Before it was The Guitar Behind Dylan and Cohen, Ron Cornelius’ Gretsch Country Gentleman was the guitar behind Chevrolet’s 1966 Commercial of the Year. Maybe that doesn’t sound as glamorous, but for many young musicians, commercials are a great way to open doors. One of the doors this success opened for Ron gave him first hand knowledge of the history of the wah wah pedal. It also taught him that you just can’t be right all of the time.
History of the Wah Wah Pedal
Before we delve into the history, we should first explain, for the uninitiated, what a wah wah pedal is. A wah wah pedal, (or sometimes just wah pedal), is named for the wahhhh sound it causes guitars to make when pressed. If you’re a fan of Jimi Hendrix’s music, you’re well acquainted with the sound.
Just listen to the way Jimi uses the wah wah pedal to drag out the chords at Woodstock in 1969. The rise and fall of those pulled out chords- the “wah wah”- is a sound produced by a simple pedal that looks like a gas pedal.
It makes sense that Jimi was among the first electric guitar players to really latch on to the wah wah pedal. After leaving the U.S. Army, Jimi traveled to England and became a session musician. In England, VOX was a popular musical instrument company so he was exposed early on to all they had to offer.
In 1967 in the U.S., where Ron was making strides in his musical career, the wah wah pedal wasn’t even on the radar yet. Ron’s role in the Chevrolet commercial put him first in line when VOX decided to venture across the pond.
The First U.S. Wah Wah
VOX contacted Ron and his band mates and asked them to help promote the VOX line of instruments in the U.S. In the package they received were all sorts of goodies, including a strange looking pedal. To say Ron didn’t like it would be an understatement.
In fact, Ron didn’t like most of the instruments sent by VOX. That’s why on the demos produced to promote VOX instruments, it’s not a VOX that you hear played. It’s Ron’s Gretsch! It’s probably best that “video marketing” wasn’t as important then as it is now.
After years of performing without it, Ron found the wah wah pedal difficult to use. In many of the recordings, he didn’t even try to use his foot to manipulate it. Instead, he handed it off to a friend who used his hands to coax the pedal’s now signature sounds.
Tossed in a Box
Being part of promoting the first VOX instruments to hit U.S. shores had its perks. Ron and his band mates were able to keep all of the equipment they’d used to make the demos. Though skeptical, Ron decided to keep the first wah wah pedal in the U.S. as a novel souvenir.
That’s right. The first wah wah pedal to make it to the U.S. was considered little more than a novelty. I guess not even the best musicians can be right all of the time.
Imagine Ron’s surprise when other musicians began to pick it up! Fortunately, Ron still had the pedal. He dusted it off and accepted the life lesson. Today he is proud to be a part of the history of the wah wah pedal.
If you’re a new musician just trying to figure the wah wah pedal out, don’t be discouraged. It takes time and practice to get the technique right. If you don’t want to invest the time, you could just have a friend work it by hand. Better yet, you could study a video tutorial, like this one:
For more great stories from this accomplished musician’s life, be sure to check out Ron Cornelius’ new book, The Guitar Behind Dylan and Cohen. Autographed copies are available exclusively on the Gateway Entertainment website.