Les Paul's electric guitars remain iconic examples of the instrument, for both their form and function. After Paul's death in 2009, Slash called him "one of the most stellar human beings I have ever known," and B.B. King said "he was the founding father of modern music."
That legacy is more notable because one of his guitars almost killed him.
The legendary musician and inventor was born 100 years ago today, on June 9, 1915. He was one of the electric guitar's greatest innovators and popularizers (though he can't claim to be its sole inventor). But none of that would have happened if the voltage had been a little bit higher on one hot day in 1941.
The time Les Paul got seriously shocked
In the 1940s, Paul was a fresh New York City transplant who became part of the jazz guitar scene. As told in Robb Lawrence's The Early Years of the Les Paul Legacy, 1915-1963, electric guitars were just beginning to take off in the late 1930s, and Paul was among the leaders.
The first significant electric guitar he built was known as "the Log" — a plain pine block adorned with strings and a pickup. Later on, he sawed an archtop jazz guitar in half and attached it so it would look more like a normal guitar. He tested it out in a small rehearsal room and bought a transmitter to play pirate radio broadcasts of his experiments.
That led to a fateful jam session in 1941. "I stuck my hand in the transmitter when I shouldn't have," he said in The Early Years. Still holding his guitar, he was hit with high voltage.
Bassist Ernie Newton knocked the guitar away in time to save him. Paul was then immersed in a tub of ice immediately, before going to a hospital, where he spent weeks bandaged from head to toe.
Les Paul spent a lifetime tinkering
Cutting-edge invention was typical for Paul, who experimented throughout his life with technology and materials the way most musicians noodle over a riff.
Before taking up the guitar, at 13 he began playing harmonica — so, naturally, he invented a custom harmonica holder from a coat hanger. And when he did build his first electric guitar, he used a railroad tie, some steel strings, and a pickup.
In the early 1950s, Paul continued to innovate — in addition to creating groundbreaking guitars, he earned credit for pioneering multitrack recording, which allows musicians to layer different recorded vocal and instrumental tracks together.
But the electric guitar is still his greatest legacy. Building off his experiments in the 1940s, Paul teamed up with guitar-maker Gibson, notably beginning with the 1952 Gibson Les Paul (today, one will cost you $10,000 to $20,000). It remains one of the favorite guitars of rock gods, but its origin story is a reminder of a musician compelled to tinker — even when it put his life at risk.