On a Quest

By Sue Baker

From his earliest days, the concept of sound consumed musician and inventor Les Paul. How did sound work? Why did the record player produce sounds different from the player piano? Why does the sound of the train change as it moved down the tracks? Why did the body of his acoustic guitar vibrate when he plucked the strings? How could he make just the strings vibrate?

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Although best known for his solid body electric guitar and industry-changing recording inventions, for Les the quest always came back to sound, even in his later years. “I’ve spent my life looking for the perfect sound, trying to build the perfect guitar to play the perfect note,” he wrote in his 2005 autobiography, “Les Paul in His Own Words.”

In the 1960s, Les’s eardrums were ruptured due to playful roughhousing. The resulting infection and, later, mastoidectomy surgery, left him with a hearing loss. He wasn’t happy about the hearing aids’ sound quality for music.

I met Les when I was the executive director at a museum in his hometown of Waukesha, Wisconsin. We were creating an exhibit about his career. Over the course of what would be the last decade of his life, our friendship grew, and when he passed away at age 94 in 2009 from complications from pneumonia, his friend Michael Braunstein asked me to work at the Les Paul Foundation.

During one of my visits to Les’s home in 2001, I asked him about an unusual piece of equipment in a corner. “Oh, it’s just an experiment I was doing,” he said. “I was trying to replicate how the human ears work.” He was a tinkerer by nature and necessity, always wanting to invent something to fill a void or to improve what was available.

Musician Jon Paris says Les’s audiologist (whom he met at New York City’s Iridium Jazz Club, where Les performed every Monday night) told him that Les “drove him nuts—in a good way—constantly demanding better quality from his hearing aids.”

Another friend, Chris Lentz, says that Les worked with Marty Garcia of Future Sonics to improve his hearing aids. In a note to Chris, Marty wrote, “Throughout our years together, Les validated just about every voice coil transducer Future Sonics developed.”

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In a 2008 interview in Audiology Today, Les talked about how he wanted to improve hearing aids for music. He cited the importance of extending the audio range to capture more of the harmonic structure than what is needed for speech. Les also wanted hearing aids that could be worn in the shower and would work optimally when using the telephone.

Les Paul’s 103rd birthday would have been this June 9. He would have been gratified to see how far hearing aid technology has come.

Sue Baker is the program director for the Les Paul Foundation. For more, see lespaulfoundation.org.

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