The saga of the wah-wah pedal’s rise to prominence in rock & roll is a tale fraught with bizarre twists and memorable artistic breakouts. With a cast of characters including Lawrence Welk, Phyllis Diller, Frank Zappa and Jimi Hendrix, the wah’s glide through American pop culture can be traced back to the muted cornets in 1920s Chicago speakeasies. Thanks to an ambitious young guitarist named Del Casher, it’s a sound that came to fruition 50 years ago in a Hollywood Hills garage.
Born Delton Kacher in Hammond, Indiana, on Dec. 28, 1938, Casher idolized electric guitar innovator Les Paul and aspired to eclipse him as both a musician and inventor. At just 21, he helped develop and demonstrate the revolutionary Ecco-Fonic tape delay machine (ads ballyhooed its “limitless range” and “complete freedom of expression”) and kept busy as an in-demand session player. He was a member of the pop group Three Suns, a featured soloist on The Lawrence Welk Show and a guitarist for singing cowboy Gene Autry’s Melody Ranch TV show.
But Casher, who also invented the Fender Electronic Echo Chamber and worked on Roland’s first guitar synthesizer, was no mere hired gun. He was an aggressively creative musical explorer eager to take on any artistic challenge — including jamming with the most experimental L.A. band of the era, Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Invention.
“I had a nice garage studio at my place in the Hollywood Hills,” Casher recalls. “One day, Frank Zappa knocks on my door and says, ‘I hear you have a good studio.’ I’m looking at him, with the beard and the hair, wondering who he was.”
Zappa was on assignment to do a song for Roger Corman’s 1966 sci-fi flick Queen of Blood, and he needed an out-of-this-world sound. “Frank brought [actor] Florence Marly in, she’s singing these really wild lyrics, ‘Space Boy, Space Boy, sex without soul,’ and I thought it’d go nowhere fast.
“I started overdubbing my parts, and Frank says, ‘Make it as spacey and weird as you can.’ So I got my oscillator out, and soon the sounds were whizzing by, really weird and wild. And then Zappa says, ‘Can I overdub the drums now?’ And I thought this wacko is going to screw up everything I just did. In one take, he did it, it was perfect. We hit it off, and he invited me to join his band.”
Soon Casher was leading a double life, doing morning sessions for the squares who watched Autry’s Melody Ranch and at night sitting in with Zappa and the Mothers of Invention at the Whisky a Go-Go. “So I was doing the Hollywood music business from A to Z,” Casher quips.
In the midst of all this, Casher also began work on what would become the wah-wah pedal. “Dick Denney at Vox U.K. invented the original prototype, the midrange boost switch. When it was converted to transistors, they put a variable switch on it.” Now that the midrange boost could be more precisely controlled, Casher had a flash of inspiration. “I thought, ‘Let’s put it on a pedal.’ We got one from a Vox organ, and it fit very nicely. After I demonstrated it to all these engineers and music producers, everyone said, ‘This will be the greatest thing — the trumpet players are going to love it!’”
“James Brown didn’t understand the wah-wah at all. He said
It was February 1967. “I wanted to use it for guitar, but they said no. Everyone thought I was just a crazy kid,” Casher says. “After the demonstration, a guy came up and said, ‘I really liked that. Give me your number, Universal is going to call tomorrow and we’re going to use this on some movie soundtracks.’ It was Vic Mizzy, who did the Addams Family and Green Acres themes. I thought, ‘Yeah, sure, Universal is going to call.’ But they did, and almost immediately I was in the studio playing for that Phyllis Diller picture.”
The “Phyllis Diller picture” to which he refers is Did You Hear the One About the Traveling Saleslady? — whose soundtrack featured the first use of Casher’s pedal in a studio recording. “I mean, here I was with a 60-piece orchestra playing wah-wah guitar. All the first-call players, like Bob Bain and Tommy Tedesco, were saying, ‘What is this kid doing playing first chair?’ Well, it was because I had the wah.
“I thought it’d catch on immediately, but it didn’t,” Casher continues. “After all, the wah sound goes back to Gershwin, with the muted horns on Rhapsody in Blue — he used that crying sound in 1927. And I wanted to give a voice to the guitar.”
But the wah was a hard sell, even to musicians who would later embrace it. “I played it for James Brown and he really liked my playing, but he didn’t understand the wah-wah at all,” Casher recalls. “He said, ‘Why the fuck would anyone want a guitar to do that?’ I tried to explain that it was a way to allow the guitar to really be expressive and reach people, like a voice, or a harmonica, to reach the soul. He didn’t see it.
“I mean, my conventional people who I worked for, Gene Autry, Lawrence Welk, you know, the suits, I couldn’t even try to use the wah with them — it was too weird, way out for them. I called Frank [Zappa] and said, ‘I’m having a problem getting people to use it,’ and of course he took one. He was playing it in New York, and Jimi Hendrix heard it and asked him about it, so we made sure he got one. In ’67, Jimi was just getting started with his recording. He used it brilliantly, but it wasn’t until Jimi played it in the rain at Woodstock that everyone just went crazy for it. The rest is history.”
The wah-wah eventually became a staple in rock, R&B, metal, funk and soul, but only after it enhanced several unforgettable hits — Hendrix’s “Voodoo Chile (Slight Return),” the Oscar-winning theme from Shaft, Tony Joe White’s swamp-rock workout “Polk Salad Annie.” By the ’70s, everyone from Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath to Bob Marley and Miles Davis (on his trumpet, bringing the sound full circle) began exploiting the pedal’s marvelously versatile, expressive capabilities. More recently, it helped shape the sound of such rock bands as Metallica (Cliff Burton used it on his bass), Red Hot Chili Peppers and Guns N’ Roses.
“It took five years. It was slow getting off the ground, but that’s the problem with being ahead of your time,” Casher says. “I still have that original prototype that Vox gave me, and I’d like to see it go into the Smithsonian or Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. It’s that significant.”
After this story was originally published online, I received an email from John W. Troutman, curator of American music at the Smithsonian Institution’s division of culture and the arts. He had read the piece and wanted Casher’s contact information. Subsequent exchanges between Casher and Troutman point to the Smithsonian’s impending acquisition of the inventor’s wah-wah pedal prototype.
“Over the last 50 years, only a handful of innovations have truly revolutionized the sound of the electric guitar,” Troutman wrote in an email. “The wah-wah is one of them. It radically transformed the instrument’s voice in a slew of genres, and Del Casher stood at the pedal’s ground zero. Combine that claim to fame with the astonishing fact that Del held the guitar chair for both Lawrence Welk’s and Frank Zappa’s bands, and we find in his work a fascinating contribution to the pantheon of American music.”
[Note: This article was originally published on Jan. 4. It has since been re-edited for print and updated with information about the Smithsonian Institution's interest in the wah-wah pedal.]