One Louder: How Leo Fender and Les Paul Invented Rock & Roll

One Louder: How Leo Fender and Les Paul Invented Rock & Roll

July 03, 2017

When asked to list the rock & roll greats, you tend to think of Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly or Elvis Presley. But it’s difficult to say how far this iconic movement would have gotten without the contribution of two other men, whose names – if not necessarily faces – are just as familiar.

In the 1940s and 1950s, Leo Fender and Les Paul contributed hugely to the rock & roll scene by developing their electric guitars. Today, it’s widely accepted that without the invention of the solid-body electric guitar (pioneered by both men) the iconic rock & roll sound that we know and love would never have been possible. 

In honour of Fender and Paul's many achievements, the SPRESSO team took a look back at their fascinating lives.

The Early Years

Clarence Leonidas ‘Leo’ Fender was born in California in 1909, and Lester Polfuss (who later took the stage name Les Paul) six years later, in Wisconsin. 

As a young boy, Fender took an interest in electronics, and in 1938 started his own radio repair shop. Les Paul, meanwhile, came from a musical background, learning the harmonica and piano before moving onto the guitar. As a teenager, Paul became a country-music singer and guitarist, but soon found that he was dissatisfied with the build of contemporary acoustic-electric guitars. 

Early Guitar Builds

Around the time that Fender had begun building Hawaiian guitars with his friend Doc Kauffman, Les Paul was experimenting with his own builds. In 1940, Paul created one of the first solid-body electric guitars. It was known as ‘The Log’ and went on to inspire the Gibson Les Paul, one of the most famous guitars in the world.

The Advent of Rock & Roll

In the 40s, Les Paul approached legendary guitar manufacturers Gibson with the Log, but they weren’t interested. Things changed in 1949 when Fender built his first solid-body electric guitar; labeled the Esquire (but later renamed the Broadcaster, then the Telecaster), this new guitar was released in 1950. In response, Fender’s rivals at Gibson brought Les Paul on as a consultant, and in 1952 released their own electric model: the Gibson Les Paul.

From that point onwards, the popularity of the single-body electric guitar exploded – and with it came a new style of music, rock & roll. Chuck Berry made the electric guitar the centerpiece of his music and played on a Gibson Les Paul, while Buddy Holly opted for a Fender Stratocaster (which can be seen depicted on his gravestone).

The Legacy of Fender and Paul 

Today, Leo Fender and Les Paul are still celebrated for their contributions to music, and their guitars still considered some of the best in the industry (the list of long-time fans includes Keith Richards, Neil Young and Eric Clapton). Without them, the rock & roll movement may have still existed – but we can’t imagine any other people creating guitars this iconic.

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