The spectrum of applying non-traditional gear items to create new sounds on the six-string ranges from simple to sophisticated. On the one end of things are straight-up MacGuyvered solutions, like the use of vintage glass pill bottles for slides. On the other end of the spectrum are famed uses of bows on the electric guitar. Yet few such happy-accidents-turned-gear-innovations would have as far or lasting impact as the wah pedal.
After decades of famous guitarists rocking and riding wah pedals underfoot—Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Steve Vai, and Slash are just a few that come to mind—the wah-wah has become as important for iconic moments in music history as it is for gear culture. Not bad for an effect pedal that was designed for trumpet players…alright, there’s a story to tell here.
Like any fabled history, most retellings of the origins of wah contain a blend of reasonably certain historical detail and a dash of what we think happened along the way. Arguably, the earliest stage in the evolution of wah as a sound effect took place in the 1920s, with trumpet and trombone players producing sweeping cries by varying degrees of physically muting the instrument’s bell. In a way, the sound that would define subsequent electronic wahs was there, but the hardware that made its mark on guitar history would not emerge until a few decades later.
Beyond that proto-history of the wah in horn sections, it’s generally accepted that the birthplace of the pedal was in the Thomas Organ Company shop in November of 1966. Without getting overly techy on the explanation, the story goes that engineer Bradley J. Plunkett dropped a pot with boosted midrange into the housing of a Vox Continental Organ pedal. Truth be told, this sort of Frankenstein-ery seems to have been part of the gear experimentation that was already taking place with one particular item on the shop floor. Since Vox and Thomas Organ were both subsidiaries of Warwick Electronics, the parent company was looking for ways of replacing the standard tubes of the Vox Super Beatle amplifier with a solid-state circuit that would appeal to horn players, big bands, and orchestras.
In February of 1967, Vox released the Clyde McCoy Wah Wah Pedal, named after famed American Jazz trumpeter. Not long after, Vox released a slightly modified version of the effect branded with a name that decades later become synonymous with wah itself: it was simply called the Cry Baby. Yet since neither Vox nor Warwick trademarked the clever name, Cry Baby clones began to appear, not least out of Italy where the original Vox and Cry Baby wahs were made.
From this point forward, the story of wah wrote itself. From Eric Clapton’s use of the wah in Cream’s 1967 recording of “Tales of Brave Ulysses,” to Hendrix wah-laden rendition of the “Star Spangled Banner” at Woodstock in 1969, to more recent innovations such as Tom Morello’s wah-squawks in the verses of “Guerilla Radio,” over the past 50 years it seems safe to say that the wah was one of the best accidental innovations of guitar gear history.
As always, have a great #RiffCitySunday and don’t forget to share a pic of your rig with us on social media, especially if your rocking a wah while the rest of the house is enjoying their Sunday afternoon nap!