The History Of The Wah Pedal

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Are you a budding guitarist or a music aficionado intrigued by the unique sounds produced by the iconic wah pedal? If so, strap in as we delve deep into the rich history of the wah pedal. This revolutionary device, born out of the innovative work of Bradley J. Plunkett in the 1960s, transformed guitar playing forever. From its accidental discovery to its evolution and impact on different music genres, the wah pedal has cemented its place in rock history. Join us as we unfold the fascinating journey of the wah pedal, its early adopters, memorable performances, and the incredible influence it maintains in the music industry today. Be ready for a whirlwind musical history tour that will definitely please your sonic sensibilities.

The Birth of the Wah Pedal

Concept and Creation

The wah pedal, a device that’s revolutionized how guitarists express themselves, was born out of a need for innovation and cost-cutting. The concept of the wah effect dates back to the 1920s when trumpet and saxophone players used a mute to create a crying tone.

But it wasn’t until the mid-1960s that this effect was adapted for the guitar. The birth of the wah pedal is credited to Bradley J. Plunkett, an engineer at Warwick Electronics Inc./Thomas Organ Company. The company was tasked with distributing Vox amps, and during the design of the Vox Super Beatle amplifier, Plunkett was asked to replace an expensive mid-range boost circuit switch with a more cost-effective transistorized solid-state circuit.

During the testing phase, Plunkett and his colleagues noticed that the mid-resonant boost could be controlled with a volume pedal to create a sweeping effect. This was a happy accident that led to the creation of the first wah pedal.

The Role of Thomas Organ Company

The Thomas Organ Company played a key role in the development and marketing of the wah pedal. The company was responsible for distributing Vox amps, and it was during this time that the wah pedal was conceived. The first wah pedal was marketed as the “Clyde McCoy,” named after a famous trumpeter, and was initially aimed at wind instrument players. However, the company quickly realized the potential of this device for the electric guitar market and released a version for guitarists.

First Impressions

The wah pedal was a unique device that allowed guitarists to manipulate the tone of their instrument in a way that had never been done before. It used a bandpass filter to let low frequencies pass and transform high frequencies, creating a sweeping vocal-like effect.

This effect could be controlled by the guitarist using a foot pedal, adding a new level of expressiveness to their performance. The wah pedal was initially met with curiosity and intrigue. It was a new sound, a new effect that altered the way the guitar could be played.

It quickly became recognized as a tool that could add a special touch to a musician’s performance, especially during solos.

Early Adopters

The wah pedal was quickly adopted by some of the most influential musicians of the time. Artists like Frank Zappa and Jimi Hendrix were among the first to incorporate the wah pedal into their performances, popularizing its use and making it synonymous with hard rock and psychedelic rock. Other notable early adopters include Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, and even jazz trumpeter Miles Davis, who used the wah pedal on his album Live Evil in 1971 after being inspired by Jimi Hendrix.

The wah pedal also found its way into other genres of music and pop culture, including R&B, funk, and even 1970s TV variety shows and adult films. The wah pedal quickly became a fixture in popular culture and one of the most recognizable and influential guitar effects. Its popularity has endured over the decades, and it continues to be used by artists across various genres to this day.

A pedal board and a guitar on the floor

The Wah Pedal in the 60s and 70s

The wah pedal, one of the first guitar effects ever created, became a significant icon in the late ’60s and early ’70s. It was invented in 1967, initially designed to mimic the sound of a trumpet. The first Vox Wah pedals were named after trumpet player Clyde McCoy, and the first wah pedal was released to the public in February 1967 by Vox, with an image of Clyde McCoy on the bottom of the pedal.

Impact on Rock and Funk

The wah pedal quickly gained popularity among musicians, revolutionizing the sound of rock and roll and being used in various genres of music, including funk and psychedelic. Its expressive and vocal-like sound became an essential part of many guitarists’ rigs, adding a unique dimension to their sound. It was often used in solos to add more expression to single note lines and in rhythms, especially in funk music, to create a percussive style.

Key Wah Pedal Advocates

The wah pedal gained popularity in the late 1960s and early 1970s, with guitarists like Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, and Stevie Ray Vaughan incorporating it into their solos. Jimi Hendrix’s use of the wah pedal at Woodstock solidified its place in rock history. Other famous guitarists who have used the wah pedal include Tom Morello and Kirk Hammett.

Influence on Guitar Solos

The wah pedal has been used in various ways to create unique sounds in guitar solos. It can create a pseudo-synthesizer effect, add stand-out distortion, use a parked wah sound, create shoegazer ambiance, and use it in combination with reverb. The sound of the wah pedal can be customized by adjusting parameters such as the width of the filter peak, frequency range, amplitude, and bias.

Role in Psychedelic Music

The wah pedal has also played a significant role in psychedelic music, adding a unique dimension to the genre with its expressive and vocal-like sound. Despite the rise of digital effects and synthesizers, the wah pedal has continued to be popular among guitarists. Today, many companies produce various types of wah-wah pedals, including Dunlop, Vox, Morley, and Ibanez.

Evolution of the Wah Pedal

Design Changes

The wah pedal, one of the most iconic and versatile guitar effects, was invented in 1966 by Bradley J. Plunkett at Warwick Electronics Inc./Thomas Organ Company. The concept of the wah effect, however, dates back to the 1920s when trumpet or saxophone players found they could produce a crying tone by moving a mute in and out of the instrument’s bell.

The first wah pedal was created by modifying the Vox Super Beatle amplifier, and the unmodified version was released to the public in February 1967. Over the years, the wah pedal’s design has changed and been modified. The original design was simple, with a foot-operated pedal controlling a potentiometer to sweep the frequency response of the guitar signal. The effect was created by a combination of a bandpass filter and a variable resistor.

As technology advanced, more precise control and a wider range of sounds became possible. Today, you’ll find countless variations of the wah pedal available, ranging from vintage reissues to modern digital models.

Introduction of “Auto-Wah”

In the 1970s, the auto-wah pedal was introduced. This automatic version of the wah pedal reacts dynamically to volume changes in the input signal, creating a spectral glide.

The auto-wah pedal, also known as an envelope filter, is based on the input signal’s amplitude. It can be used to achieve a variety of sounds, including the typical funk rhythm guitar sound.

The auto-wah pedal is simpler to use than a manual-wah pedal and is a good option for beginners. It’s more sensitive to picking dynamics and allows for more control over the wah effect.

Influence of Multi-Effects Processors

The advent of multi-effects processors has also influenced the use and design of the wah pedal. While analog pedals provide better tone quality, adding realism, depth, and authenticity to your sound, they can be expensive and require their own power source.

On the other hand, multi-effects processors are simple to mount on a pedalboard and can save space. However, they can sound a little too ‘robotic’ and ‘processed’.

When planning a pedalboard setup, you’ve got to carefully consider whether your individual stompboxes can fit snugly on your pedalboard.

New Uses and Applications

The wah pedal was initially marketed as an accessory for wind instruments, but its potential as a guitar effect was quickly recognized. It’s been used by musicians in various genres, including rock music with Eric Clapton’s use on the 1967 album “Disraeli Gears” and Jimi Hendrix’s use on “Voodoo Child (Slight Return).”

The wah pedal can be used as a fixed-filter to alter an instrument’s timbre, for soloing, or to create a rhythm guitar effect. It’s been replicated by other companies, such as Gibson, and has been produced in different countries, including the United States, England, and Italy.

The wah pedal continues to inspire musicians to push the boundaries of their instrument.

A band on stage with a smoke machine and colourful lights

Iconic Wah Pedal Moments

Memorable Performances

The wah pedal has been a staple in the music industry since the 1960s. Early users like Jeff Beck, Jimi Hendrix, and Eric Clapton saw its expressive value and made it part of their performances. Some of the most iconic wah pedal moments include Jeff Beck’s electrifying performance on “I Ain’t Superstitious,”

Stevie Ray Vaughan’s use of the wah on “Telephone Song,” and Slash’s dynamic tension and release on the extended solo of “Sweet Child O’ Mine.” These performances showcased the unique vocal-like quality that the wah pedal can add to a guitar’s sound, making it an essential component of many guitarists’ setups.

Genre-Defining Tracks

The wah pedal has played a key role in defining the sound of various music genres, from blues to rock to funk. It has left its mark on memorable tracks such as Blind Faith’s “Presence of the Lord,” George Harrison’s “Wah Wah,” and Chicago’s “25 or 6 to 4.”

The wah pedal’s ability to alter the tone and frequencies of the guitar signal to create a distinctive sound has made it a favorite among musicians looking to add a unique touch to their tracks.

The Wah Pedal in Movies

The influence of the wah pedal extends beyond music and into the world of cinema. Its distinctive sound has been effectively used in movie soundtracks, adding an extra layer of emotion and intensity to the film’s narrative. Examples of its use include the soundtrack of the Blaxploitation film “Shaft” and its appearance in the movie “From Dusk Till Dawn.” The wah pedal’s association with 70s cop/detective shows and burlesque films further solidifies its place in pop culture.

Modern Artists Using the Wah Pedal

Modern artists continue to explore the sonic possibilities of the wah pedal, using it to bring out aggression, emotion, and expressiveness in their music. Joe Satriani’s “Surfing with the Alien” showcases the emotive sounds a true master can achieve with a wah pedal, while Kirk Hammett of Metallica uses the wah to add aggression to his playing.

Other artists like John Frusciante, Tom Morello, and Warren Haynes have also incorporated the wah pedal into their music, demonstrating its enduring popularity and versatility. The evolution of the wah pedal has allowed for greater control and versatility in shaping the wah effect, making it an integral part of many guitarists’ setups and a popular effect in various genres of music.

The Wah Pedal Today and Tomorrow

Use in Modern Music

The wah pedal, a shifting band-pass filter with a highly resonant peak, has been a staple in the guitar community since the ’60s. It’s been used by guitarists across genres, from funk and psychedelic rock to desert rock and metal. The pedal’s ability to create vocal-like sounds on the guitar has made it a key part of many guitarists’ setups.

Current Artist Advocates

A lot of today’s artists continue to draw inspiration from the wah pedal, reaching new heights of expression and original sounds. Kirk Hammett of Metallica, Zakk Wylde with Ozzy Osbourne and Black Label Society, and Jerry Cantrell of Alice In Chains are just a few of the artists who’ve used the wah pedal to make their music more expressive.

The wah pedal’s also been used extensively in the metal genre. For example, Dimebag Darrell of Pantera used the wah pedal to make his solos sing. The ability to control the sweep of the wah pedal is particularly important for metal guitarists dealing with high gain tones.

Opinions on the Wah Pedal

The wah pedal’s versatility as a tone-shaping tool has contributed to its enduring popularity. Different players have managed to find different uses for the wah pedal, from expressive filter sweeps to cocked-wah sounds.

Future Design Innovations

The future of Wah pedals is already here, with new innovations and designs constantly being introduced. For instance, Converse unveiled a new Chuck Taylor shoe with a built-in wah pedal, showing the potential for integrating the pedal into other devices. In addition, the Miaow Wah, a plug-in available in Positive Grid’s Spark Amplifier, represents one of the most versatile and complete wah plug-ins on the market.

This suggests that the future of the wah pedal may lie in digital technology, with software emulations offering a wider range of sounds and greater flexibility than traditional hardware pedals. The wah circuit itself can also be modified to change the center frequency, sharpness of the resonance, or create special effects.

This opens up a world of possibilities for customizing the sound of the wah pedal and creating unique tones.

An Unending Journey…

From its serendipitous inception to becoming an industry standard, the wah pedal’s journey has marked a revolutionary chapter in music. As highlighted throughout this breakdown, the wah pedal has evolved, branching into various formats and serving an ever-expanding range of genres and artists.

Despite changing times and technological advancements, the essential character and unique expressiveness of the wah pedal remain cherished. It offers a timeless quality that continues to make it a key component in the signal chains of passionate musicians.

The wah pedal’s future lies in unceasing innovation, carrying the promise of more musical wonders to unfold. As we continue to appreciate its iconic past, we eagerly anticipate the novel interpretations and uses that lie ahead in this ongoing story of the wah pedal.


Andrew Scrivens

Andrew Scrivens

I am a live musician and guitar teacher from Brisbane, Australia, with extensive experience playing live, in the studio and for TV shows. I play in many venues, studios, music shops and with my students and as such am exposed to a lot of different gear. I form my opinions based on my experiences playing instruments in these locations.

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