Back in 1986, Edward Van Halen and Les Paul had the pleasure of meeting each other at the opening of Guitar Center in Los Angeles. Thankfully, the long talk that they had together that night was recording and transcribed. Enjoy.
Rock Chronicles. 1980s: Les Paul
By Steven Rosen
In 1986, Guitar Center opened the RockWalk, their version of Mann’s Chinese Theater, where musicians would press their handprints into cement. Les Paul was one of the first inductees. I met him there (though we’d run into one another at some other function a little earlier). He was amazing and remembered me and the Jeff Beck book and everything. Edward Van Halen was there that evening for the unveiling of the RockWalk. I had the rare opportunity to introduce the guitarist to the guitar maker. They knew about each other, of course. Seizing this one-in-a-million chance, I escorted the legendary pair to an upstairs office (Guitar Center honcho Dave Weiderman was instrumental in putting this meeting together), pulled out a cassette player, and started asking them questions. I’m also including that conversation here (which did appear originally in Guitar World Magazine). Here is that one (questions in bold are mine):
It was a rare meeting, a unique sharing of ideas and ideals, a baring of emotions. Edward Van Halen and Les Paul were communicating for the first time on the occasion of the opening of the new Guitar Center, a mammoth music store located on Sunset Boulevard in the center of Hollywood. Van Halen and Paul were being honored along with other notables like Stevie Wonder, Jim Marshall and Remo Belli, as part of the RockWalk, a celebration where the participants placed their hands in cement a Ia Graumans Chinese.
Edward was agreeable to the meeting if, he said, Les was amenable (he was), and so I sequestered the two along with Donn Landee, Van Halens engineer, in one of the vacant rooms in the complex. From the moment the pair sat down there was an immediate rapport and a flow of information. In fact, Edward virtually conducted the questioning. Following the talk, he chirped, “I ask better questions than you, don’t I?” No argument there.
Donn Landee, an integral part of the Van Halen sound and a rare face when it comes to interviews, had talked to Edward about the contributions Les had made.
“Slowly but surely I’ve told Ed just a little bit about him,” explained Landee. “But I don’t even know the half of it. It was not just guitars, not just a musician, not just a producer—but a real visionary in all facets. I was pleased that Ed knew and was aware of him. Their respect for one another came across after just 10 seconds. Edward knows something a lot more important now. He knows how he thinks and how he feels.”
Certainly, that feeling was mutual and by the end of the talk the pair acted like old friends. Unfortunately, the conversation could not have lasted longer—Les had other plans—and I only hope those reading these words derive just a part of the breathlessness which came over me when I recorded them.
Have you two ever met before?
Les Paul: Never
Les, do you know about this guy sitting across from you?
Paul: I know all about him.
Do you listen to his music?
Paul: Of course. How can you not? And enjoy it.
Edward Van Halen: Is that good or bad?
Paul: It’s good. We had a mutual friend and he used to bring Eddie’s records over to the house, so I kind of heard Eddie. And then my daughter used to live a short distance from where Eddie used to practice with his band out in Arcadia…
Van Halen: Pasadena.
Paul: Pasadena, yeah. Well, anyway my daughter used to live right near there and I said, ‘‘Who’s the guitar player over there?” And so I heard Eddie before Eddie knew I was listening to him.
Van Halen: Can I ask you a question?
Van Halen: Did you design all the Les Pauls?
Paul: Yeah, all of them.
Van Halen: Wow. Incredible! That’s amazing.
Paul: Thank you.
Van Halen: It’s really funny that the people being honored here this evening … I don’t know one person who’s a drummer that hasn’t used Ludwig drums; I don’t know one person who hasn’t owned or played a Les Paul whether it be a Junior or a SG-type or whatever; I don’t know one person who hasn’t played a Stratocaster or some type of Fender; or one person who hasn’t played through a Marshall amp. To me it’s just a goddamned honor to be associated with this thing.
Is it really?
Van Halen: Yeah. c’mon, that’s what I use. Right, Donn [poses question to Donn Landee his engineer sitting in on the interview).
Landee: All of the above.
Van Halen: I use Les Pauls, Stratocasters, I use Marshall, Al uses Ludwig... this is a hell of a thing for me.
Paul: Well, that’s very nice, thank you. And you use them very well.
Van Halen: Thank you. And Donn Landee has filled me in on your pioneering of overdubbing.
Landee: I just scratched the surface.
Paul: It all started just a couple of blocks from here [the Guitar Center store is located in the heart of Hollywood). A couple of blocks from here is where my home was and it’s now a parking lot for Chevrolet. That’s where my house was until they moved it. And that’s where I invented the eight-track, that’s where I invented the reverb, the delay, the echo.
Landee: …with the disk?
Paul: Using the lathe arid the disk, yeah. And sound-on-sound and the electric guitar and all that. The headless guitar among others. Steinberger.
Van Halen: Steinberger.
Paul: Steinberger. They just copied it. They came down and asked if there would be any friction or any ill feelings if they copied what I had done. I got the guitar out and showed it to ‘em. But I had showed it to Gibson prior to that and Gibson wasn’t interested in building one. So I said [to Steinberger] ‘‘I wish you luck.’’
Van Halen: The three-piece suiters can’t live without head—-I mean heads.
Paul: That’s true.
Could you sense when you were developing all these ideas that something major was taking place?
Paul: Oh, yeah, you know when you’ve got something good. It’s like a hit record…
Van Halen: I like that.
Paul: You know when you’ve got something good.
Van Halen: If it feels good, it is good.
Paul: It is good and in spite of all the opposition, you just go in and you battle because you know you’re right and it’s a great feeling to know you’re right. And that determination.
Van Halen: Or at least be able to prove you’re right.
Paul: That’s right. And it’s so gratifying when it does come true because I know so many people say to me, ‘Les, would you ever believe for a minute that this was going to happen?’ I say “Sure.”
Van Halen: Goddamn right.
Is being here tonight with these people special for you?
Paul: Oh, it’s special tome, yeah. To meet Eddie and a lot of my friends. And a lot of my friends here were a part of my reason for inventing and doing these things. They contributed, sure. They were all in my home and in my friendship. One fellow here tonight, Zeke Manors, came over and tried his accordion out in my garage and when he got done playing it, Mary (Ford] and l went to bed and cut off for the night. I got up and made ‘Nola” the way it should have been made. Because Zeke had come over to play it and he was playing it like a buzzsaw and I slowed that motor down and took it down to Capitol and in two weeks it was Number One.
A couple of weeks ago I got a call from a guy at the Voice Of America who is now their president but was president of Capitol and he said to me, ‘Are you sitting down, Les?’ And I said, “Okay, whadd’ya got?” And he says, “You know who’s Number One in China?” And I say, “I have no idea.” And he says, “You are.” And I said, “What in the hell are they playing in China of mine that’s Number One?” And he says, “ ‘Nola.’ “Now of all the things that can happen in this world, there are surprises around the corner all the time. And about the rime you think it’s over it’s just beginning. You don’t dare lay down or smell flowers—ya just gotta keep moving.
Van Halen: Too much flowers ain’t no good.
Paul: No, it ain’t no good. If you can’t smell em you know it’s no good.
Van Halen: I’ve always kind of had a term: Ya gotta eat shit before you know what a steak tastes like.
Paul: I guess ya gotta.
Van Halen: A strange question? I mean I’m not supposed to be doing the interview but.. . when Leo Fender was doing his thing and you were doing yours, was there ever any kind of competition?
Paul: Not at all, no.
Van Halen: Did you ever collaborate or talk together about things?
Paul: Oh, absolutely. Leo Fender would come right over here two blocks away on Curson Street and so would his engineers. And they saw the Log, they saw the guitars that I had built, they saw me pounding them out on the pavement, they saw me making the Headless Wonder. They saw all this happening.
Van Halen: It’s very funny because what I actually use is a combination of what you built and what Leo Fender built. You had the humbucking pickup which was great.
Paul: But not in ‘52.
Van Halen: Right, but still those soapbar things were still less hum or signal-to-noise ratio than the actual Strat pickups. And then what year was it, ‘56 or ‘57, when you came up with the humbucking? I use that in a Strat-style body and to me it’s a perfect combination. That’s why I was curious if there was any friction between you guys.
Paul: Oh, never any friction. In fact, from 1941 when I designed the guitar that came out as the Les Paul guitar, what happened between 1941 and 1951 was, Gibson kind of tacked the name on me, that “broomstick with the pickups on it.” And from 1941 until 1951, couldn’t convince Gibson to do a damn thing about putting out a Les Paul guitar. And it took Leo Fender to pick up on that idea from the garage in the backyard and perhaps many others. Leo decided to come out with the Fender line and immediately Gibson says, “find the character with the broomstick with the pickups on it” and so they asked me to design a guitar. And I thank Leo for coming out with his because it woke Gibson up. Because Gibson was asleep and Fender was not asleep. And of course that’s the way it goes.
So Fender was actually marketed first?
Paul: Fender was out first but I was way, way, way out front.
Van Halen: It’s kind of like the car business— Toyota woke up GM…
“To me I am a Gibson man but that doesn’t make any difference because I also know exactly what the Fender is all about.“
Paul: Sure. Sometimes you gotta wake somebody up and sometimes I need some help from my friends. And I consider Leo Fender a very dear friend. There was never any friction. And in fact it was only a few years ago that I introduced the president of Gibson to Leo Fender. They had never met in all the years that they had been competitors. And here I’ve been a very good friend of both sides. To me I am a Gibson man but that doesn’t make any difference because I also know exactly what the Fender is all about.
Van Halen: I’m kind of twice removed because I’m a Kramer man now. I guess I’m trying to bring together what you and Leo have done and make it…
Paul:.. for the kids.
Van Halen: Well, for the kids but who knows? Twenty years from now the guitar that I use, old faithful, may be a dassic type of thing. And there are things I’ve always liked about Gibsons and things I’ve always liked about Fender. But neither one kind of did everything that I wanted. It’s a combination of the two.
Paul: Today I make my own.
Van Halen: I do, too.
Paul: It has a Gibson name on it, but actually I get in there, but when my brother-in-law was alive he did all the work for me. I would teach him to do that. And then there are two other guys out there who built guitars and electronics for me.
Then the guitars you built for yourself are really not Gibson instruments?
Paul: No, not at all. In fact, when I made my deal with Gibson they got everything but the electronics. And the electronics weren’t of interest to the people out there anyway—they wanted high impedance, I wanted low impedance; I wanted a different sound and so forth. And what we did was we made the guitars that the guitar player wanted. And the only problem I ever had—well not the only one but the only one that sticks out in my mind— was to convince the fellows up in the ivory tower that this is what the kid wants. So I have to get to the emperor somehow and convince this turkey that he ought to get his act together. And it’s very difficult to tell the president of any outfit or anybody that has any stature that what he should do is go to a music store and for a month wait on the customers. And find out just what the hell it’s all about. They don’t do that; they sit in that ivory tower and tell you what it’s all about.
Van Halen: It’s not just me with Kramer, it’s me with everything.
Paul: Sure, everybody has that problem. There are so many times that I’ll go in battling to win a point and come out with a compromise. I say, “Look, you should make your pickup like this.”
Van Halen: Don’t you get sick of goddamn compromising?
Paul: The world is a compromise and so this is what you have to do.
Van Halen: Excuse me for interrupting but…
Paul: You can do this with your own guitar but I’m talking about out there for everybody else.
Van Halen: Oh, gotcha, gotcha.
Paul: See, they’re tooled and they’re thinking of millions of dollars to move something a quarter of an inch. That would cost a fortune. And another thing comes into the picture that I can think of which is ridiculous but true. And that is why in God’s world would you do it that way and he says, “My wife thinks it looks better that way.” They’re not thinking what it sounds like, they’re thinking what it looks like.
Van Halen: Or this kid down the street who’s actually a drummer picked it up and didn’t like it.
Paul: It could be his son happens to like it or he heard some comment by someone.
Van Halen: And he doesn’t even play guitar; he’s a drummer or something.
Paul: It’s the same problem with a recording company when a guy says, “I hate to disagree with you but here’s the record you should put out. It took me one year to get “How High The Moon” to come out because I had so much opposition against it coming out.
Edward, when you became involved with Kramer and went down to their factories, did you suggest changes you thought would help the masses or were these changes things that worked for just you?
Van Halen: Exactly what he was saying. The majority of the world: amplifiers, drums, building cars, everything, the whole ball of wax, all the bullshit, revolved around sound to noise ratio. Meaning how much money you gonna make as opposed to how much you’re putting out. Right? And I’d be telling Kramer, “Do this, do that—it works for me. I’m part of you and I’m saying I want it this way.” And they’ve had difficulty getting it the way I want because they claim that other people want it a different way.
Paul: Which may be right and may not be right.
Van Halen: Yeah, yeah, but if they want my opinion then I’m giving it to them. And I’m saying, “I don’t want my name on it if it ain’t the way I want it.” And that’s what I wanted to ask you.
Paul: I had a case where they put out a guitar without my blessings and I made ‘em stop it.
Van Halen: That was my next question.
Paul: And they didn’t stop it and it’s still the Number One seller [much laughter]. So you can be wrong. They put out an SG, a Les Paul guitar, and it wasn’t with my blessings at all. They put the pickup in the wrong place, they made the body too thin, you could pull on the neck and change keys, and a lot of things wrong with it. So I said, ‘Clean that one up a little bit, will ya, before you put my name on it?” So they took my name off it and continued to make it and it’s their Number One selling solid-body. Sure, it’s a cheap guitar and it’s not as good sounding as the others and it’s a double-cutaway, it’s a different thing, and it turned out that I shouldn’t have said what I said.
Van Halen: You know what I did once with one of those? It was a Les Paul Junior, a white one, double-cutaway SG body, and I had to do this slide overdub on a song called “Dirty Movies” on our fourth album. And still, even though it had a double-cutaway, I couldn’t get up high enough. So I had to take a saw to it.
Paul: I love it, I love it.
Van Halen: I’m not one to really … I’m not very much into cosmetics.
Paul: You don’t hold any guitar sacred?
Van Halen: Well, soundwise, yes. See that’s what I was going to ask you was when you designed these guitars you designed them for sound or for cosmetics?
Paul: Sound. Design is important to make it hookable but actually I’m concerned.
Van Halen: It’s got to look cool, but it better sound good.
Paul: Exactly. That’s why we put that finish on it and made it with an oval top so you could have that clean, violin look to the guitar. Which is so distinctive with the Les Paul guitar and makes it look like a Stradivarius and you associate it that way.
Van Halen: Another question? I own about five Les Pauls but two of them are nice ones: a ‘59 flametop and a ‘58 which is not really a flametop but it sounds great. And I have a couple of Les Paul Juniors and this and that. Which body design and pickup configuration are you the happiest with?
Paul: For me personally, none of them. And so I don’t use any of those.
Van Halen: So you play a Fender [laughs].
Paul: No [amidst much laughter in the room]. I happen to have Leo’s third Fender and he gave that to me as a gift. It’s not called a Telecaster and it’s before the Broadcaster. He had no name on it at the time. Just the name Fender. It’s one of his gifts to me when I was on Curson Street here in Hollywood in ‘47 and ‘48. As far as I’m concerned what I do is I have Gibson make a Custom for me, the way I want the neck, the way I want the frets, the way I want the pickups slanted and whatever. And exactly how many turns and what magnets to use and on and on and on and on. And then check the guitar and if it isn’t right, we make more changes. Why was it that the ‘59 Les Paul.. .?
Van Halen: Wait a minute. I still wanted to ask something. When you pick up a guitar, which guitar do you pick up?
Paul: The 1975 Deluxe is the one I like the feel of the most. But that just happens to be a bunch of rejects.
Van Halen: Those are the ones I love. Got any extras laying around? I’m serious.
Paul: You really like Deluxes?
Paul: Yeah, sure.
Van Halen: I’m serious. I’m saying, if it’s a reject and he [Les Paul] likes it, I know I’ll like it.
Paul: Well, not necessarily because everybody has their own feel.
Van Halen: I can guarantee you.
Paul: Everybody has a certain thing in their head of what they want to do and how to do it and their technique. Everything about them calls for certain requirements.
Van Halen: I’m gettin’ a feeling from you that you go for the same goddamned fucking thing that I go for. It’s not the appearance of the goddamned thing—I don’t care if it’s a flametop or I don’t care if it’s whatever. The feeling of it and the way it sounds.