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- Posted on Mar 30th 2011 4:00PM by Karen Bliss
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Les Paul, who also sold millions of albums as a musician with his wife Mary Ford in the '50s, literally changed the face of rock 'n' roll with his invention of the solid-body electric guitar. When he passed away on August 12, 2009, tributes poured in publicly from Slash, the Edge, Keith Richards, Richie Sambora, Brian Wilson, Pat Metheny, Billy Gibbons and more. But Beck -- a guitar legend himself -- went a step further on June 9 by putting on a show in Paul's honour at New York's Iridium Jazz Club, where the legend had held down a Monday night residency for over a decade.
Spinner spoke to Beck about the special tribute project and the legacy of Les Paul.
Did you go to the Iridium to see Les Paul whenever you were in New York?
I never went to the Iridium. I saw him when his weekly gig was uptown near Columbus Circle. There was a hotel with a basement in it, and I did go to one of his birthday parties there. I got dragged up on stage [laughs], but then I started playing and he got up and walked off. It was the funniest thing ever. He said, 'I've got some friends that just arrived. Carry on!'"
This is probably a silly question, but at the tribute show -- no matter what your beliefs -- could you feel his presence in that room?
Yeah. The whole place I think felt it. It was an event that you had to have at that venue. Anywhere else -- if it had been at the Beacon Theatre, which we are going to play -- [wouldn't have been the same]. The actual DVD was filmed at exactly the same spot [where he played every Monday], which was a little kind of vela-type club. There was definitely misty eyes all around the place, I think, when we finished.
When was the first time you heard Les Paul play?
I hate to admit it, it was whenever 'How High the Moon' was out. They used to have that as the opening signature tune on a weekly program around 1950 or '51, I think it was. And I just never forgot the sound. To a kid of six or seven, it was intriguing because the only music I ever heard was my mom playing the piano or the radio which was on all day, an entertainment program with a dance band.
Had you picked up guitar by that age?
No. I'd messed around with my uncle's cellos because he couldn't hide them from me [laughs], and the violin. I just couldn't get along with the bow; I started picking or plucking at the strings, much to his annoyance. To cut a long story short, I made a really bad copy of a guitar I saw on a photograph, and it weighed about a tonne. I didn't quite get the wood right [laughs].
When did you have an actual Gibson Les Paul?
The Holy Grail was the Fender Strat. When I went up to look at it, it was like the religious experience hanging in the window there, watching it, and alongside it was a Sunburst Les Paul, and it played so well. I went home from those trips not knowing which one to have. The Fender was lighter and it looked more rock 'n' roll; the Les Paul looked a little bit more reserved and with a double cutaway.
Do you think Les Paul gets the recognition he deserves -- not just for what he did for the guitar and multi-tracking, but for his music?
Well, not long ago, they buttonholed these fans outside a gig [and] said, 'Do you know who Les Paul is?' And they said, 'Oh, I know what a Les Paul is. It's a guitar.' They never knew there was a guy called Les Paul [laughs]. Hopefully, this DVD will help straighten it out a little bit.
Did he have the air of a genius about him? What type of man was he?
Very amusing. Very highly active. He'd make you laugh with one-liners before you even got to know or got to talking about guitars. And then you saw the endless wisdom and [heard] these fantastic stories when he used to broadcast his own new releases to a car radio, and then run outside and listen to himself playing [laughs]. He knew the frequency to broadcast his own car radio, and then make any tweaks or final adjustments before committing the thing to a master. Absolute genius.
Just in the way that guitarists of all ages come up to you and ask you for technique advice or about guitars, did you do the same with him?
No, no. I picked up the guitar in front of him. I dared to play some of his solos and all he could do was go, 'Well, I'll be darned' because it was pretty close. One thing I do is listen very, very close. And that's all you have to do, I think, if you've got some kind of gift of being able to hear how things are done.
I must have struck the right note with him because when I played the solos from 'How High the Moon,' I got it almost note-perfect. I impressed him. I expected him to turn around and say, 'Why are you copying me?' But I think he was slightly moved that someone would've taken the trouble to go that far.
Are there any guitarists from this era that you think in a decade will be on a Top 100 Guitarists of All Time list?
I can't really say there is. If I pick one out, the others are gonna go, 'Why didn't you choose me.' But John Mayer, he seems to be the one to fly the blues flag; he's the new Eric Clapton, I would imagine.
You talk in the DVD interview about '80s music being all fashion and no substance, but praise acts like rockabilly band the Stray Cats for keeping real music alive. How do you feel about music today, the artists on the charts, the Justin Biebers and the Katy Perrys?
I think it reached saturation point quite a few years ago, but it won't go away. We went to two major awards, the Grammys and the Brits, and you gonna tell me that music's on the way out? It is not. Although bad [Justin] Bieber music is not my favourite [laughs]. Or this kind of vocal soul screaming is something I could do without. We've had that. We've had Aretha [Franklin] and we've had Tina Turner and Mavis Staples; they know how to do it. But you're constantly bombarded with sensationalism and, dare I say, just lewd movements. I'm not interested in that. It's kind of weird when you see 10-year-olds copying the waggling bum.
You're considered one of the top guitarists in the world; do you still play every day and push yourself?
Of course. I feel really bad when two days go by -- like they just have [laughs] -- and I haven't been able to touch the thing. Frustrated. I picked it up this morning and there was a busted string on it. I feel it really puts me in a bad mood when I can't play for at least five minutes.
When will you be recording a new album?
There's some rumblings in the jungle about Rod Stewart. We've had a couple of meetings and he's keen. That was the thing I was looking for was keenness on the other side, and he's got me fired up for something to do rather than worry about my next album. ['Rock 'n' Roll Party'] is probably going to take us up to the middle of the year [touring], and so I haven't got to worry too much immediately about following up the 'Emotion and Commotion' album.
Will it be Rod Stewart and Ronnie Wood?
No. I'm going to put a band together. Well, he's a Rolling Stone, can't use him in my band [laughs]. No, it would be fun to do that, but it's not the Jeff Beck Group With Rod; it's me, probably with my choice of players. We have to see in the lottery who ends up winning when we make the album.