Guitar Genius: How Les Paul Engineered the Solid-Body Electric Guitar and Rocked the World

My partner’s 12-year-old nephew plays guitar, so I knew a field trip to Boulder Book Store was in order when I saw the announcement for Guitar Genius: How Les Paul Engineered the Solid-Body Electric Guitar and Rocked the World by Kim Tomsic.

We three journeyed south and learned the fascinating story of Hall of Fame icon Les Paul, who was born in 1915 and not only invented the world’s first solid-body electric guitar – despite ridicule, hardships, and struggles – but engineered devices and recording techniques (such as the microphone and the harmonica neck holder) that were revolutionary in transforming the way we hear music.

Tomsic, a Boulder resident and member of the Society for Children’s Books Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI), emphasized that Paul’s mother believed everything he did was brilliant. That was one key ingredient in the making of a legendary inventor. The others were curiosity, perseverance, and endless faith in what is possible.

His curiosity and unique way of viewing the world set him apart from other children. A few examples:

  • Paul grew up in a second-story bedroom across from the train tracks. He tied string to his big toe and dangled it out the window with a note: “Tug if anything interesting is happening.”

  • While dragging a broomstick across the wooden balusters of the staircase, he realized one was out of tune, so he used a wood planer to tune it. (Can you believe his piano teacher pinned a note to his shirt informing his mother that he wasn’t musical, and she should save her money?)

  • He loved to take things apart, such as radios, and put them back together.

His older brother didn’t understand him. Their mother said, “Leave him alone. He’s just trying to learn.”

Paul spent 10 years trying to convince a guitar company to manufacture his electric guitar, which was nicknamed “The Log” because it was in the shape of a simple plank of wood. He succeeded only after he added curved sides to make it look like an acoustic guitar.

He went on to win six Grammy Awards, and at 89 years old, helped invent the 8-track tape. He died in 2009 and a foundation was established in his name.

This is where Tomsic’s inspiring road to publication begins. She accompanied her son, a guitarist, to Wildwood Guitars in Louisville, CO, one of the world’s premier retailers of exceptional electric and acoustic guitars. During the three-hour shopping visit, she came up with the idea of a narrative nonfiction picture book about Les Paul. (This is her debut picture book. She’s also written two middle-grade novels.)

She looked up the foundation’s program director, Sue Baker, who was Les Paul’s best friend during the final 10 years of his life, and pitched her idea via LinkedIn. The immediate reply was, “Call me in one hour.” They talked for two hours.

Two years of research and 30 drafts later (“If one word was wrong, Sue corrected it”), Guitar Genius was finally published April 9 with vibrant, dynamic artwork by Brett Helquist, the New York Times bestselling illustrator of many books including A Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket.

Kirkus Reviews called this biography “an exuberant introduction to a musician and creative genius.”

ZZ Top lead guitarist Billy Gibbons said, “Les Paul was an innovator and musical force for the ages…his story is a lesson from which kids of all ages can derive inspiration.”

Tomsic likes to point out that Les Paul had grit and a mother who believed in him. Likewise, she credits the support and critiques of her SCBWI colleagues as essential to her success.

Her final message of the evening was one of encouragement:

“If you have an idea, please don’t give up.”

Katherine Valdez is a diversity and inclusion strategist as well as an award-winning author of essays, flash fiction, and microfiction. When she’s not reading, writing or hiking, you can find her at the movies with a tub of buttered popcorn or dreaming up a new idea for DiverseFortCollins.com.

Read her no-spoilers book and movies reviews, and coverage of author events and literary festivals, at KatherineValdez.com and follow her on the Zathom app, http://www.facebook.com/AuthorKatherineValdez, Instagram and Twitter @KatValdezWriter.

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