Clyde McCoy Wah Wah introduced in 1966.
Wah-wah pedals have shaped the late sixties psychedelic rock boom, defined the funk genre, and changed television and film soundtracks forever. Let’s get in deep with why you need one in your guitar rig!
Have you ever tried to explain your love of effects pedals to regular people, or family members? It’s freaking hard, I know! I have to do it at least once a week. Whenever someone asks me what I use as a musician, I inevitably get a blank look back at me. “Flex Pedals?” “FX pedals?” “No sir, effects pedals… you know, you plug your guitar into them and they change your sound.” Usually when someone is still looking at me like an alien, I say: “you know… like a wah-wah.” Immediately after, you can see the little hamster start running on the wheel in their mind again as they suddenly understand what I’ve been explaining. “Oh, so you jam on wah-wah pedals a lot.” “Well no, not exclusively… I play other types of effects pedals too.” And then the questioning begins again.
So, it seems the wah-wah is the most popular and well known of all guitar effects, even to the layman’s limited knowledge. Unfortunately, understanding the humble beginnings and the design progression is a bit of a challenge, so let me give you what I’ve got:
An early- '70s Thomas Organ Cry Baby, built in Italy.
The first commercially available wah-wah pedal was produced by the Vox/Thomas Organ Company in the early months of 1967. The first model was called the Clyde McCoy Wah pedal. The original Clyde McCoy wahs have attained cult status as one of the icons of the vintage effects pedal scene. Myths and legends surround this pedal, much helped by famous players like Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Ray Vaughan, and Eric Johnson, about the overall major tone, sound, and substance of the wah-wah sweep. Now, why is this wah-wah named after Clyde McCoy, a famous jazz trumpeter from the era? We will get into the nitty gritty details later, but in summary the wah-wah sounds like a jazz trumpeter using a mute during a solo. Hence naming the pedal for someone who used the famous mute.
There were originally two different Vox wah-wah models- the Vox Clyde McCoy picture wah, which has a picture of Clyde McCoy on the bottom plate of the device, and the Clyde McCoy signature model which only has an inscription on the device. The Vox picture wah-wah undoubtedly came first, but not by very long (maybe a few months). Both pedals were made in Italy, the picture wah using ICAR pots and British bypass switches, and the signature model using the Allen-Bradley Pot and American switches. Why the different components? More than likely it’s what could have been purchased in bulk for the manufacturing process of the pedal.
The Del Cashier Wah-Wah Origin Story
The origins of the Vox Wah-Wah lie in part with two young men who would go on to radically change the electric guitar as we know it: Del Cashier and Brad Plunkett. Del Cashier was a young session guitarist based out of Los Angeles who was hired by Vox in 1966 to aid in developing products to sell to guitarists. Mr. Cashier instead thought it would be novel to invent something completely new to market to guitarists and asked the higher ups at Vox if he could have an engineer to work with to realize his idea. That engineer was Brad Plunkett.
Brad Plunkett was a young 25-year-old electronics engineer who had recently began working for Vox designing circuits for their amplifiers. With the aid of Del Cashier, ironically the only guitarist who worked for Vox developing guitar products, Plunkett set about removing tone circuits that were built into Vox amplifiers, and after modifications added the circuitry inside a grey organ volume pedal. Plunkett ended up adjusting the EQ sweep of the tone potentiometer to Del Cashier’s guitar playing in real time. After enough tinkering around, they knew they had hit the right formula when the entire office came into the lab to investigate the fantastically strange “wah-wah” sounds that were coming out of Mr. Cashier’s guitar amp. The wah-wah was officially born!
Why is Clyde McCoy’s Name on the Pedal?
Literally minutes after the wah-wah pedal’s invention, Joe Benaron the president of the Vox/Thomas Organ Company walked in and announced this new wah-wah invention would be a fantastic thing to sell to trumpet players. The wah-wah pedal was so groundbreaking that the president of Vox didn’t know what to do with it. Instead acquainting the wah-wah pedal’s sound to that of a muted trumpet in jazz, Mr. Benaron saw a unique opportunity to sell millions of amplified trumpets with pedals to school children who would no longer need the mute to play. This was essentially seen as cornering the market on a new musical tool. To prep the wah-wah pedal for the trumpet fueled vision, Mr. Benaron called up Clyde McCoy, a famous jazz trumpeter who played Sugar Blues with a mute and asked to use his name and likeness on the pedal for $500. Clyde McCoy accepted the $500 for doing nothing and the name of the wah-wah was settled. Like many things that were originally thought to be for one instruments, guitarists eventually got turned on to the pedal.
So, What Exactly is the Wah-Wah?
A wah-wah pedal really is type of bandpass equalizer filter, or low pass filter. A typical wah-wah pedal uses a ferrite core inductor to create a resonant peak in the frequency of the guitar signal, which then can be swept up and down by moving the foot pedal with your foot. A gear attached to the pedal turns on a potentiometer that changes the frequency of the resonant peak. Basically, having your foot on the wah-wah in the back position boosts the bass frequencies of your guitar, and moving it in the forwards position boosts the treble frequencies of your guitar. As you rock through the pedal’s range it creates a sound very similar to someone saying “wah”. Think of the wah-wah pedal as a glorified control like your guitar’s tone knob that you can use while you’re playing! Remember, usually tone knobs are too far away from your picking hand to actually use in real time, so using a foot-controlled pedal that does the same thing enables you to incorporate this technique much easier into your playing!
Wah Production History
We’ve already established that the first wah-wah pedal that was released was the Clyde McCoy wah-wah in late 1966 to early 1967. The next wah-wah pedal to be released was the Vox V864 which was released in mid-1967. With the V864, Vox changed the all too crucial inductor in the wah pedal, from the original halo inductor in the original picture wahs, to the TDK Japanese made inductor. This changed the overall sound of the pedal. In 1968 Vox had their wah production line shipped out and built from Pescara, Italy. In 1968, Vox released the Crybaby wah-wah and Vox and Thomas Organ Co began marketing wah-wahs independently from each other.
Vintage King Vox Wah Wah pedal.
By 1969 to 1970, Jen Elettronica of Pescara, Italy took over production of the wah-wahs and ultimately manufactured the entire life of Vox pedals, and pedals for other companies. Jen Elettronica began manufacturing their own wah’s also called the Crybaby. Jen also made two new wah models called the Crybaby Super (which had a nine-volt power jack on the pedal a radical idea for 1969 which is now commonplace) and the Mr. Crybaby (a wah/volume pedal hybrid). These wah pedals were manufactured with a different inductor called a Fasel. Simultaneously, the Thomas Organ Company were putting out their own wah models: the Crybaby, the V864, and the King Vox Wah and remained in production through the 1970’s.
Different Wah Inductors
Most pedal junkies tend to be in agreement that the most important piece in a wah pedal is the inductor. The kind and quality of the wah inductors, along with the capacitors and wah pot, can add up to a beautiful vocal like, human sounding wah pedal… or you could be left with a nasally pile of garbage.
Vintage Fasel Inductor from Cry Baby