Les Paul and Mr. Bonzai, circa 1985
Was the harmonica your first instrument?
And didn’t you build yourself a little brace?
Yes, I can show it to you. It’s the original. I never changed it from the second I built it. It’s made from a coathanger — never patented it and it’s still one of the best harmonica racks around. You see, you can mount two harmonicas and change from one to the other without moving your hand, by turning them over with your chin. With two harmonicas you can play in four keys.
Can you remember those moments of invention, that “Eureka!”?
It was all accidental. You never can tell when it will happen. It just flashes in your mind. It goes all the way back to my first harmonica rack and my mother’s piano rolls. As a kid I would punch new holes in the piano rolls and if I made a clam, I would put tape over the hole and move it over.
Did you every think how similar that was to digital audio?
Not at the time, of course, but the thing that impressed me was that no matter how slow or fast you set the roll to go, the key remained the same. Analog changes pitch with the speed. It was in 1928 or ’29, when I was about 12, that I invented my first recording machine. I built an electrical recording lathe and, to my amazement, I learned years later that the electrical application was patented by Bell Labs…in 1928, I believe. I was playing with the same thing and I thought that everybody was doing it. I was using a crank phonograph. I didn’t have an electrical motor on there. I’m to this day very bad at patenting things.
Bing Crosby got me my first tape machine and immediately a light went on in my head to put a fourth head on it and make it do sound-on-sound. In ’53, I devised this gem over here, which was my first multitrack recorder with tape loop echo and everything else I wanted.
Which of your inventions paid off the most?
The Les Paul guitar — but it took years to get it really going. Mr. Berlin, who was the head of Gibson, and I were having dinner shortly before his death and he asked me, “When you came to me with that broomstick with the pickup in 1941, did you ever believe in your wildest dreams that it was actually hockable?” Of course I did. I was the only one who believed it at the time, but I never got discouraged.