Chapter Twenty- Les Paul Experience

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I’d heard about the Les Paul Experience on Radio Milwaukee (my favorite local radio station).  I learned that the Waukesha County Museum housed a new exhibit in honor of the late great guitar innovator, Les Paul, as he’s from Waukesha.  Since my dad, Frank, is the kind of guy who plays and builds guitars, I thought it might be a fun reason for him to come visit.

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After finding free street parking on one of those 100 degree weather days, , we headed in to the museum and bought tickets.

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We headed upstairs to see the exhibit and were greeted by a very friendly-looking Les Paul cardboard cut out and great photo op.

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Here are my notes and impressions from the exhibit.  There’s no photography inside so this’ll have to do.  Les Paul was a modest, funny, charming and super-talented inventor.  I always thought he was just a guitarist, but oh man was I wrong.  He invented techniques for amplifying sound, gadgets and tools for playing, and was revolutionary in experimenting with multiple-track recording.  His song “Lover (When You’re Near Me)” in 1948 had eight overlapped guitar parts.  He also created voice layovers with his partner Mary Ford, which created an entirely different feel and sound to music.  This development was dubbed “The New Sound”.

To back up and give you an idea of what Les Paul was like creatively, at age 10 he biked down to a radio tower and had a technician teach him the secrets of radio waves.  He then went home and built his own Crystal Radio.  He played with the wooden panels in his home to study how sound changes depending on length of the wood.  At age 13, he was playing in a band at a BBQ stand, and after the show, and audience member passed him a note saying his guitar couldn’t be heard.  Thus was born the challenge to amplify sound.

Les Paul gave his mother credit for allowing him the freedom and encouragement to explore life.  Remind of of this when my kids are older and adventurous.  My favorite photo in the exhibit is from the early 1960s, Les is playing banjo at a dinner table with his mother.  He’s in a rocking chair, and a microphone is on a pillow surrounded by a few cans of Blatz beer.

In 1948, Les and Mary Ford (who married in ’49) were in a really bad car accident.  The story is told by some really neat comic book-looking artwork, and tells how Les was hurt very badly.  His right arm was basically shattered, so he built a guitar stand to accommodate his cast, allowing him to continue playing.  Now that’s determination!

The exhibit houses guitars, amplifiers, recording gear, a reel-to-reel tape machine from Bing Crosby (which he altered to create the ability to do multi-track recording), and some really cool acoustic wall panels.  Les hand-cut, stained, laquered and mounted the panels, which covered his studio walls, himself.  He said “If it didn’t exist, I had to invent it” about many things.

Speaking of quotes, my favorite of Les Paul’s are: “I don’t want to ever believe there’s anything radically different between me and the next guy”, and “It’s not finding perfection that I want.  It’s the chance to keep looking for it.”  The first I think describes how humble and determined Les was.  It really gave me a sense of the kind of person he was.  The second is a hopeful and progressive thought that I’d like to remember.

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Next we headed down to the second floor to test out the hands-on Les Paul Experience (totally geared towards kids).  Frank and I tested out and played with all of the tools for making sound.  It was a nice way to end our visit.

But wait!  It didn’t end there!  We very quickly breezed through parts of the museum, relating to Waukesha’s past.

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And not to overshadow Les Paul, the Wizard of Waukesha, but there were a few other inventions mentioned.  The automatic hat-tipper and chewing gum head fan were a few that stood out.

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Since the Waukesha Public Library is about two blocks away, my dad and I headed over there to see the Les Paul Performance Center.  It’s an outdoor stage with permanent seating and I’m sure it gets used for things other than father-daughter photos.

Anyway, check out the museum.  It’s worth the short drive to Waukesha.

See you next week!

A. Storm

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  1. jamie says:

    Amber, these are so awesome! Educational, and entertaining all at once. People are going to find out about this blog soon… keep it up!

    Reply

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