Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, George Harrison — none of them would sound quite like they do without Del Casher. In the mid-'60s, Casher helped develop a device he envisioned as the new voice of the guitar. He called it the wah-wah pedal.
The wah made it possible to take the electric guitar from a harsh sound to a softer one with a simple rock of the foot. Here's a demonstration of a wah-wah pedal in action:
Now in his 70s, the pedal's inventor runs a studio in Burbank and still writes and performs. But before Casher came to California, he was an Indiana kid fascinated with musicians like Django Reinhardt and Les Paul.
Casher's dad bought him a Sears Roebuck guitar for $9.95 Casher got to work modifying his electric guitars just like Les Paul. It was also Casher's father who suggested he go to Los Angeles to pursue music further — but like so many who come to Southern California to pursue a dream, Casher wasn't thinking realistically.
His big plan was to ask Lawrence Welk (of "The Lawrence Welk Show") if he had a job for him during an autograph signing.
"As I approached him I said, 'Mr. Welk I'm not here for an autograph, I'd like to play guitar in your orchestra, because I'm from Hammond, Indiana and I play really great guitar," Casher said. "And he looked at me and he said 'Absolutely not!'"
After Welk turned him down, Casher landed a job playing with the Three Suns at L.A.'s hottest night club: The Coconut Grove. Before long, it was Welk who was calling Casher to solo with his orchestra.
Casher says he always tinkered with his sound, looked for ways to make his guitar do new things. His biggest idea came while he was playing guitar with a traveling group of musicians' Vox amplifiers put together in order to show off their products.
"I turned a knob. And I turned the wrong knob because that knob went 'wow.' And I said, 'That's the sound I've been looking for!' So I went to Stan Cutler, who was head of engineering, and I said 'Stan, you know that little knob over there on that amplifier, could you put that in a pedal?'"
The wah-wah pedal was born. Now Casher keeps the original in a bright red case
But to Casher's surprise, the people at Vox didn't get it. Casher got Joe Banaran, the chairman of Vox, to take a listen. But, according to Casher, Banaran saw the wah-wah pedal for trumpets and trombones — not guitars.
Casher knew he had to sell people on the wah-wah for guitar, so he got creative. He made a Vox Wah-Wah demo record in his own garage studio. Casher even tried showing the pedal off for James Brown, but Brown wasn't interested either.
It wasn't looking good for the wah.
"I got nobody on my side," Casher said. "I'm thinking I'll call up my friend Frank Zappa. I told Frank, 'The wah-wah pedal is really something you should consider, because I can't get anyone else to go for it.'"
Zappa found plenty of uses for the wah — and Casher says that's how Jimi Hendrix got turned on to it.
"The biggest fame that Jimi had got with the wah pedal was playing Woodstock, which was 1969," Casher said. "Everybody said, 'how's he getting that magical sound?' Well, just call me up, I'll tell you how to do it, I already been doing it for two years."
Once you start listening for the wah, you'll hear it everywhere. From Funkadelic solos, to Led Zeppelin licks, to Isaac Hayes' Academy Award-winning theme for "Shaft."
George Harrison even wrote a song called "Wah-Wah" and in it gave the pedal plenty of playing time.
"The wah-wah pedal was a device that was allowing him to express a particular feeling," said Casher. "That was exactly my vision for the pedal. Everybody has whatever they want it to be and the wah-wah enables them to do that."