With a Flip of a Knob, He Heard the Future
DEL CASHER has done a lot of impressive things with his guitar over the last 50 years. He has performed with Gene Autry,
Lawrence Welk, and Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention. He’s appeared, strumming, in movies with Elvis Presley and Jerry Lewis. He’s been a featured player on dozens of film and TV soundtracks.
But there is one accomplishment that Mr. Casher, now 73, wishes more people knew about: his role in the invention of the wah-wah pedal.
The story of this device, which enables an electric guitar to take on aspects of the human voice — and which helped define the sounds of rock stars like Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton — is complicated. But that very complexity drives home a point: While it is easier — and more romantic — to talk about innovation as the domain of lone inventors who hit pay dirt while tinkering in solitude, creativity is more often than not a collaborative, and messy, affair. As such, Mr. Casher’s story seems an apt one to tell in this, my last Prototype column.
“There’s a lot of players in this whole thing,” and a brilliant engineer named Brad Plunkett was one of them, says Mr. Casher, who is based in Los Angeles. “But I’m the one who said, ‘This is a guitar thing!’ ”
As a studio player in the 1960s, Mr. Casher was always looking for effects and techniques that would set his guitar solos apart. He admired the bluesy tones that the trumpet and trombone players emitted, with the help of wah-wah mutes, on “Rhapsody in Blue,” George Gershwin’s 1924 classic, but couldn’t figure out how to imitate them on the electric guitar.
The Thomas Organ company had acquired the rights to distribute Vox amplifiers — a British brand that the Beatles helped to make famous. To promote their venture, Thomas Organ formed the Vox Ampliphonic Orchestra, and Mr. Casher was invited to join. That put him on the premises of the company’s headquarters in Sepulveda, Calif., when its engineers began working to modify the amplifiers into solid state, translating all the tube circuits into transistors. As they did so, they ran across a switch known as a midrange boost, or M.R.B. for short.
“They said, ‘What the heck is this?’ ” Mr. Casher recalls of the M.R.B., which used different frequencies to make certain sounds seem louder. The feature — a switch that musicians clicked — had been invented by Dick Denney, a British engineer and guitarist. “If you really want to say who was the grandfather of the wah-wah,” Mr. Casher says, “it was Dick Denney.”
When Joe Benaron, the chairman of Thomas Organ, found out that installing that same switch in the United States would cost almost $3 a unit, he balked. So the chief engineer, Stan Cuttler assigned a young colleague, Mr. Plunkett, to solve the problem. He did so by replacing the switch with a 75-cent knob much like those used for volume control. Soon afterward, at a Vox Ampliphonic Orchestra rehearsal, Mr. Casher first encountered the device.
“I said, ‘What’s this knob?’ And I’m flipping it around and noticing it’s going wah-wah as I went from left to right,” he recalls. “I said: ‘Hold on! This is what I’ve been looking for!’ ”
But guitars take two hands to play — you can’t be fiddling with knobs during a solo. So Mr. Casher says he asked Mr. Plunkett whether the knob could be put into a pedal instead. In at least one interview, however, Mr. Plunkett has said that this was his own idea. (I could not reach Mr. Plunkett for comment.)
“With anything like this, mysteries abound about who did what when,” says Art Thompson, a senior editor at Guitar Player magazine who has looked into the history of what he refers to simply as “the wah.” But he says that while it’s impossible to know exactly who played what role, it would make sense that Mr. Casher could have participated: “When a musical instrument device is transitioning from the lab to market, there’s always a player who’s involved.”
Whoever suggested it, Mr. Plunkett changed the knob to a pedal, and together he and Mr. Casher tuned the gizmo until it sounded so good that they called in Mr. Benaron to demonstrate. He loved it — but not for guitar.
“He said, ‘This will be great for electric trumpets,’ ” Mr. Casher says, recalling that Mr. Benaron, a fan of big band music, thought there was more money to be made in horns. “Nobody saw any future for the guitar being used with this device.”
But Mr. Casher was like a dog with a bone. He persuaded Mr. Benaron to let him record a demo to be given out in guitar stores to show what the wah-wah pedal could do. “They thought I was a crackpot, but they humored me,” Mr. Casher says.
The record hit stores in February 1967. Did it start a wildfire?
“It didn’t even light a match,” he says. “Talk about being ahead of your time.”
The only person who seemed interested in the wah-wah was a film composer, Vic Mizzy, known for writing the “Addams Family” theme. After hearing Mr. Casher at a demo session, he arranged for him to work on several movies for Universal Pictures. But even after Thomas Organ won a patent for the wah-wah pedal — naming Mr. Plunkett and another engineer, Lester Kushner, as inventors — the device wasn’t widely used.
In 1968, Vox filed for bankruptcy in England. (Thomas Organ would go out of business later.) But in 1969 came Woodstock, where Mr. Hendrix blew away the crowd with his wailing guitar sound. The wah-wah had finally broken through. Mr. Hendrix would make the sound particularly notable in one chorus of “All Along the Watchtower.”
How did Mr. Hendrix learn about the pedal? From Frank Zappa, according to Mr. Casher, who says he had given him one.
Blog Post by Amy Wallace, New York Times