Wah-Wah Pedals

An Evaluation of Effects and Pedals
An Evaluation of Effects and Pedals

The idea for this article came about when I purchased a box of effects pedals from the owner of a music store which had closed in the late seventies. Most were new old stock Electro-Harmonix with a few other brands mixed in. I spent several hours deciding which I found useful and thought others might profit from the information. This is a totally subjective evaluation, and I’m sure my opinions wouldn’t be of value to a metal player or others of that ilk. I play and write blues, regae, R&B, and classic rock. I have searched diligently through the years for the Duane Allman, Dickey Betts type guitar sound. The violin type sustain of a Les Paul has always inspired me, and I’ve played a 1959 Les Paul flame top for most of my guitar playing career. After playing through at least 50 different amps the last two years I arrived at the ever popular 1956 Fender Bassman. Mine has reconed Jensen P-10R’s, is outfitted with a matched set of NOS Tungsol 5881’s, and after using all RCA 12AX7’s, I went to the original Bassman configuration of 2 12AY7’s so as not to overdrive the power tubes so much. This amp is a dual rectifier amp and sounds delicious at all volumes with all types of guitars. I go into detail here as this amp was my tone base for all testing.

Another point I want to mention here is many acts I’ve heard and admired over the years were playing in large venues, football stadiums, large auditoriums, etc., allowing the guitar players to overdrive their amps with no worry about blowing the audience through the back wall. Those of us working in smaller venues, clubs etc., have a different problem to deal with. Achieving a singing sustain and fat tone in a small rehearsal space or a club is a different animal entirely. I usually don’t run my amp over three or four in these situations, and mic it when playing larger venues. My amp only puts out 40 watts or less and is sufficient for most playing situations.

Since writing the above preamble several months ago some things have changed. First, I purchased a 1966 Fender Vibrolux reverb. It is equipped with Sovtek 5881’s and puts out about 35 watts. Although it doesn’t sound as good as my Bassman, it’s quite portable to take to jam sessions and when sitting in at a club. It, of course, has built-in reverb and is easy to carry and set up quickly. It also has Jensen speakers and, other than the reverb, doesn’t significantly alter the sound of the various effects tested when I A/B the effects between the two amps.

The other thing is, with a little help from my friends, and a lot of looking on my part, this article has gone from covering some dozen effects to covering dozens of effects. My initial research has led me to fellow players saying, “Hey, if you like the MXR Distortion Plus, try the ProCo Rat,” etc. Presently I have three large drawers filled with various effects, seven Wah-Wah pedals, several very interesting articles dealing with the above, and apparently an endless chore! I’ve come to realize I couldn’t possibly review the multitude of effects gizmos gushing forth from the mid 60s to the onslaught of digital signal processing. I am going to cover as much ground as possible, and it is for that reason this article will be two or more parts.

I conclude this introduction by saying I have switched back to all analog effects, and I feel I’m getting a much warmer and more musical tone from my guitar and amp by doing so. Granted there is a trade-off in convenience. Rack mounted gear is faster to hook up at the gig, and midi makes programming digital effects easy and versatile; ie. a different reverb for each effect, fifty different chorus types, etc. I use straight guitar with reverb for 85% of my playing, controlling overdrive with my guitar volume knob. As for the other 15%, I just want one excellent chorus sound, or one ideal Wah-Wah, not fifty mediocre digitally synthesized ones. I don’t want guitar tone like the guitar player I hear on every beer commercial!

The Wah-Wah Pedal
The preceding having been established, it is only fitting that part one of my article deals with the Wah Wah. In the early seventies my primary effects were a CryBaby Wah, a MXR Distortion Plus, and a MXR Phase 90 (both script logo models). Interesting to note here, my Phase 90 stopped working during a recording session at The Record Plant in Sausalito. I sent a roadie out to buy me a new one, which turned out to be a block logo model. The difference in timbre was so great I ended up omitting the effect on the cut we were working on. It wasn’t until a few years ago I found out about the difference between the script and block logo MXR products, but more on that in part two. The CryBaby was the most common Wah of its day and, as I recall, it was quite adequate, I’m sure I wouldn’t have kept using it if I found its quality inferior. It employed the infamous TDK 5130 inductor. I know that for a fact because I still own it and I checked. I made the Wah-Wah part one of my article because next to straight guitar tone Wah was the effect I used the most.

It is outside the scope of this article to deal too thoroughly with history as the author’s intent is to help fellow players find the most useful instrument (Wah) for their purposes.

The first wah type sounds were obtained by pioneer electric guitarists working the tone knob, a technique still used today, especially by country players playing Teles. Circa the mid 1960s Vox came up with the first commercially successful unit. This first model was named the “Clyde McCoy” model after a trumpet player who asked Vox for a device to make a keyboard sound like a muted trumpet.

The Clyde models are the most sought after by collectors with early models having his picture on the bottom and later models only a signature. They were manufactured in Italy and sold by Thomas Organ in the U.S. The sound caught on with great success and songs of the late sixties and seventies are permeated with wah-wah.

The following has been quoted from an article in the May 1992 issue of Guitar Player entitled “Wah: The Pedal That Wouldn’t Die”, by Art Thompson. I highly recommend this article for more on the subject of wahs. However, I would like to take issue with a couple points mentioned concerning Vox wahs:

“The introduction of the Vox Crybaby pedal around 1968 came about because the U.S. distributor, Thomas Organ, and the European distributor, JMI, both wanted to sell the Wah-Wah but neither wanted the other to have the same pedal. Vox solved this by slapping the Crybaby name on the same model for the American market. The story goes that when Vox needed a new name for the pedal, they asked one of their distributors to describe the wah’s sound. The response was ‘it sounds like a baby crying.’ Also at this time, Vox and Thomas Organ introduced a new model designated V846 that used a Japanese inductor made by TDK instead of the Italian made inductor. Most purists agree that this change degraded the sound of these pedals, but in the informal test we conducted, our favorite (because of its almost human vocal quality and vomiting sounds) was an excellent sounding V 846…

“The next major change occurred when Vox came out with the King Wah, the first unit made completely in the United States. Vox also tried different variations on the wah theme, such as the bass wah and the fuzz wah. It should also be noted that by the late ’60s there were probably 40 or 50 different manufactures making wah-wah pedals on both sides of the Atlantic…..

“Most pedal gurus consider the Clyde series to be rather thin and cheesy-sounding when compared to later models.”

At this juncture I’d like to introduce Mr. Geoffrey Teese. I was introduced to Geoffrey by my close friend, George Cole, a professional player/teacher in the L.A. area. George told me that Geoffrey had modified his ’70s CryBaby to old Vox standards and it sounded remarkably better. I called Geoffrey and since then we have become friends via many telephone conversations. Geoffrey is the “authorized vintage Vox wah repairman”, and has done more research and has more information on vintage wahs than anyone I know! Geoffrey has been invaluable in the preparation of this part of my article, and I thank him.

Geoffrey modified my ’70s CryBaby to “Clyde McCoy” standards and I agree with George, the mod made all the difference. I thought the CryBaby was pretty good until I heard the difference in timbre and tonal sweep after Geoffrey reworked it. I introduce Geoffrey here because I agree with what he had to say regarding the last part of the Guitar Player article quoted above.

“The GP article says pedal gurus consider the Clydes to be ‘rather thin and cheesy-sounding when compared to later models.’ I disagree! The TDK 5103 square inductor had ‘almost human vocal quality and vomiting sounds.’ Again I disagree! The Vox/USA V846 changed much more than just the inductor. Everything but the very basic resistors were changed, making the V846/King-Vox Wah/Crybaby virtually an entirely new pedal (lumped together because they all shared circuitry, layout, and componentry). If Clydes are ‘thin and cheesy sounding’ then why are they commanding such a high price tag?”

The issue here isn’t one of being right or wrong! The sound one likes is a very subjective animal. I personally agree with Geoffrey about the wah sound being much better before the TDK inductor. I also don’t have much use for a “vomiting sound” when I’m playing, but others may have. Another gray area is the naming of the Vox verses Crybaby name used for U.S. distribution. One pedal I tested was a Vox Crybaby made in Italy. This doesn’t fit in with the Thomas ‘Crybaby name theory’ mentioned above. Also, I’ve had trouble dating the exact years of issue of the Clyde McCoy. If the GP article is accurate, the Vox Wah was manufactured in 1966. The Vox V846 replaced the Clyde in April, 1967. This apparently leaves one short year for the picture and signature model Clydes to have been on the market. Thomas Organ signed distribution rights with Tom Jennings (Vox), in 1964. The original inductor used in these early pedals (the 80-5048-7 discussed later) was taken off microfilm as being created on 4/22/63. This makes the author wonder if the inception date of the wah might not be earlier than 1966?

What an inductor is and does may be found in a basic electronics book. However, a layman’s definition is in order as the inductor and caps play such an instrumental role in the overall qualities of the wah. Mr. Teese supplied me with the following explanation: “An inductor is a type of coil that influences the amount of time it takes a signal to go from one point to another.”

I have seen four variations of inductors in the pedals I’ve tried for this section on wahs. The first, in my Italian Vox V846, looks like a small version of the old aluminum film canisters and has ‘500’ ink stamped on the top. This is generally referred to as the “canister” type inductor. The second looks like a stack of three or four dimes covered with a dark reddish brown material. The original Jennings Musical Instrument (Vox) part number was 09-5905-0. Thomas Organ changed this part number to 80-5048-7 in order to conform to their numbering system. This is the inductor Geoffrey refers to as the “48”. The third is the infamous TDK 5103, a brown cube manufactured in Japan. It’s interesting to note here that pedals manufactured in Sepelvuda, Ca. used the TDK 5103 while pedals manufactured in the Midwest during this same time period retained the “48” style inductor.

The last was a unique find. A month ago I bought a Wah Baby made in Italy. I called Geoffrey because I’d never seen an inductor like it. The inductor was mounted perpendicular to the circuit board and was bright red. I was describing it to Geoffrey when I grabbed my reading glasses to tell him what it said on the back. It said FASEL! Too hip! I was jazzed. All the inductors except the Fasel were mounted flush on the circuit board. Geoffrey contends that though they have different casings, these inductors are all the same. The only major difference is the TDK 5103.

I want to mention that the tone of your individual wah may be adjusted to your personal taste by simply pulling back the rubber retaining loop, which applies pressure to the shaft, and rotating the pot to change where the shaft engages the pot. This will change the tone range emphasized by the pot i.e. more or less treble or bass.

A brief anecdote here. My friend Frank Hayhurst, owner of Zone Music in Cotati, Ca., had a band named The Bronze Hog in the ’70s. They had the distinction of opening for Jimi Hendrix. Frank relates when he inspected Jimi’s rig he noticed the bottom left rubber foot missing from Jimi’s Crybaby Wah-Wah. When he asked one of the equipment guys why Jimi didn’t fix it, the reply was, “Jimi leaves nothing to chance, it’s removed to tilt the wah at the angle he finds comfortable.”

Now the meat and potatoes. One major flaw with my research was I didn’t have a Clyde McCoy to compare with my other pedals. From what I’ve learned doing this part of my article, this was the first generation of inductors and capacitors. However, my Wah Baby made in Italy has the original style caps and the famous Fasel inductor. It looks like a CryBaby except for the white rubber border around the edge of the cover plate. I’m sure it was a variant of the Vox/Thomas line. This had to serve as my Clyde McCoy stand in.

I evaluated the following pedals: An Italian Vox V846 with the cannister type inductor; an American Vox V846 with the TDK inductor; my original Crybaby model 95-910511 from the ’70s, originally with the TDK inductor and caps from that period, and then modified to Clyde McCoy specs by Mr. Teese; a Vox King Wah model 95-932011 with TDK inductor; the Italian Wah Baby (no model #) with the Fasel inductor; a Crybaby model 95-910511 with the “stack of dimes” covered with reddish brown material (this is the type inductor Geoffrey put in my Crybaby when he modified it); an Electro-Harmonix Crying Tone Bender; the new Vox V847; a Morley Power Wah from the ’70s; a Vox Crybaby made in Italy model 95-9109511 with the canister type inductor; and the new Jim Dunlop Crybaby. A short synopsis is as follows; I didn’t care for the Morley at all which is probably why one sees these chrome, AC powered, Fruehauf truck looking son-of-a-guns sitting gathering dust at many music stores. They are very well built but don’t sound good, although I understand Carlos Santana has used one for years. The Jim Dunlop CryBaby lacks tone and sweep, in my opinion. The best of the reissues I’ve tried is the Vox V847, but it doesn’t favorably compare with any of my vintage pedals.

My least favorite vintage pedal was my CryBaby. After Geoffrey modified it, it became my favorite, just edging out my Italian made pedals. My Vox V846 Italy sounds great. It has nasal, piercing highs and an excellent tonal sweep. The Wah Baby sounded almost identical. It was excellent, but I couldn’t discern a noticeable difference between its sound and my Vox V846 Italy.

I want to mention that Geoffrey went through all these vintage pedals, save the E-H Crying Tone Pedal, to make sure they were in top operational condition. My CryBaby was the only one he modified. The American Vox V846 and King Vox Wah sound good but lack the range and richness of tone of the others, probably due to the inductor and caps. They both sounded better than the new Vox V847.

The E-H Crying Tone Pedal is really interesting. A knob on the right side of the chassis selects it to be a wah or volume pedal. The first of two knobs on the left side of the chassis select regular or reverse wah; i.e., pressing the pedal down can make it emphasize bass rather than the normal treble. The second knob selects one of four tone ranges to be affected. This is a good sounding pedal, but is a little to tricky for me. I want just one great sounding wah-wah pedal.

The Vox CryBaby made in Italy sounded almost identical to my Vox V846 Italy but with slightly less treble. They both use the canister inductor, but the caps are different.

The final pedal I wish to discuss is the CryBaby with the reddish brown circular inductor. For some inexplicable reason it sounds entirely different from the others. Maybe it’s the relationship of the shaft to the pot, I don’t know. It is smooth and warm with lots of tone. It reminds me of a good jazz style wah, if there was such a thing.

In summation, the original style inductors and caps greatly affect performance. If I were to choose an unmodified pedal to use on stage, it would unquestionably be an Italian made Vox/Thomas pedal. This also seems to be the pedal of choice of many big league players. This doesn’t rule out the different vintage brands mentioned in the Guitar Player article. I’ve heard the Gretsch and Colorsound wahs were excellent.

A friend of mine recently saw my Wah Baby and said it looked exactly like his old Gretsch Playboy Wah. After further investigation, I found out from Geoffrey that JEN, the Italian company that made the Wah Baby, did produce the entire JEN line of effects for sale in the U.S. with the Gretsch name; wahs, fuzzes, frequency (ring) modulators, etc. The Colorsound/Solasound pedals were made by CBS/Arbiter, in Shoeburyness, England. About this time, CBS/Arbiter had rights to Vox, and was making the Vox Wah, the one that looks like the V846 but with the white rubber ring around the base. The time line is around the mid 70’s.

Those old monsters; time and money, prevent me from buying and trying more wah-wahs. I am presently using my Teese modified CryBaby on stage. I used it last month, at a club called The Blue Note, running directly into a ’66 Fender Vibrolux. The sound drew a lot of attention. The characteristics of the pedal changed in this louder playing situation. The pedal sounded good at low volume (2-3) in my home studio but really shined at the louder (6-7) club volume. The pedal offered me singing controlled feedback, a nasty treble boost when left in the down position, and a lyrical, almost human voice type wah. Like any effect, I use it sparingly, but when I do it adds a wonderful spice to my guitar sound.

I would like to say that the best sounding effects I’ve evaluated for this article seem to be the ones in greatest demand. A rule of thumb seems to be the “cream rises to the top”; e.g., the Clyde McCoy, the Ibanez TS-9, etc. The sound these effects produce is what makes them endure, other than a specialized sound, like the Maestro Fuzztone used on “Satisfaction”, or the Univibe used to get that “Hendrix sound”.

This article originally appeared in VG‘s Feb. ’95 issue.