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Les Paul exhibit opens in Waukesha

It's an exhibit more than two decades in the making, and over the weekend, The Waukesha County Museum welcomed patrons into the "Les Paul Experience."

Credited with perfecting the solid body electric guitar, Paul's musical contribution to music is preserved in a series of personal items and artifacts on loan from the Les Paul Foundation.  

Museum president Kirsten Lee Villegas said the exhibit is truly one of a kind.

"It's the largest exhibit in the country dedicated to telling his life story, and of course, it is being told right here in his hometown of Waukesha," she said.

Visitors can stroll past vintage guitars, Paul's original recording equipment, even a harmonica holder he fashioned out of a coat hanger.  The walls of the exhibit are embossed with personal stories and quotes from Paul, allowing people to experience his legacy in his own words.

As you enter the exhibit, you'll immediately see an original picture of Paul as a boy, gazing out the window of his Waukesha home, holding his childhood pet cat.  It's a reminder of his ordinary, hometown roots, Lee Villegas said.

A turn to the left takes you into a recreated living room set, complete with vintage furniture and period electronics.  Paul, a lifelong "tinkerer", began experimenting with music in his own living room, and visitors can step into a recreation of his first performance stage.

Continuing through the exhibit you'll come to a wall of replica guitars, a vignette called "A Guitar Is Born."  Life-size, virtual, strum-able guitars hang on the wall, allowing you to see the progression of Paul's work.  It all begins with the most primitive -- a string tied around a railroad tie with a pick-up fashioned out of a telephone receiver.  Moving along the wall, you can hear how the sound evolved into today's modern electric guitar.

The exhibit ends with an imaginative treat for visitors called the "Dream Wall."  It's a chance for people of all ages to reflect on their own aspirations, write them on slips of paper, and hang them on the walls of the museum.  Just like Paul, the exhibit encourages patrons to follow their dreams and imagine what is possible in their own lives.

Planning for the exhibit began in the 1980s when Paul was still alive, Lee Villeagas said.

"The Smithsonian approached him about doing an exhibit.  Many people wanted to tell his story, but it was Les himself that said, 'I want my story told in my hometown of Waukesha,'" she said.

The Les Paul Experience is a permanent addition the museum.  It was supported, in part, by a $28,000 grant from the Wisconsin Department of Tourism.

To plan your trip, visit the exhibit's  official website.

Director of Digital Content | Radio Milwaukee