This week, guitar great Les Paul died. To tell the truth, I was never a huge fan of the Les Paul guitar (I love Telecasters), though my one electric guitar, called a “The Paul”, is a solid mahogany Les Paul with enough heft to stop a crack-crazed sumo wrestler with one baseball-bat-like swing.

But I do love tipping points… I love the decade-long, Gordian-knot like tipping point of Charlie Patton/Son House and Robert Johnson… the Velvet Underground, the Beatles, Hendrix… those musicians crafted a moment or series of moments that carved a deep path for others to follow.

Les Paul was one of those tipping points. In the throws of the Depression, he was an innovator, not only in playing guitar, but in amplifying and electrifying that guitar. He took an acoustic instrument and gave it a voice loud and powerful. Like Henry Ford, who couldn’t really visualize what he was doing until it was too late, Les Paul didn’t see the monster chops of Jimmy Page, Slash or Hendrix. Didn’t anticipate feedback, the raged sound of over-heated tubes, wah-wah pedals and the like.

Les Paul created the electric guitar and developed a sound that was sweet, smooth and urbane… jazzy, bluesy riffs that we’re like some smooth Kalua cocktail. I remember in college listing to his albums made with his wife Mary Ford… the sweet, jazzy, poppy songs they’d perform together… wonderful music.

Then every once in a while, in the middle of a song, Les would take a guitar break and shred that fretboard, blending blues, country and soon-to-be-rock runs with his jazzy chords… playing the bass strings with a pick, running the neck from low to high… sliding, hammering and pulling off, delivering a 20 second guitar solo that would just leave your jaw hanging open.

He was truly a tipping point, and those scales started tipping a half century ago with the like of Buddy Holly, Carl Perkins and Bill Haley… and imagine that thread of guitar innovation as it moved through Lou Reed, Jimi Hendrix, Leslie White, Eric Clapton and Jorma Koukenen… and into modern guitar masters like Robin Trower, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Eddie Van Halen, The Edge, Stanley Jordon and Robert Fripp.

A true innovator may have left us, but the scales have already tipped and there is no turning back. Better turn it up to eleven!

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