Wah-Wah Pedal: The Invention and Brief History

When guitars started talking.

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Ultimate Guitar
Wah-Wah Pedal: The Invention and Brief History
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Today, a wah-wah pedal is almost a mandatory thing for a guitar player, whether he is a band member, touring member, or a session musician. You’ll rarely see a guitarist go without it. Heck, even bassists like to use it. But how this useful contraption came to be?

So wah pedal is basically an effect which alters the frequencies of the guitar signal, imitating the human voice in a way. The first practical use of something we could call wah-wah was when trumpet players back in the 1920s moved the mute over the bell of their instruments. This gave that crying tone which kind of gave an impression of a human voice.



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But it was those sneaky guitar loves that turned all that into electronic circuitry and made a pedal out of it. Before the wah pedal was manufactured commercially there were some guitar players during the 1950s that came up with their own solutions for the effect. Country guitar legend Chet Atkins used a device he came up with on two of his songs - “Slinkey” and “Hot Toddy.” Italian jazz guitarist Peter Van Wood has modified an expression pedal for a Hammond organ and recorded his rendition of George Gershwin's tune “Summertime” with this similar effect. A very famous session guitarist from the 1950s Big Jim Sullivan also used some of the similar devices, like on Dave Barry’s song “The Crying Game.”



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But it was the Bradley J. Plunkett who worked for Warwick Electronics Inc./Thomas Organ Company who came up with the first actual wah pedal in the November 1966. And like with all cool things this invention came to be by an accident during the redesign of Vox Super Beatle amp. Thomas Organ Company was in charge of designing and manufacturing a lot of Vox equipment for the US market. So the company was assigned to make a completely new line of solid-state Vox amps, including the new Super Beatle amp. The company had to create an American equivalent of the British Vox amp, but it had to be a solid state amp instead of a vacuum tube one. And during this whole redesign thing, a head engineer of Thomas Organ Company, Stan Cuttler, assigned junior engineer Bradley Plunkett to replace Jennings 3-position MRB circuit switch, which was too expensive, with a solid-state MRB circuit.



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So Plunkett took transistorized tone-circuit off the Thomas Organ in order to create some kind of a copy of Jennings 3-position MRB circuit switch. And while Plunkett was testing this circuit out on the speaker, a team of engineers present on the spot have heard the effect. One of them, Bill Page, had this idea to test out the circuit with his saxophone played through the amplifier. Another junior engineer John Glennon was brought to put this circuit into a housing of a volume pedal which was used for Vox Continental Organ. After hearing the effect they, later on, tried it on the electric guitar and, well, you can see today how that turned out to be. But it was a close call to ultimately use it on a guitar instead of on wind instruments. The pedal was first released in 1967 and it featured the image and signature of jazz trumpet player Clyde Lee McCoy who developed this effect in the late 1920s by using Harmon mute in the bell of his instrument.



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The version for the American market was named Cry Baby and was sold parallel to Vox V846. However, Thomas Organ failed to trademark the name Cry Baby and numerous imitations with that same name were suddenly all over the US. And soon after that Gretsch and Fender started having their own pedals under the Jen brand.



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As the years went by the pedal became more and more popular, and many guitarists started using it. One of the ways guitarists used it was locked in one position, like in “Rusty Cage” by Soundgarden where it was left in the low position. The most notable uses of the pedal, as voted by UG users, are:

  • Red Hot Chili Peppers - If You Have to Ask
  • Dream Theater - Home
  • Led Zeppelin - Dazed and Confused
  • Joe Satriani - Surfing With the Alien
  • Pink Floyd - Echoes
  • Funkadelic - Maggot Brain
  • Black Sabbath - Electric Funeral
  • Cream - White Room
  • Steve Vai - Bad Horsie
  • Metallica - Anesthesia (Pulling Teeth)
  • Alice in Chains - Man in the Box
  • Rage Against the Machine - Bulls on Parade
  • Jimi Hendrix - Voodoo Child (Slight Return)
  • + a bunch of Kirk Hammett solos

There is a huge variety of wah-wah pedals to choose from today and some of the best ones are:

  • Morley VAI-2 Steve Vai Bad Horsie 2 Contour Wah
  • Vox V847A
  • Xotic Effects XW-1
  • Ibanez WD7 Weeping Demon
  • Boss AW-3 Dynamic Wah
  • Dunlop GCB95 Cry Baby
  • Dunlop 535Q Cry Baby
  • Boss PW-10
  • Fulltone Clyde Deluxe
  • Tycobrahe Parapedal (old pedal that has many imitations made today, used by Tony Iommi)
Do you like using wah pedals? If so which one is your favorite? Share that in the comment section below.

 

 

28 comments sorted by best / new / date

    gearandsound
    "As voted by the UG community" No mention of Michael Schenker? He basically invented the "Cocked Wah" lead tone. For some reason I never see him mentioned ever on this site. Just ask Kirk Hammet and Marty Friedman who inspired them especially when it comes to tone. Check out this clip from '77' lead tone begins at the 2min mark.
    Agar4life
    “+ a bunch of Kirk Hammett solos” What doesn’t Kirk Hammett use wah for? Kirk Hammett would put dentures on a wah pedal to chew his food.
    chuck2
    I like wah-wh soo much...but it is not great for everywhere or in most songs...cos I dont want sounding every solo the same...(;... Now I have couple of Wahs: Jim Dunlop Cry Baby Rack mount DCR-1SR Jim Dunlop Cry Baby Slash signature Classic SC95 Jim Dunlop Cry Baby Slash signature SW95 -with distortion in it. Jim Dunlop Cry Baby 353 Jim Dunlop Cry Baby Q-Zone and the winner is... EMB wah pedal...!!!...(;...
    btw: this pedal in rack unit was using Slash in 90ths on live shows, Kirk have it to today in rack and one have Steve Vai...
    IvisonPoleto
    Correct me if I'm wrong but I guess Cliff Burton used a T-Wah pedal from Boss in  Anesthesia (Pulling Teeth). Similar effect, but different mechanic. 
    The Bass God
    Wasn't it a Morley Power Fuzz Wah that he used?
    IvisonPoleto
    Man, I really don't know. I remember reading somewhere about the T-Wah.
    The Bass God
    If memory serves me correctly it was either a Morley Power Fuzz Wah or a Morley Power Wah Boost with a Big Muff
    IvisonPoleto
    I thought it was the T-Wah because it allows player to set the length of time of the effect. It seems like he's using some device like this, because the length of time sounds the same. But good point yours, though.
    Moliere
    Wah is one of my absolute favourite effects. Right now I'm rocking a Dunlop Cry Baby Slash Signature, which is probably the best wah I've ever had on my board. I'm sure there's something better out there, but the sweep on this pedal is really good. I love to make a slow sweep whilst playing riffs. so it kinda works out as some kind of filter, which this wah is really good at. Anybody got an idea on what kind of wah I should try if I want something else? Not long ago I checked out a Schaller Wah Wah Yoi Yoi, but never got to try it out. They sound sweet, though!
    danikytsikava
    Rocktron black cat moan. Michael amott got. I bought it half a decade ago and i can say hands down one of the best wahs ever. Sadly. It was discontinued
    ovenrecall
    It's a high gain narrow notch filter with a variable center frequency.
    gbaddeley
    Yes. It doesn't actually "alter the frequency" of notes played through it, otherwise it would sound out of tune. It alters the spectral balance, by reducing the level over an adjustable frequency band, which accentuates the low and high frequencies. (aka notch filter)
    Clervaux
    A bunch of Satch-numbers and Buckethead with Sootsayer. The latter dedicated to aunt Susie. A certain fella called Steven Ray Faun or something, he did some great wah-wah things as well.
    Slackerbitch
    The Mu-tron wah is my personal favourite. It's a shame it's been out of production since the 70s. High time someone made a boutique clone of it.