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A Man Who Has Nothing In Particular To Recommend Him Discusses All Sorts of Subjects at Random as Though He Knew Everything

Tinkerer, Tailor, Soldier, Sailor, Rich Man, Poor Man, Beggar Man, Thief

Les Paul is cooler than everyone that’s ever played his guitar.

It’s a very specific kind of cool I’m referring to. He was resolutely square, of course. I’ve known many men like him. Back in the day you could spot them easily. They wore short sleeve dress shirts in the winter and clip-on ties. They had boxy shoes and a bit of grit under their fingernails. They had basements full of oscilloscopes instead of screwdrivers. They were tinkerers.

A tinkerer is a visionary of a very particular kind. The world seems entirely full of “visionaries” nowadays; small H hitlers and amateur Gandhis and everything in between. Read the comments section of any major newspaper and feast your eyes on the ready-made, misspelled manifestos people have on hand for the most mundane of topics. But of course, the peasant’s idea of how to be Napoleon is strictly between him and anyone that will listen to him. Napoleon’s busy.

There’s others thick on the ground that people mistake for visionaries. But screaming at Chinese workers through California accomplices, telling them to make it with one less screw showing, or jump off their factory trying, is not visionary. You’re just a wealthy jerk. No, it takes a particular sort of visionary to see what’s possible, right now, using what’s lying around handy. Practical magic syncretists. Think of Hewlett and Packard in their garage. That sort of thing.

Les Paul invented nothing, or a lot of things, depending on how you look at it. The solid body electric guitar, multi-track recording, overdubbing during recording, various reverb and delay effects. He was actually an innovative and interesting performer, along with his wife, Mary, which is unusual for tinkerers. Lots of luthiers can’t play a lick.

He’s called a pioneer, another word for a guy in there mixing it up on the edge of what’s possible when few others saw the potential. I prefer the word “tinkerer.” Colt, Ford, Edison, Marconi; lots of others you could name wouldn’t turn up their nose at the title, no matter how successful they became as a result of their efforts. I wouldn’t, while I was waiting for my sunrise, alone in my shop.

10 Responses

  1. Great post! I'm married to a tinkerer and understand what you mean. He can take an odd collection of stuff and parts and create a Useful Thing. While common folks like me just see the stuff and parts, tinkerers see the possibilities and usually know how to make it come together.

  2. Mom and Dad use to do a musical number in just the same way, when one of them suffered a spell of forgetful.

    But seriously!! Back in the '90's I lived in New York City. Mom and Dad came to visit, so I took them to do (some, carefully selected) things I liked to get up to in the City. So I took them to see a small club jazz show: James Carter at Iridium, as it turned out.

    Now Les Paul had a weekly gig there, every Monday IIRC, almost right up to when he died. When you entered the club, there was a sort of permanent display advertising the weekly gig that included an actual Les Paul Guitar – a black Custom model, I think it was.

    My parents were floored. They had no idea Les Paul was even still alive, much less gigging every week. And bless them, they knew exactly zero about the whole Gibson Les Paul guitar thing, even though I remember when I was a teen and working to make money to buy an electric guitar, repeatedly obsessing out loud whether I should buy a Statocaster and pretty awesome amp, or the more expensive Les Paul and not so awesome amp (Stratocaster won). So the parents were tuning out my teenage audible obsessions. Of course!!

    Anyhow. They were really tickled that Mr. Paul was still active.

    Oh and they really enjoyed the James Carter show; he's pretty much a saxophone monster. Not really their musical cup of tea but they both know talent when seen. And unlike too many current jazz cats he actually smiles at the audience and jokes and acts human and whatnot.

  3. The video and the music evoked some wonderful memories, and the tinkering you did with your title made me laugh out loud.

  4. "Practical magic syncretists"– nice. I also love that Mary has mastered Tuvan throat singing and can sing in perfect harmony.

  5. One of my favorite Les Paul tales has it that he rigged up an intercom between his shop and the kitchen.

    When he'd get hot on the trail of something (like double-tracking,) he'd just have Mary phone in her part from upstairs.

    Now that's cool.

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