Two Guitar Effects That Revolutionized Rock: The Invention of the Wah-Wah & Fuzz Pedals

In the late 50s, a fear­ful, racist back­lash against rock and roll, cou­pled with mon­ey-grub­bing cor­po­rate pay­ola, pushed out the blues and R&B that drove rock­’s sound. In its place came easy lis­ten­ing orches­tra­tion more palat­able to con­ser­v­a­tive white audi­ences. As sexy elec­tric gui­tars gave way to string and horn sec­tions, the com­par­a­tive­ly aggres­sive sound of rock and roll seemed so much a pass­ing fad that Decca’s senior A&R man reject­ed the Bea­t­les’ demo in 1962, telling Bri­an Epstein, “gui­tar groups are on their way out.”

But it wasn’t only the blues, R&B, and doo wop revival­ism of British Inva­sion bands that saved the Amer­i­can art form. It was also the often unin­ten­tion­al influ­ence of audio engi­neers who—with their inces­sant tin­ker­ing and a num­ber of hap­py accidents—created new sounds that defined the coun­ter­cul­tur­al rock and roll of the 60s and 70s. Iron­i­cal­ly, the two tech­ni­cal devel­op­ments that most char­ac­ter­ized those decades’ rock gui­tar sounds—the wah-wah and fuzz pedals—were orig­i­nal­ly mar­ket­ed as ways to imi­tate strings, horns, and oth­er non-rock and roll instru­ments.

As you’ll learn in the doc­u­men­tary above, Cry Baby: The Ped­al that Rocks the World, the wah-wah ped­al, with its “waka-waka” sound so famil­iar from “Shaft” and 70s porn sound­tracks, offi­cial­ly came into being in 1967, when the Thomas Organ com­pa­ny released the first incar­na­tion of the effect. But before it acquired the brand name “Cry Baby” (still the name of the wah-wah ped­al man­u­fac­tured by Jim Dun­lop), it went by the name “Clyde McCoy,” a back­ward-look­ing bit of brand­ing that attempt­ed to mar­ket the effect through nos­tal­gia for pre-rock and roll music. Clyde McCoy was a jazz trum­pet play­er known for his “wah-wah” mut­ing tech­nique on songs like “Sug­ar Blues” in the 20s, and the ped­al was thought to mim­ic McCoy’s jazz-age effects. (McCoy him­self had noth­ing to do with the mar­ket­ing.)


Nonethe­less the devel­op­ment of the wah-wah ped­al came right out of the most cur­rent six­ties’ tech­nol­o­gy made for the most cur­rent of acts, the Bea­t­les. Increas­ing­ly drowned out by scream­ing crowds in larg­er and larg­er venues, the band required loud­er and loud­er ampli­fiers, and British amp com­pa­ny Vox oblig­ed, cre­at­ing the 100-watt “Super Bea­t­le” amp in 1964 for their first U.S. tour. As Priceo­nom­ics details, when Thomas Organ scored a con­tract to man­u­fac­ture the amps state­side, a young engi­neer named Brad Plun­kett was giv­en the task of learn­ing how to make them for less. While exper­i­ment­ing with the smooth dial of a rotary poten­tiome­ter in place of an expen­sive switch, he dis­cov­ered the wah-wah effect, then had the bright idea to com­bine the dial—which swept a res­o­nant peak across the upper mid-range frequency—with the foot ped­al of an organ.

The rest, as the cliché goes, is history—a fas­ci­nat­ing his­to­ry at that, one that leads from Elvis Pres­ley stu­dio gui­tarist Del Cash­er, to Frank Zap­pa, Clap­ton and Hen­drix, and to dozens of 70s funk gui­tarists and beyond.

Art Thomp­son, edi­tor of Gui­tar Play­er Mag­a­zine, notes in the star-stud­ded Cry Baby doc­u­men­tary that pri­or to the inven­tion of the wah-wah ped­al, gui­tarists had a lim­it­ed range of effects—tape delay, tremo­lo, spring reverb, and fuzz. Only one of these effects, how­ev­er, was then avail­able in ped­al form, and that ped­al, Gibson’s Mae­stro Fuzz-Tone, would also rev­o­lu­tion­ize the sound of six­ties rock. But as you can hear in the short 1962 demon­stra­tion record above for the Mae­stro Fuzz-Tone, the fuzz effect was also mar­ket­ed as a way of sim­u­lat­ing oth­er instru­ments: “Organ-like tones, mel­low wood­winds, and whis­per­ing reeds,” says the announc­er, “boom­ing brass, and bell-clear horns.”


In fact, Kei­th Richards, in the Stones’ “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction”—the song cred­it­ed with intro­duc­ing the Maestro’s sound to rock and roll in 1965—orig­i­nal­ly record­ed his fuzzed-out gui­tar part as a place­hold­er for a horn sec­tion. “But we didn’t have any horns,” he wrote in his auto­bi­og­ra­phy, Life; “the fuzz tone had nev­er been heard before any­where, and that’s the sound that caught everybody’s atten­tion.”

The asser­tion isn’t strict­ly true. While “Sat­is­fac­tion” brought fuzz to the fore­front, the effect first appeared, by acci­dent, in 1961, with “a faulty con­nec­tion in a mix­ing board,” writes William Weir in a his­to­ry of fuzz for The Atlantic. Fuzz, “a term of art… came to define the sound of rock gui­tar,” but it first appeared in “the bass solo of coun­try singer Mar­ty Rob­bins on ‘Don’t Wor­ry,’” an “oth­er­wise sweet and most­ly acoustic tune.” At the time, engi­neers argued over whether to leave the mis­tak­en dis­tor­tion in the mix. Luck­i­ly, they opt­ed to keep it, and lis­ten­ers loved it. When Nan­cy Sina­tra asked engi­neer Glen Snod­dy to repli­cate the sound, he recre­at­ed it in the form of the Mae­stro.

Gui­tarists had exper­i­ment­ed delib­er­ate­ly with sim­i­lar dis­tor­tion effects since the very begin­nings of rock and roll, cut­ting through their amp’s speakers—like Link Wray in his men­ac­ing clas­sic instru­men­tal “Rumble”—or push­ing small, tube-pow­ered ampli­fiers past their lim­its. But none of these exper­i­ments, nor the ped­als that lat­er emu­lat­ed them, sound like the fuzz ped­al, which achieves its buzzing effect by severe­ly clip­ping the gui­tar’s sig­nal. Lat­er iter­a­tions from oth­er manufacturers—the Tone Ben­der, Big Muff, and Fuzz Face—have acquired their own cache, in large part because of Jimi Hendrix’s heavy use of var­i­ous fuzz ped­als through­out his career. “Like the shop talk of wine enthu­si­asts,” writes Weir, “dis­cus­sions among dis­tor­tion cognoscen­ti on nuances of tone can baf­fle out­siders.”

Indeed. Those ear­ly exper­i­ments with effects ped­als now fetch upwards of sev­er­al thou­sand dol­lars on the vin­tage mar­ket. And a recent boom in bou­tique ped­als has sent prices for hand­craft­ed repli­cas of those orig­i­nal models—along with sev­er­al inno­v­a­tive new designs—into the hun­dreds of dol­lars for a sin­gle ped­al. (One hand­made over­drive, the Klon Cen­taur, has become the most imi­tat­ed of mod­ern ped­als; orig­i­nals can go for up to two thou­sand dol­lars.) The spe­cial­iza­tion of effects ped­al tech­nol­o­gy, and the hefty pric­ing for vin­tage and con­tem­po­rary effects alike, can be daunt­ing for begin­ning gui­tarists who want to sound like their favorite play­ers. But what ear­ly play­ers and engi­neers fig­ured out still holds true—musical inno­va­tion is all about cre­at­ing orig­i­nal sounds by exper­i­ment­ing with what­ev­er you have at hand.

Cry Baby: The Ped­al that Rocks the World has been added to our list of Free Doc­u­men­taries, a sub­set of our col­lec­tion 4,000+ Free Movies Online: Great Clas­sics, Indies, Noir, West­erns, Doc­u­men­taries & More

via Priceo­nom­ics

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Rick Wake­man Tells the Sto­ry of the Mel­lotron, the Odd­ball Pro­to-Syn­the­siz­er Pio­neered by the Bea­t­les

The “Amen Break”: The Most Famous 6‑Second Drum Loop & How It Spawned a Sam­pling Rev­o­lu­tion

All Hail the Beat: How the 1980 Roland TR-808 Drum Machine Changed Pop Music

A Brief His­to­ry of Sam­pling: From the Bea­t­les to the Beast­ie Boys

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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  • Dave Flynn says:

    Absolute­ly, nev­er noticed that! So much bril­liant music with fuzz; it’s also on Dylan’s Sub­ter­ranean Home­sick Blues (not so promi­nent, but it’s there), record­ed before Sat­is­fac­tion along with oth­er cool surf stuff…60s Garage Punk and Psy­ck would­n’t have been the same with­out it! Great post­ing, BTW..

  • Ed Swanzey says:

    You com­plete­ly ignore the work of Del Kach­er (now spelled “Cash­er”, who actu­al­ly ideat­ed, invent­ed and devel­oped the wah-wah ped­al! Shame on you!!!! I worked many gigs with Del dur­ing the peri­od when he was develp­ing the ped­al and oth­er sound-alter­ing devices. Del was, and to myopin­ion still is one of the world’s great­est tech­ni­cal gui­tarists. I did many ses­sions in his old stu­dio “Cal­i­for­nia Sound Recorders”. You have done a bril­liant man a sad dis­ser­vice by ignor­ing him.

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