If you’re familiar with the history of rock, you’ll know that there was a fundamental change in the sound of the electric guitar beginning in 1965 when various manufacturers began introducing effects pedals that fit in the signal path between the guitar and the amplifier, creating increasing the sonic palette available to musicians. Achieving distortion no longer required irreparably tearing up a speaker cone (cf. The Kinks’ “You Really Got Me”) or overdriving an amplifier by rewiring it and voiding any warranty.
But there was more to these new guitar sounds than just distortion. Pricenomics takes a look at the invention of the wah-wah pedal.
On August 18th, 1969, at around ten o’clock in the morning, Jimi Hendrix raised his white Fender Stratocaster guitar in the air, gazed out across the mud-soaked crowd at Woodstock Music Festival, and began to play “The Star Spangled Banner.”
Over the previous three days, the dairy farm in rural Bethel, New York had been packed with 400,000 people; Hendrix, the highest paid act at the festival, was the last to take the stage, and only 30,000 remained to witness his tongue-in-cheek ode to America.
For three minutes and 43 seconds, the notes screamed and hissed and squealed from his instrument, voicing the frustrations of the nation’s youth. And right at the center of Hendrix’s iconic sound was a guitar effect called the “wah-wah pedal” (or simply, the “wah”).
Invented in the midst of a musical revolution in the 1960s, the wah became, in the words of one critic, “psychedelia’s non-psychotropic aid.” Rocked up and down, the pedal evoked sounds that mimicked the cries of a human voice, bridging the divide between music and vocal communication. From Clapton to the theme song for cult classic film “Shaft,” the wah immortalized itself as one of music history’s most recognizable and influential technologies.
How did this iconic invention come about? And how did it become such a fixture in popular culture? These questions led us on a long and winding road — one that fittingly begins with The Beatles.