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    A Brief History of the Wah-Wah, a Musical Accident

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    McLean Gordon

    The wah-wah pedal, which first hit its stride in the opening guitar solo of Jimi Hendrix's 1968 Voodoo Child (Slight Return), defined the trippier side of funk ever since the genre started making everybody a little more mellow. But the pedal's invention was a total accident.

    It came into being as the love-child of a commercial liaison between the Vox Continental Organ (seen here in this video of the Animals' 1964 "House of the Rising Sun"), and the Vox Super Beatle Guitar amp in 1966. Sometimes opportunistic corporate mergers lead to innovation, apparently. On the cusp of the psychedelic era, the British amp maker Vox was looking for ways to capitalize on Beatlemania. In 1965, it inked an agreement with California-based Thomas Organ Co., permitting the production of Vox amps in the United States. A subsequent redesign of the Super Beatle into a cheaper solid-state amp (as opposed to one that used more expensive vacuum tubes), and the marriage of the organ and the guitar led to the accidental invention of a more groovy expression pedal.

    Prior to contracting with Thomas Organ for American distribution of guitar amps, Vox had reached an exclusive agreement with the Beatles to supply them with amps, and the popularity of the Vox brand rode the Fab Four's coattails on a wave of global hysteria. The Beatles' fanfare rolled out a red carpet for the marketing of Vox accessories, and as the psychedelic era blossomed in 1967, influential recordings by rockers like Cream and the Jimi Hendrix Experience featured the sound-bending effect of the novel "foot controlled continuously variable preference circuit for musical instruments."

    The pedal's inventor Brad Plunkett, in a Bill Clinton moment, originally conceived of his brainchild as an accessory for the saxophone. Considering the dearth of righteous teens following Lisa Simpson's lead to the brass section, it was a stroke of good fortune for Vox when someone with slightly more cool plugged a guitar into it. 

    Hippies - 1967

    Hendrix and Clapton rose to massive fame on the late-60's high tide of psychedlic guitar fuzz and achieved universal recognition as rock deities. Another lesser-known musician from Chicago, Earl Hooker, also crafted a blazing wah-wah style of his own, which no doubt influenced the blues-heavy sounds of the more famous aforementioned players.

    While the details of Earl Hooker's life remain sketchy, it's absolutely clear that  by the time the record "Wah Wah Blues" came out in 1968, he was using the pedal sound to glorious effect. In 1969, a French radio announcer proclaimed on-air that American blues guitar master Earl Hooker had "invented" the wah-wah pedal. He didn't, but he was definitely an early proponent and master deserving of recognition alongside more mainstream peers. He was also an incredible performer, as evidenced below:

    Hooker was a profligate innovator, receptive to all the electric guitar experiments of the 1950's and '60's. Blues legend B.B. King said he was the greatest guitar player. An itinerant musician from Chicago's rougher side, he had no corporate sponsorships or celebrity perks. Several of his songs bear comical titles referring to the disease tuberculosis, from which he suffered his entire life, and which killed him in 1970--just as his raw style of Chicago blues was beginning to find a wider audience.

    Hooker's instrumental Blue Guitar became Led Zeppelin's You Shook Me in an early moment of unmitigated sampling. While his sound lacks the psychedelic saturation of some of his late '60's wah wah contemporaries, his unique stylistic innovations are some of the finest flowers of an accidental device which found soil in a corporate merger between the organ and the guitar. 

     

    Topics: music, effects pedal, wah wah, hendrix, vox

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