, he had his style of playing. And he went with Benny Goodman. I had more flash, more technique than Charlie had but less drive and so we used to love to be together because we could pick each other’s brains because we were on different wavelengths.

Charlie and I would really battle each other — and we’d battle for blood. We’d go up there onstage and chop each other to pieces and then go out to eat together. When I first heard Charlie what amazed me so much was he could play so few notes and really get it across, where I was playing a million notes. His few notes meant more than all mine. He would say, “I’ve got trouble playing fast.” And I would say, well, I’ve got a problem, I need to play slow. And, of course, Charlie had a great influence in straightening my head out fast. In playing less notes and meaning more. So this skinny kid came walking in and scared the hell out of everybody and I really dug him. I dug him a lot.

How did you then end up in Los Angeles with your own studio?
In ’41 I went to Fred Waring and I said my feet are bothering me and I want to leave and go join Bing Crosby. Fred said, “Well, where did you meet him?” I said I never met him just like I never met you but I am going to play with Bing Crosby, that’s where I’m heading. And I got as far as Chicago where they made me musical director of two stations and I stayed a year but only because the money was good and I couldn’t get it out of my mind that’s where I wanted to go, to L.A., and be in movies and to be with Bing Crosby and others. And sure enough, in 1942 I got out there. But I no more than landed there when they drafted me in the Army and who did I end up with but Meredith Wilson. So there I was with Meredith Wilson in the Armed Forces Radio Service, which is Probably the biggest break in my whole career because my job was to do nothing but play for Rudy Vallee, Bing Crosby, and Amos and Andy, Fibber McGee and Molly, Johnny Mercer, Kate Smith. Then when I left the Army in ’43 I went with Bing Crosby and I went with NBC as a staff musician.

My hooking up with Crosby is a long, long story. But I had to find out just where he was — how he lived and ate and slept and everything else, just to run into him. And he hired me and my trio and he got me my contract with Decca Records. The first thing we did with Bing was a hit — “It’s Been a Long, Long Time.” He used to come over to my back yard, to my studio there and he’d listen to the sound and he leaned against the wall one night and said, “This is the greatest sound. I’ve been all over the world and never heard sound this great in my life.” Bing liked good sound. If he hadn’t encouraged me, I’d never have built the studio.

In those days you were allowed five programs and I had my five programs on the staff at NBC and I had others with Frank de Vol, Fibber McGee — so all many it’s hard to remember them all. Then it was about ’44 or ’45 that the Andrews Sisters approached me and said they would like to have me travel with them. I started to travel with them, which I thought was better than with Bing. I learned an awful lot from them and from Lou Levy, the man who taught the Andrews Sisters. He paid me very well, $2500 a week, and that was a pretty good salary to be making in those days and again I wasn’t happy. And Crosby had said to me, “Why don’t you build your own studio?” And so it was time that I leave the Andrews Sisters and build a recording studio for blood, so to speak, this one is mine, for me.

And that’s when you took a flywheel out of a Cadillac and made it into a turntable?
That’s when I took the flywheel and used it dynamically balanced and the war was on, so I was called Dr. Paul and I sent to S.S. White for some dental belt and out of a jukebox I got the motor to run the recording machine. So I built the studio in my garage and it started to become famous overnight and who is recording in my studio but W.C. Fields and the famous record is “My First Drink of Water” and “Talk on Temperance” and if you’ll listen you’ll find it’s Les Paul playing the guitar and I’m engineering the date and playing the piano.

Was this the beginning of the Les Paul “Sound”?
The studio was a legend because of its sound. Now this was the beginning of what we call close mike technique — this had never been used, it had been pounded into their heads that you should be three feet away from a microphone, no closer than two feet, if you get within a foot, then the bass is building up, et cetera, et cetera. There was no such thing as an echo chamber or tape delay echo — what I had made was a record delay echo, and that was very simple. You put a playback pickup right behind the record head, so you drop the cutting head, put the pickup right behind it and you now have your echo and you have a feedback loop and you take the source and return it to where it came from, and in no time at all the whole industry was in my back yard. From all of this emerged the idea of multiple recordings, which I had been toying with since my mother’s player piano. I had made multiples as far back as 1935 where I wanted a background so that I could practice, so I would put down a couple of guitar parts on my two recording machines that I had in a closet in Chicago. This was disc recording. I’ll get to multiple tape later.

What’s the history of the Log?
Before I went to the West Coast came about the idea of the Log. I went down to Epiphone on 14th Street in New York and said what would it cost me to rent your factory on Sunday? And they said, “It don’t cost you anything.” “And all they want is to look over my shoulder. And they asked me why I’d want to make a four-by-four guitar. I had my reasons. At the time, way back, there was only one pickup on a guitar and I found that two pickups were better than one and there were effects you could get. So I asked Gibson to build me a guitar and allow the bracing to be in the proper place so that I could mount a second pickup and they raised their eyebrows. This was 1941. The interesting part about this was when I first approached Gibson with the idea of a solid-body guitar, they as much as said, “Get him out of here.” There’s a story that Mister Berlin [M.H. Berlin, president of the parent corporation which included Gibson] told me. When they signed me up, I was the “kid with the broom handle.” And they didn’t want the name Gibson on that guitar: “The name is too valuable and too high class — we make too fine a product to have it on a broom handle.” But he was intrigued with the idea and they brought this up with me, “What are we gonna call this guitar?” and I said that’s very simple — call it the Les Paul Guitar. We hemmed and hawed around for several years and finally signed the contract.

When I was working in Chicago, Gibson approached me and gave me their new guitars and let me field test them, tell them what was right or wrong with them. They kept feeding me with guitars. I’ve been with Gibson now through five of their presidents. I don’t get paid for it, but they will call me up and say, “Well, we’ve got a problem. Can you help us?” And I’ll go up there and help them out.

How did the idea for a solid body come to you? Was it just a desire for more sustain in your guitars?
It came about gradually. It came about as far back as putting the phonograph needle in the guitar — I got feedback and so it wasn’t until a short time later that I started to tuck towels into the F holes and then I cut a hole in the back of the guitar and I was putting blankets in there. Then I asked Gibson to make a guitar with no holes in it so that no sound came out of it at all and Charlie Christian ordered one like it, and whatever I ordered, Charlie ordered. We had a mutual admiration for each other but when it came to being an innovator, he just turned on the volume and he chomped away and he put it in his case same as many guitar players I know today. If a wire comes off, God help ’em — they take it to the nearest music store and it’s fixed and they don’t even ask what was wrong.

To answer your question — gradually we got to a solid body and I realized in the late Thirties that I was now running a piece of steel through that instrument and the guitar just looked like a guitar and actually the bridge was suspended on a piece of steel and it had nothing to do with the guitar. I finally said, in the late Thirties, this is where it’s at and to prove it I want to make the Log, and when I made the Log that was positive proof. I had maybe 200 guitars in my house in the Forties, I was making guitar after guitar. Leo Fender and his people would come back there and see what I was doing and the Log was long before Leo Fender was doing it. I met Leo before he made his first guitar. He gave me a Telecaster and I used his amplifiers for quite a long time. I admire the man because he does a good job. But we’re not rivals, because his instrument is nothing like mine and mine is nothing like his. His is a different type of pickup and different neck and different construction.

What changes have there been in the basic Les Paul guitar from its introduction in 1952 until now?
It’s identical to the original. We don’t make any changes. It’s the same instrument. Well, I shouldn’t say there are no changes — you may see a change, for instance, in the tuning pegs. The tuning pegs are better now, the old ones used to be open to dust and they weren’t as rigid in construction.

What is it that makes the Les Paul such a sought-after guitar?
Two main reasons. The first is the most important. It sustains and that’s because of the construction. The other is the pickups. I won’t use the ten-cent ceramic magnets in mine because in a year or less those will stabilize and start demagnetizing and your sound deteriorates.

But you didn’t have humbucking pickups at first.
No, the first ones didn’t. The humbucking pickups came about after two years. Humbucking means that two coils are wound identical, okay, and by reversing the polarity of them — in other words, when the two are reversed and then connected in series — this will cancel out the hum. It’s 180 degrees out of phase and it’s a method of knocking out unwanted noises, it reduces the extraneous magnetic field. The guitar is like a mine sweeper, it’s a sensing device, not only to pick up the voltage created by the string but it’s also wide open to extraneous noises. So the first thing I did was to humbuck the coils and the second thing was to shield what we call the hardware, that being any pieces of metal involved in the pickups. They asked me if it would be okay to make this change and that change so I said, well, send it to me and I’ll tell you. So when you say an original Les Paul guitar, there are four or five original Les Paul guitars. But the original Les Paul guitar was with the Les Paul tailpiece on it and had the non-humbucking coils and it was gold and black and it had a maple top and if I were to take my first Les Paul guitar and play it for you and then play a Les Paul that came off the line a month ago, I guarantee you couldn’t tell the difference. There is no difference.

I was thinking more of the Recording guitar, which is certainly different.

Oh, the Recorder is what I had and this story is simple: I said you cannot have this because this is the Les Paul sound and this I will not divulge and I am keeping this to myself. And I will tell you how to build a guitar and a pickup but it will not be the pickup that I use. It wasn’t until 1967 that I called Mr. Berlin and said, now that I have retired from the business I will give you my secret and you can have the low impedance pickup that I have been using for years and years and I will give you some of the things that I asked to keep to myself because this made me stand out from the others for the Les Paul Sound which I was making a buck on. Capitol Records spoke of the “new sound — Les Paul and his new sound.” This was created mostly because of the instrument and it was so far advanced. Now, when I handed it to Gibson … Gibson finds this is a rather shocking thing to say, but the kids of the younger generation, and this is not a putdown, but the younger generation took a long time to find out where it was at. And it’s going to take them a long time to come up to where it’s at now because we constantly stay ahead. If a player is just now getting to know how to handle the one that came out in 1952, we throw something at him that is more sophisticated and harder to understand because it has so many controls on it and so many functions.

So, it doesn’t sell like the old original because technically it has less level — let’s start out here. It’s common knowledge that for every action there’s a reaction and if you want high level you sacrifice frequency response. If you want extended response, if you want true reproduction, you’re going to have less output but which you have plenty of, and by making my pickup in the Recorder, you have less level but a better sound, an extended sound, expanded, wider frequency range. You can run cable from here to New York City and will notice no loss whatsoever in the frequency response. But if you take a high impedance guitar and you run cable from here to that TV set, you’re gonna lose x amount of dB of highs and it’s going to increase until finally you don’t have a guitar, you have a muffled bass. Now, I have a hundred feet of cable when I go out onstage. I leave my amplifier, I say goodbye to it. I can change everything right at the guitar. I have a microphone built in my guitar. This all came out by Gibson and was not accepted by the player. But — going to the amplifier, it’s a cop-out. That’s when I know a player is in trouble, he’s back there turning knobs.

This control system of yours, that’s the Les Paulverizer?
Right. I’m building a system for the stage so that I am free to walk around on that stage and do my multiples at will. This was invented years ago, I’m making it smaller now. This box is no bigger than your your tape recorder and it runs the whole schmeer. I can record, I can play back, I can add an echo, I can take it out, I can add Vibrola, I can start, stop or rewind the machine, I can put tape part three, part five, part 13 — I can do anything I want.

I can speak on the mike to the fellow backstage — the mike doesn’t go to the audience — and tell him to cut the lighting or get the car ready. Now, this was 1100 pounds of equipment when I first built it; now I’m cutting my little black box down to under 100 pounds traveling weight and that includes my clothes and my razor.

Are you going to put that on the market?
Now, again, my head being in one place, I want to finish that. When I go out on the stage and get my chops together, I want to find out what has happened, musicwise, in the ten years that I have been inventing. I know what’s happening with music, I want to know what’s happening with the audience, what they want.

What about the multiple taping, the sound on sound which is now an essential studio technique that’s taken for granted? How did the famous, original eight-track recorder come about?
Mary and I had moved to the East Coast because here’s where all the entertainment was happening. Now working for me, oddly enough, is one of the guys that brought the first tape machine to America confiscated from Hitler. This was Colonel Richard Ranger and he and his privates and sergeants dismantled, piece by piece, the tape machine and brought it to the States, to either Newark or Orange. He put it back together and showed it to me and Bing Crosby and Glen Glenn. A major in the U.S. Army, Jack Mullin, had done more or less the same thing on the West Coast, but it was Colonel Ranger who showed me the advantage of tape over disc, and I immediately turned my head and said ah ha, here’s where it’s at. So, I got very close to Colonel Ranger. I hired him to work with me on our TV shows.

So when I got my first tape recorder, I immediately asked for a fourth head and they asked why and I said I just wanted one. I wasn’t about to tell anybody what it was for — but it was to make sound on sound. And then it entered my mind, if you can do it with one machine, why not stack several of them up, stack eight up and do it that way? I took the idea to Westrex, the lab subsidiary of Western Electric, and they didn’t think it was possible. I grabbed a plane and went to Ampex and they built and rebuilt the machine for me. That original machine is in our studio and it’s as good as the best machine you can buy today. That’s because it was built to last, it wasn’t one of those disposable units.

Do you listen to much of what’s going on now musically?
I keep up with everything. I had my girlfriend come over here one night and we went through records — thousands of records. She goes through all these records and plays them and I say, mark that one, mark down he’s good, funky and clean. So she marks it down. After two or three days, I look down that list and there’s like a blur — Eric Clapton, Eric Clapton, Eric Clapton. Now I know when I hear Eric Clapton, he thinks just like this: Thinks just like you press a button, he blocks everything out into a whole story, whether he knows it or not, and that thing starts here and ends there. I know when he starts how he’s gonna end it. I know where his head is at and this guy is predictable …. I have kids coming in here to produce a date and a kid said to me, “I got an idea in my head — I want to get a da-ta-ta-ta sort of thing” and the kid had never heard of Les Paul and he says he wants to feed this thing back and I’m looking at him like, Jesus Christ almighty, that’s a thing I tripped over 20 years ago and now this guy is trying to tell me about it.

But there are a few great — or very fine — guitar players that I listen to. Like Joe Pass, and Howard Roberts and Lenny Breaux and of course there’s George Benson and Big Jim Sullivan over in England. He’s a hell of a player. And then Alvin Lee comes to see me here, and Charlie Byrd and George Barnes. I went to see Larry Coryell and he told me how he used to listen to me when he started to play. I’m very interested in how clean they play, in what they’re saying. There are others that if they turned the fuzz off and turned the level down, they couldn’t play at all.

Back to the Log again, do you still use that for anything?
I have two of them now, this one here, this two-by-four Log I built for experimentation — you can slide the pickup around to anywhere you want it. You can use it to find out what your strings are doing and how to make a string that’s highly efficient. Say, for example, for experimentation, if Fender comes out with a pickup, I’ll run all the checks on it and see what he’s done inside. Then I know what he’s doing and I know what his level is, what his frequency response is, and then I know what we’re doing and we just improve and know why we’re better. Which is a very frightening thing to realize — that there are so many people in the business that don’t know what they’re doing. It’s just frightening. They just build these guitars and the money is coming in and they don’t know what makes it tick. I’m constantly asked questions, dumb questions, questions that, my God almighty, everybody knows. But they don’t.

Have you ever stopped to think about the influence you’ve had on guitar players, the number of them who listened to you? Or of the enormous influence you’ve had on the course of recording, the echo and the overdubbing?
Well, I don’t know. I’ve been told by a few players — Johnny Smith and Pat Martino and George Benson. I’ve had some influence on them but it’s never really registered as far as I’m concerned, any more than the multiple recording or any of that. It just seems as though I took so much from the great players — Eddie Lang and Django Reinhardt. Django and I became very good friends. I idolized that guy as a kid and then later when I went to Paris Django had quit playing and was fishing with a gypsy camp. To find him, I tore a $20 bill in half and gave half to a cab driver and told him to go find Django and then he’d get the other half. I did that to two drivers because everybody there said they were Django’s cousin or something — out to get your money. Well, Django called the next morning and said, “What are you doing here?” I told him our main reason was to see him, and we had a week off after playing the London Palladium. So he came over that afternoon and cried and cried. He said he felt like a pig going to slaughter, that on a Saturday night a guy comes along in a pickup truck and tells him to get in and that he would be paid $5 for playing and one guy would say, “Look, Django, if you don’t play that melody then you can just pack up and leave. That’s it.” And Django says, “Why is it nobody appreciates what I’m doing? I feel as though I’m great.” I tried to convince him that he was wrong, that he had many people who really appreciated him and that he was great. Then a minute later we were in a cab and he asks if I can read music and I say no. And he cracks up laughing and says, “I can’t either.”

I say if you got a heart and God gave you all the things to work with, then that’s all you need. And Django and I became good friends and he of course went back to playing and after he died, his wife gave me his guitar. I still have it in the basement. He could never really understand. He felt as though he really had something to give to the world but they wouldn’t accept it. And, unfortunately for many a player, they don’t all go down in history as a great and they really should.

Chet Flippo

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