Wed, Aug 10, 2011 - Page 14 News List

History of ‘the wah’

Musician Del Casher changed the face of rock when he introduced the wah-wah pedal, but the story of the device’s birth is far from simple

By Amy Wallace  /  NY Times News Service, New York

Whoever suggested it, Plunkett changed the knob to a pedal, and together he and Casher tuned the gizmo until it sounded so good that they called in Benaron to demonstrate. He loved it — but not for guitar.

“He said, ‘This will be great for electric trumpets,”‘ Casher says, recalling that Benaron, a fan of big band music, thought there was more money to be made in horns. “Nobody saw any future for the guitar being used with this device.”

But Casher was like a dog with a bone. He persuaded Benaron to let him record a demo to be given out in guitar stores to show what the wah-wah pedal could do. “They thought I was a crackpot, but they humored me,” Casher says.

The record hit stores in February 1967. Did it start a wildfire?

“It didn’t even light a match,” he says. “Talk about being ahead of your time.”

The only person who seemed interested in the wah-wah was a film composer, Vic Mizzy, known for writing the Addams Family theme. After hearing Casher at a demo session, he arranged for him to work on several movies for Universal Pictures. But even after Thomas Organ won a patent for the wah-wah pedal — naming Plunkett and another engineer, Lester Kushner, as inventors — the device wasn’t widely used.

In 1968, Vox filed for bankruptcy in England. (Thomas Organ would go out of business later.) But in 1969 came Woodstock, where Hendrix blew away the crowd with his wailing guitar sound. The wah-wah had finally broken through. Hendrix would make the sound particularly notable in one chorus of All Along the Watchtower.

How did Hendrix learn about the pedal? From Frank Zappa, according to Casher, who says he had given him one.

From there, the wah went wild. In 1971, Isaac Hayes and Charles Pitts, a Memphis guitarist known as Skip, would use it on the Shaft theme. Casher remembers that when he first heard it, he was stunned. “They’d come up with this wacka-wacka-wacka sound by making the wah-wah move up and down like a cymbal,” he says. “You think you have it all figured out, and then someone comes up with more.”

“I feel gratified that I was there at the beginning,” Casher says, noting that bands from Pearl Jam to U2 have recorded with the wah. If only it weren’t so complicated to explain the part he played: “I would just like guitar players to think of me once in a while. The only thing I ask is: Remember me.”

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