A New Sound

Earlier this week I was watching a documentary on music legend Les Paul, and he described a pivotal period in his life. He was a very successful guitar player in Chicago, and one morning his mother mentioned that she heard him play a live performance on the radio the previous evening. He said that was impossible because he had played a live show somewhere else that had not been broadcast.

What had happened is in part that others were copying him, and also that he was playing a musical style OF the moment. What he realized was that he needed to be ahead of everyone else, create something unique and powerful that would carve out his own niche. Because without that, he his future would have strict limits. What follows are three ways he reshaped his music within the time frame of three years:

  • Finding “A New Sound”
    So he left Chicago – a thriving city of jazz, country and popular music at the time. He went back home, and he spent all of his time in his garage. He was widely known as one of the great guitar players of the time, and he locked himself in his old garage. He wanted to find what he called “a new sound.” This was 1946.

    When Les reemerged, he had done just that. He had recorded complicated guitar parts, then sped them up in the recording process, added echo, and a few other tricks in the process. It was unlike any music heard before. This sent him off on a successful solo recording career that moved him beyond his previous role of backing up other singers and musicians.

  • Finding a Partner
    Amidst the success of his solo records, he realized that instrumental work would eventually run dry. He decided that to sustain his level of success, he would need to work with a singer. So he sought to find a partner, and found just that in Mary Ford. I’ll save you the details, but throughout the 1950’s, they sold more than 20 million records.
  • Breaking Barriers
    In 1948, a car accident badly injured his right arm, and doctors talked of amputation. They managed to save the arm, but it took a year and a half for him to recover use of his arm.

    But in this moment of time, he did something incredible: he pioneered the use of overdub recording in popular music. This allowed he and Mary to layer guitar riffs and voices on top of each other for a textured sound that was unlike anything that came before it, and it set he and Mary off on a meteoric rise of hit records.

He attributed the accident to the magnitude of the change in his life. He said it would be very hard for anyone to make such a large shift in their life if something didn’t bring them to a full stop first. What came after was a string of music inventions that affected the latter half of the 20th century in profound ways, including multitrack recording. Without Les, we wouldn’t have Sgt. Pepper.

As the media and publishing worlds sit here at the end of the car crash year of 2009, we need to ask ourselves: Is this the full stop that we needed in order to rethink priorities & processes, and find a path to creating something rich and new, something that will reshape the next 50 years of media? What is your ‘new sound’?

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