Friday, July 25, 2008


Although initially invented in response to a request by trumpet player Clyde McCoy, who'd asked the Vox corporation for an electronic device that could simulate the sound of a muted trumpet for use with a keyboard, the wah-wah pedal was quickly appropriated in the late 1960s by rock guitarists. In doing so, they defined both a musical period and instituted an aesthetic, one that, when realized through guitar virtuosos such as Jimi Hendrix and Eddie Hazel of Funkadelic, has been referred to as "psychedelic soul." According to Art Thompson, in an article published in Guitar Player Magazine titled "Wah: The Pedal That Wouldn't Die" (May 1992; my source for the article can be found here), Vox was the first company to have success with the wah-wah pedal. Thompson writes: "Vox's entry into the wah-wah pedal business came about thanks to Brad Plunkett, a twenty five year old engineer at Thomas Organ. Around '66 Plunkett was working on a circuit to replace the 3-position MRB, or voicing switch, with a less expensive potentiometer.... To test the idea, a guitar was plugged in and, as Plunkett describes 'all of a sudden people came running in to see what was making this sound--they just freaked out on it.'" Thompson continues:

Apparently Vox management saw lots of potential in this new gizmo, and it was subsequently introduced as the Clyde McCoy wah-wah pedal.... These early pedals were manufactured in Italy and have a picture of Clyde on the bottom. They were distributed in the U.S. by the Thomas Organ Company.... Vox also offered a non-signature model around this time that simply said "Wah" on the bottom plate; it was also made in Italy.

About the wah-wah pedal's subsequent development, Thompson writes:

The introduction of the Vox Cry Baby pedal around 1968 came about because the U.S. distributor, Thomas Organ, and the European distributor, JMI, both wanted to sell the wah-wah but neither wanted the other to have the same pedal. Vox solved this by slapping the Cry Baby name on the same model for the American market. The story goes that when Vox needed a new name for the pedal, they asked one of their distributors to describe the wah's sound. The response was "it sounds like a baby crying." Also at this time, Vox and Thomas Organ introduced a new model designated V846 that used a Japanese inductor made by TDK instead of the Italian made inductor. Most purists agree that this change degraded the sound of these pedals, but in the informal tests we conducted, our favorite (because of its almost human vocal quality and vomiting sounds) was an excellent sounding V846....The next major change ocurred when Vox came out with the King Wah, the first unit made completely in the United States.... Many of these devices offered extra sounds like fuzz, sirens, surf, tornado, and God knows what else.... As the late '70s approached, the wah effect was becoming unhip, and the number of manufacturers dropped accordingly.

Unlike the synthesizer, which has continued to undergo continual development well into the digital age, the sound of the wah-wah pedal is what it always has been, and hence has remained stuck in time, indelibly associated with a narrow period of rock history.

Early Recordings Featuring the wah-wah pedal

Cream - “White RoomWheels of Fire (1968)
The Jimi Hendrix Experience - “Voodoo Chile (Slight Return)Electric Ladyland (1968)
The Temptations - “Cloud NineCloud Nine (1968)
Tommy James and the Shondells - “Crimson & CloverCrimson & Clover (1968)
Sly and the Family Stone - “Sex MachineStand! (1969)
Blind Faith - “Presence of the LordBlind Faith (1969)
Chicago - “25 or 6 to 4Chicago II (1970)
Santana - “Samba Pa TiAbraxas (1970)
Funkadelic - “Maggot BrainMaggot Brain (1971)
Isaac Hayes - “Theme From ShaftShaft (Soundtrack) (1971)

In 1972, Isaac Hayes' "Theme from Shaft" won an Academy Award for "Best Original Song," thus making it the first rock song featuring a wah-wah pedal to be honored with a major award.

1 comment:

Fred said...

I got my first wah pedal (a Thomas Organ Cry Baby) as a Bar Mitzvah gift, which was kind of funny because it pre-dated my first electric guitar (I took some of the gift money and bought an Ibanez Les Paul knock-off and an amp). I still have the pedal although it is pretty beat up. Nevertheless, it got my friends and me through some good gigs in high school and college.

What is interesting is that a lot of folks confuse the sound of the wah with an envelope filter (the wah sound alike used most notably on Stevie Wonder's "Higher Ground"). The envelope filter produces more of a fixed wah, and some of the exampes of these include Musitronics' MuTron III (the one that Stevie used and the Cadillac of envelope filters), Electro Harmonix's Dr. Q (I have one of these, but it's in need of repair) and the Dan Armstrong Orange Squeezer (a little box that plugs into the jack on your guitar). The wah pedal requires coordination between your foot and pick hand, while the envelope filter gives you that sound without any added dexterity. By the way, when I did college radio, we used to have an ad from Vox featuring the Electric Prunes demonstrating the wah (used in "I Had Too Much to Dream Last Night"). It claimed you could use the Vox wah to simulate a sitar, which was just patently ridiculous.

I'm really enjoying your blog, as well as your reviews in VW. Keep up the great work!