Electrifying the guitar took the instrument from one used for simple background rhythm to an up-front driving force in country music, blues, R&B and rock. Even the feedback Paul tried so hard to eliminate became a new language for guitarists who wanted to push into the sonic frontiers that Paul in many ways mapped out.
To get a fuller sound on some songs, Paul tinkered with one of the first tape recorders to figure out how he could record one track at the same time he was playing back another track. It was the beginning of multi-track recording and sound-on-sound -- an essential approach to modern music-making.
"I'll never understand why I chased sound all my life," Paul said in a 1997 interview for the Smithsonian Institution. "But I was there chasing it constantly, saying it's got to have a little more of this and a little more of that." He told The Times' music critic Robert Hilburn that his inventions were "conveniences" designed "to help me get the sound I had in my head on record."
Paul's musical odyssey in life took him to St. Louis and Chicago and then on to New York, where the Les Paul Trio played for several years on Fred Waring's radio program and, in off hours, Paul went to Harlem to sit in with greats such as Art Tatum and Charlie Christian.
In the 1940s, Paul's career was ramping up. He performed with Nat "King" Cole and recorded with his idol Bing Crosby on "It's Been a Long, Long Time," which quickly hit No. 1 on the charts.
Paul signed with Capitol Records in 1948 and his crisp, smooth sound and small-combo approach was red hot. He was still a wizard: Paul began melding live and recorded tracks and playing with the tape speed. The instrumental "Lover (When You're Near Me)" in 1947 layered eight guitar parts, an early step toward the later studio alchemy practiced by the likes of Phil Spector and Brian Wilson.
With Mary Ford
Paul built a studio in his Hollywood home, where he recorded the 1946 hit song "Rumors Are Flying" with the Andrews Sisters. By then, Paul had met singer-guitarist Colleen Summers, to whom he later gave the stage name Mary Ford.
After a serious car accident in 1948 and a career-threatening arm injury (Paul persuaded doctors to set his broken limb in a bent position that allowed him to still pick), the couple had mastered the sound that opened the door to their huge popularity.
"How High the Moon," which was made with a dozen overdubs, stayed at the top of the charts for more than two months in 1951. The "new sound," as Paul called it, allowed fresh renderings of songs like "Mockin' Bird Hill," "I'm Sitting on Top of the World" and "Tiger Rag," as well as another big hit, "Vaya Con Dios."
At one point, 13 consecutive Paul-Ford tunes sold more than half a million copies. The couple became so popular that from 1953 to 1960 they hosted a five-minute weekday TV show from their home.
The great success ended abruptly with the arrival of rock 'n' roll. Dave Dexter, a Capitol Records executive, said: "It didn't just taper off, the way it did with Crosby and hundreds of other artists. It just absolutely stopped."
As Mary Alice Shaughnessy wrote in her 1993 book "Les Paul: An American Original," "The electric guitar that Les had done so much to popularize was becoming the instrument of his professional doom. Les and Mary's sweet sound and down-home stage patter were simply too quaint for modern tastes." The couple divorced in the mid-1960s; Ford died in 1977.
Paul continued to record, earning a Grammy in 1976 for "Chester and Lester," recorded with Atkins. But Paul was more famous as a brand name than as a recording star by then.
In 1974, for instance, a youngster named Steve Jones admired a Gibson Les Paul with a sunburst paint job that sat in the window of a Shaftesbury Avenue music shop in London. Jones liked the guitar so much he stole it and began a music career. As the guitarist for the Sex Pistols, he ushered in another new generation of players.
"I had no idea there was a guy named Les Paul when I got that guitar from the poor sod that owned the shop," Jones said Thursday. "It was years before I found that out and then more years until I found out that he was a guitar player and this cool old guy. . . . That guitar of his, it was the only one for me. You know when you pick it up where it's going to go."
In 1984, when Paul was nearing 70, he returned to the stage, appearing in New York clubs. Richards, Tony Bennett and Paul McCartney were among the icons who joined him at his weekly shows.
In 2005, Paul released his first studio album in 27 years with guests such as Steve Miller, Eric Clapton, Peter Frampton and Sting.
Paul's original Log is housed at the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville; a replica sits in the Rock Hall in Cleveland.
Paul is survived by three sons, Lester, Gene and Robert; a daughter, Colleen Wess; five grandchildren and five great-grandchildren; and longtime friend Arlene Palmer. A private service will be held in New York.
In 2005, Paul told NPR that he remembered even his bad times with warmth.
"Every setback might be the very thing that makes you carry on and fight all the harder and become that much better," he said. "And I'll probably play until I fall over and that's the end."
Luther is a former Times staff writer.