Del Casher has done a lot of impressive things with his guitar over the last 50 years. He has performed with Gene Autry, Lawrence Welk, and Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention. He’s appeared, strumming, in movies with Elvis Presley and Jerry Lewis. He’s been a featured player on dozens of film and TV soundtracks.
But there is one accomplishment that Casher, now 73, wishes more people knew about: his role in the invention of the wah-wah pedal.
The story of this device, which enables an electric guitar to take on aspects of the human voice — and which helped define the sounds of rock stars like Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton — is complicated. But that very complexity drives home a point: While it is easier — and more romantic — to talk about innovation as the domain of lone inventors who hit pay dirt while tinkering in solitude, creativity is more often than not a collaborative, and messy, affair.
“There’s a lot of players in this whole thing,” and a brilliant engineer named Brad Plunkett was one of them, says Casher, who is based in Los Angeles. “But I’m the one who said, ‘This is a guitar thing!”‘
As a studio player in the 1960s, Casher was always looking for effects and techniques that would set his guitar solos apart. He admired the bluesy tones that the trumpet and trombone players emitted, with the help of wah-wah mutes, on Rhapsody in Blue, George Gershwin’s 1924 classic, but couldn’t figure out how to imitate them on the electric guitar.
The Thomas Organ company had acquired the rights to distribute Vox amplifiers — a British brand that the Beatles helped to make famous. To promote their venture, Thomas Organ formed the Vox Ampliphonic Orchestra, and Casher was invited to join. That put him on the premises of the company’s headquarters in Sepulveda, California, when its engineers began working to modify the amplifiers into solid state, translating all the tube circuits into transistors. As they did so, they ran across a switch known as a midrange boost, or MRB for short.
“They said, ‘What the heck is this?’” Casher recalls of the MRB, which used different frequencies to make certain sounds seem louder. The feature — a switch that musicians clicked — had been invented by Dick Denney, a British engineer and guitarist. “If you really want to say who was the grandfather of the wah-wah,” Casher says, “it was Dick Denney.”
When Joe Benaron, the chairman of Thomas Organ, found out that installing that same switch in the US would cost almost US$3 a unit, he balked. So the chief engineer, Stan Cuttler, assigned a young colleague, Plunkett, to solve the problem. He did so by replacing the switch with a US$0.75 knob much like those used for volume control. Soon afterward, at a Vox Ampliphonic Orchestra rehearsal, Casher first encountered the device.
“I said, ‘What’s this knob?’ And I’m flipping it around and noticing it’s going wah-wah as I went from left to right,” he recalls. “I said: ‘Hold on! This is what I’ve been looking for!’”
But guitars take two hands to play — you can’t be fiddling with knobs during a solo. So Casher says he asked Plunkett whether the knob could be put into a pedal instead. In at least one interview, however, Plunkett has said that this was his own idea. (I could not reach Plunkett for comment.)
“With anything like this, mysteries abound about who did what when,” says Art Thompson, a senior editor at Guitar Player magazine who has looked into the history of what he refers to simply as “the wah.” But he says that while it’s impossible to know exactly who played what role, it would make sense that Casher could have participated: “When a musical instrument device is transitioning from the lab to market, there’s always a player who’s involved.”