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

Wed, Aug 10, 2011 - Page 14

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.”

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.”