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by David Phelps

“Do not wait for leaders; do it alone, person to person.” - Mother Teresa

October, 2009

Last month, as I write this, legendary guitarist and inventor Les Paul died of what were said to be complications from pneumonia. Paul was born Lester William Polfuss in 1915 in Waukesha, Wisconsin. At the age of 13, he was performing Country music semi-professionally as “Rhubarb Red.” He made his first electric guitar from a regular guitar and parts from a Victrola. Although he was a great player, his main contribution was as an inventor who revolutionized studio recording. However, since I’m a guitarist myself—although certainly not of his caliber—I’m going to concentrate on his playing and his contributions to guitar design.

He built an early solid body electric guitar in 1941 but it was initially rejected by the Gibson Guitar Company, allowing rival Leo Fender to market his first solid body electric in 1948. As the name implies, a “solid body” electric is simply a solid piece of wood or other material rather than being hollow like a conventional guitar. Partners George Beauchamp, Paul Barth, and Adolph Rickenbacker had produced a solid body electric in 1931 but abandoned it in favor of a hollow body design. Gibson finally produced the “Les Paul Standard” electric guitar in 1952. Paul continued to refine the design, with the latest revision taking place in 2008, when he was 93. His first solid body electric guitar, “The Log,” is housed at the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville.

He was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1978, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1988, and both the National Inventors Hall of Fame and the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2005. Together, he and his second wife, Mary Ford, had number one records in 1951 and 1953, and earned 36 Gold Records. His 2005 album “American Made/World Played,” released when he was 90, won two Grammy awards. He also played at Carnegie Hall that same year.

In 1948, during a snowstorm in Oklahoma, his car slid off a bridge, breaking his right arm and elbow, and several other bones. Doctors told him that once his arm was set he would never be able to bend his elbow again. He convinced surgeons to set his arm at an angle that would allow him to play guitar. In the early 1980’s, his arthritis had progressed until he was forced to modify his playing style. He said in a 2002 interview, “If you only have [the use of] two fingers, you have to think, how will you play that chord?” But in his 90’s he was still playing. And in a 2005 interview, he looked back on his various challenges: “Every setback might be the very thing that makes you carry on and fight all the harder and become that much better.” Paul played every week at the Iridium Jazz Club in New York until June, 2009, shortly before his death, despite failing health.

Les Paul could have given up when Gibson rejected his idea for a solid body electric guitar. He could have given up in 1948 when doctors told him he would lose the use of his right arm. Or he could have given up in his 70’s when arthritis limited the use of his fingers. But he didn’t give up, any of those times. He went on to accomplish more at the age of 90 than most of us do in a lifetime.

There was another Paul who also knew something about not giving up. He wrote to the Philippians, “Not that I have already obtained [God’s righteousness] or am already perfect, but . . . I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” (Phil. 3:12a, 14 ESV). He and Barnabas went through Lystra, Iconium, and Antioch, “strengthening the souls of the disciples, encouraging them to continue in the faith,” (Acts 14:22a ESV). He and his companions witnessed every day for two years in the hall of Tyrannus in Ephesus (Acts 19:1-10). He told his young friend Timothy, “But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed,” (2 Tim. 3:14a ESV). He was slandered, imprisoned, beaten, stoned, left for dead, and yet he didn’t give up (Acts 14:19-20; 2 Cor. 6:3-10). He kept on toward the goal of salvation. And through it all he kept encouraging others to do the same. Can we do any less?


“And you, who once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him, if indeed you continue in the faith, stable and steadfast, not shifting from the hope of the gospel that you heard, which has been proclaimed in all creation under heaven, and of which I, Paul, became a minister.” (Col. 1:21-23 ESV.)

Copyright © 2009 by David Phelps