Les Paul, ca. January 1947 (Photograph by William P. Gottlieb)

Chops: Intermediate
Theory: Intermediate
Lesson Overview:
• Develop an understand of basic harmony guitar parts.
• Learn how Les used blistering legato runs.
• Understand how to outline changes with arpeggios.

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It’s impossible to imagine modern music without Les Paul’s monumental contributions. It’s not hyperbole to say that he’s the father of multitrack recording. His pioneering work on the electric guitar itself is legendary. After all, is there a more famous signature model guitar than the Les Paul itself? In addition, we have his considerable influence as a virtuosic electric guitar hero in the 1950s, when he was heard all over the pop charts in his duets with Mary Ford. In this lesson, we’ll look at the elements of his style that made him a perennial favorite for countless guitarists that would become guitar heroes themselves.

Let’s begin with a famous, intro figure like Paul used on his hit “How High the Moon.” This part is comprised of voicings that are fairly straightforward—though here they’re being played up in the stratosphere. The blues-inflected double-stops are also hallmarks of Les Paul’s style and crop up in many of his solos, so you’ll want to have those under your belt as well. The key of G used in Ex. 1 is the more common choice for Les Paul (and others) in his post-Les Pal and Mary Ford years, but the original was two frets higher, in the key of A.

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Les Paul loved sequences. He could take a simple motivic idea and effortlessly move it through a scale. In Ex. 2, a three-note pattern is shifted down the G major scale (G–A–B–C–D–E–F#). This is the kind of thing he might have picked up from early jazz guitarists, such as his heroes Eddie Lang and Django Reinhardt.

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You need to know your arpeggios to get a handle on Les Paul’s style. In this jazzy lick (Ex. 3), the notes of a G major chord are approached by half-step. It doesn’t take long to notice that Paul had a strong command of two- and three-octave arpeggios all over the guitar.

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Les Paul used sweeping gestures like Ex. 4 quite often, and when he did, he was particularly fond of minor and minor 7 shapes. Notice that there’s an Em arpeggio (E–G–B) in the middle of this lick. However, it sounds like a G6 idea because he superimposes the Em triad over the G major triad (G–B–D), yielding the G6 sound (G–B–D–E).

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Les Paul is a hard player to classify because, while he was playing popular music of his day, his licks run the gamut from Django-style jazz to hillbilly country to barroom blues, as shown in this unison sliding lick (Ex. 5) that everyone just has to know.

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Ex. 6 is classic Les Paul: virtuosic and flashy. You need a host of repetitive hammer-on/pull-off figures like this in your arsenal. These licks were heard in every ’50s household—it’s no wonder this kind of lead work appears in the very best classic rock playing of Jimmy Page and Jeff Beck. Play it as fast as you can!

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Paul was expert at blending the flamboyant with the clever. This bluesy progression in Bb wouldn’t strike most of us as being an ideal vehicle for using open strings—at all. Key of A? Well, sure. G? Bring it on! But Les Paul devises an ingenious usage of the open strings that allows for virtuosic playing that still make the changes (Ex. 7).

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Here’s a short solo (Ex. 8) that demonstrates Paul’s tender ballad playing. He excelled at delicate tremolo bar work for both pitch change and subtle vibrato. We have another example of his wide-ranging arpeggio playing in measure 3. And you can’t fully grasp his style without double-stop fourths (the F# and B sliding to A and D). He used these often—in both lead work and accompaniments.

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Overdubs, overdubs, and more overdubs. We can’t discuss Les Paul without confronting his unique multi-tracking work. The complexity of his arrangements, from “Lover” to “Mandolino,” particularly in the light of brand-new technology he pioneered, were as remarkable as they were groundbreaking. In 2021, anyone with a laptop and even the most modest audio recording programs can attempt Les Paul’s overdubbing style, but imagine trying to do it by syncing up bunch of acetate disk recording machines or a host of reel-to-reel tape recorders!

In this example (Ex. 9), there’s a simple A–E–E–A chord progression with a basic melody. This tune is harmonized by a second guitar playing a harmony note along with melody itself in double-stops. OK, that’s straightforward enough, but now it gets a little trickier: How did Les Paul get all those super-high virtuoso parts?

If you take your basic track and play it back at half speed, and then record new guitar parts over it, you’ll enter Les Paul’s dreamland. Double the speed (and thus pitch) of your new overdubs and put them on top of the regular speedbasic tracks and … magic! The newly added guitar parts sound blazing fast and an octave higher.

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Even with this cursory look at Les’ licks you can hear how these have developed into clichés over the last 50 or so years. Although we lost Les in 2009, his fiery playing and personality were on display until the very end. After working through this lesson, I’d recommend digging more into his albums, especially Chester and Lester and Guitar Monsters—both with the great Chet Atkins.