Paul, who was born in Waukesha, Wisconsin, first became interested in music at the age of eight, when he began playing the harmonica. After an attempt at learning to play the banjo, Paul began to play the guitar. By 13, Paul was performing semi-professionally as a country-music guitarist. At the age of 17, Paul played with Rube Tronson's Cowboys. Soon after, he dropped out of high school to join Wolverton's radio band in St. Louis, Missouri on KMOX.
In the 1930s, Paul worked in Chicago in radio, where he performed jazz music. Paul's first two records were released in 1936. One album was credited to "Rhubarb Red", Paul's alter-ego, and the other was in the backing band for blues artist Georgia White.
Paul was unsatisfied by the electric guitars that were sold in the mid 1930s and began experimenting with a few designs of his own.
In 1938, Paul moved to New York and landed a featured spot with Fred Waring's Pennsylvanians radio show. Paul moved to Hollywood in 1943, where he formed a new trio. As a last minute replacement for Oscar Moore, Paul played with Nat King Cole and other artists in the inaugural "Jazz at the Philharmonic" concert in Los Angeles on July 2, 1944. Also that year, Paul's trio appeared on Bing Crosby's radio show. Crosby went on to sponsor Paul's recording experiments. The two also recorded together several times, including a 1945 number one hit, "It's Been a Long, Long Time." In addition to backing Crosby and artists like the Andrews Sisters, Paul's trio also recorded a few albums of their own in the late 1940s.
In 1941, Paul designed and built one of the first solid-body electric guitars (though Leo Fender also independently invented his own solid body electric guitar around the same time, and Adolph Rickenbacker had marketed a solid body guitar in the 30s) Gibson made a number of these guitars for Paul, but insisted that their name be left off of the instrument. In later years, they would change their mind. These days, "Gibson Les Paul" guitars are used all over the world, both by novice guitarists and the world's top rock and roll artists. Les Paul solid-body guitars have been heavily used by artists like Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, Paul McCartney, Phil Keaggy, Duane Allman,Mike Bloomfield and Tom Scholz.
In 1947, Capitol Records released a recording that had begun as an experiment in Paul's garage, entitled "Lover", which featured Paul playing eight different parts on electric guitar. This was the first time that multi-tracking had been used in a recording.
Paul was injured in a near-fatal automobile accident in January 1948 in Oklahoma, which shattered his right arm and elbow. Paul spent a year and a half recovering. Paul instructed the surgeons to set his arm at an angle that would allow him to cradle and pick the guitar.
In the early 1950s, Paul made a number of recordings with wife, Colleen Summers (known on record as Mary Ford). These records were unique for their heavy use of overdubbing, which was technically impossible without Paul's inventions. In 1954 Paul, continued to develop this technology, by commissioning Ampex to build the first eight track tape recorder, at his expense. His invention, later known as "Sel-Sync," in which a recording head could simultaneously record a new track and play back previously recorded ones, would further establish the future of multi-track recording.
In the late 1960s, Paul went into semi-retirement, although he did return to the studio occasionally to record with Chet Atkins and others.
In 1978, Les Paul and wife, Mary Ford, were inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame. In 1988, Paul was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame by Jeff Beck, who said, "I've copied more licks from Les Paul than I'd like to admit."
As of 2004, Les Paul performs weekly in New York City.