Announced today, the legendary guitarist and brilliant musical innovator Les Paul has passed away at age 94.

Oh, this makes me so sad. I know it shouldn’t because he had a very long and wonderful life – just about as good as a person could ever dream of, I think. But he added so much just by being here, being present, even up to the very end of his life. What an inspiration! This is someone who truly changed the world through his natural curiosity, drive, and talent. Les Paul was no ordinary guy. If Ray Davies is the Last Of The Steam-Powered Trains, Les Paul was the First Rocket To The Moon. If you don’t know, you should – Les Paul changed EVERYTHING about modern music.

If you have the opportunity or can make the opportunity, please visit the “Les Paul’s House Of Sound” exhibit at Milwaukee’s Discovery World museum, running until the end of this year. I went there last month and was absolutely delighted by the first-class exhibits and the wonderful interactivity built into the displays. The museum not only takes you through Les Paul’s life and accomplishments, but lets you really get a feel for what he did and how he did it. There is a solid-body guitar prototype that looked like little more than a railroad tie and some wires (and I think that is exactly what it was, detailed hand-drawn schematics included). There are old acetate presses, computers set up with multi-track recorders and mixers, and even a video studio where you can virtually play along with Les Paul and have it recorded on a DVD. This video is shown there on a large flat-screen monitor, and I stood and watched the whole thing, marveling at not only Les Paul’s musical genius, but thinking how different recorded music would have been without him pushing our knowledge further:

I have a special fondness for Les Paul for a few extra reasons as well, past what he did that is obvious. He is a fellow Wisconsinite, from the town of Waukesha, where I spent a great deal of time in my youth. My parents used to go see him play in little clubs around town before I was born, when he would come back and play for the home crowd. It was a cool thing to think that someone from this little burg in the middle of the country, surrounded by farms and fields and the slower pace of it all, was able to dream and do as big as he did.

I started playing guitar when I was 14, like so many rocked-out kids do. I wanted to make those sounds, do those things, create, be like my heroes, make a big noise. I started out on a crappy Yamaha acoustic guitar. It hurt my fingers and sounded pretty thin, but I didn’t give up. I got some chord songbooks and just kept bashing away until I could strum pretty well through some Beatles and Kinks and basic blues songs. But I wanted an electric guitar so badly. I wanted to do a Pete Townshend windmill. I wanted to hear it roar and slice through the air, feel the heaviness of it, the aggression and the power. There was only one guitar I longed for.

A Gibson Les Paul. A real one.

Oh my god, they were so beautiful. Even if you weren’t a guitarist, you had to see that. And the sound! They were the best, played by Dave Davies and Jimmy Page and everyone I admired. Oh, but were they expensive! The one I wanted so badly, coincidentally from a music store in Waukesha, was a 1977 black Les Paul Custom. Its thin neck, so smooth, was perfect for my small hands, the compact LP body right for my size. Musicians know what I am talking about – when an instrument feels right to you, it makes all the difference. Even a crappy new player like I was (and now a crappy old player) knew that when you can play something you love, you will be a happy camper. My dad, the old Army swing band musician, quietly watched me over those couple of years as I didn’t quit, despite sore fingers and blisters and broken strings and frustration. With my 16th birthday coming up, he made me a deal: put in 1/3 of the cost for the Les Paul and he would cover the rest.

The guitar was $1000. I had no money, no job other than a few babysitting weekends here and there. We were at that point a lower-middle-class family at best; thousand-dollar guitars were totally not in the budget. The money really wasn’t there at all. I looked around my room – what could I sell? Not my records or stereo, that would be counter-productive. My bike? Not even worth 20 bucks. I really only had one thing to sell, and after some serious reflection and thought I had my dad load up my old Premier drum set into the station wagon and we drove into Waukesha. I got $300 for the set from the music store, and my dad signed their finance agreement for the rest. On my 16th birthday, I became the beaming owner of a real Les Paul guitar. There was no happier girl on the planet. I sniffed it and ran my hands all over it and even fell in love with the plush case it came in. What a dream!

The next day, I was so excited I took it to school with me, carrying it everywhere and showing everyone my new baby. Crossing over the smoking porch on the far side of the high school, just about ready to enter the building again, I heard a voice ask me, “Is that a Les Paul in there?”

I turned to face the boy. ‘Yes,” I said. Ooh, I thought, who is THIS GUY? He’s so CUTE! Where has HE been? Oooooooh. I opened the case and he asked if he could pick it up. He was so cute that I said he could. Ooooohhhhh…he could really PLAY too!

Ten years and two months later, we got married. We have three children. They all love music, too.

So, thank you, Les Paul. One never knows how one can influence the lives of others, huh? Maybe I wouldn’t have three kids if it had been a Rickenbacker in that case!

Thank you for everything. And I will never, ever sell that guitar.