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Clyde McCoy and the Evolution of the Wah Wah Sound

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Clyde McCoy's Sugar BluesI tell ya folks, I learn somethin’ new every day from my passion for music and the hobby of collecting records.  Case in point, a record I picked up at a garage sale by an artist I’d never heard of, simply due to the nifty early-’50s cover art: Sugar Blues by Clyde McCoy.  Turns out to be ’50s era “new” recordings of Clyde’s hits and faves from the ’20s and ’30s in the new high-fidelity recording medium of magnetic tape and featuring his style of trumpet playing, a foreshadow of later electronic Wah Wah pedal effects made popular by the likes of Jimi Hendrix, Frank Zappa, and many others in the 1960s and ’70s.

The albums is a nice melange of Dixieland and bluesy early jazz pieces featuring Clyde’s soloing over it all. Pleasant stuff.

But then I checked Wikipedia to find out more about who Clyde McCoy was. And if the information there is all true and genuine, which it appears to be (well, sorta…), then you can file Clyde under O.M.G.! 

First we find that…

McCoy was a member of one of the families of the Hatfield-McCoy feud

And then…

McCoy developed a signature “wah-wah” sound in the late 1920s by fluttering a Harmon mute in the bell of his trumpet. In 1967, this distinctive sound was replicated for electric guitar with the introduction of the Vox Clyde McCoy Wah-Wah Pedal, the most significant guitar effect of its time.[3] The Wah-wah pedal was invented by a young engineer named Brad Plunkett,[4] who worked for the Thomas Organ Company, Vox/JMI’s U.S. counterpart. The wah circuit basically sprang from the 3-position midrange voicing function used on the Vox Super Beatle amplifier.

And then…

Vox … named the new device after Clyde McCoy. Early versions of the Clyde McCoy pedal featured an image of McCoy on the bottom panel,[5] which soon gave way to his signature only before Thomas Organ changed the name of the pedal to Cry Baby. Thomas Organ’s failure to trademark the Cry Baby name soon led to the market being flooded with Cry Baby imitations from various parts of the world, including Italy, where the McCoy pedals were originally made.[4]

Reportedly this is Jimi Hendrix's original Vox Clyde McCoy Wah Wah pedal

Reportedly this is Jimi Hendrix’s original Vox Clyde McCoy Wah Wah pedal

So, basically, the Wah-Wah stylings of Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, George Harrison and many others, were (in theory) effectively influenced by this fellow.  There is a ton of info on the Wiki about the ins and outs of how the pedal developed — it was originally (miss)marketed as a device for wind instruments, thus the Clyde McCoy connection. 

In writing this, something has been gnawing at me and I couldn’t find answer for this article. Maybe an answer will arise because of it however.  You see, I always had connected the Wah-Wah sound to Duke Ellington trumpeter Bubber Miley, who created the effect using a plunger over the bell of his trumpet.  So I was surprised to learn about Clyde McCoy, who had an — arguably — significantly lesser career than Ellington’s.  Here is another Wiki page (again, assuming all of this is correct) that credits not only Bubber Miley but also Tricky Sam Nanton, also of Ellington’s band, as co-pioneers of the sound.

And there are reports of many others having played with the Wah-Wah sound previously on guitar, including Chet Atkins, who employed it on some recordings in the ’50s by way of his own inventions.

Clearly this is a topic others have talked about.  If you are curious, here are more links to check out on the topic:

I came across a blogger who had a similar ah-ha moment when finding this very same record as I did at an antique shop.

Oh, one last detail about Clyde McCoy — he apparently co-founded one of the most influential magazines in jazz history: Down Beat. I seriously feel like I should have known more about this guy before now.

Here’s a cool clip with the guy who actually invented the Wah-Wah pedal for guitar, in which he discusses its initial miss-marketing as a wind instrument effect.

Still, I’m left wondering who really invented the Wah-Wah sound first back in the day.

Here is a Duke Ellington clip featuring Bubber Miley playing Wah-Wah style trumpet using a plunger mute in 1927:


Here is Clyde McCoy’s hit from 1931. Granted, McCoy was apparently making his Wah-Wah effect using a Harmon Mute (later used a lot by Miles Davis).

But still… I find it curious that Clyde got memorialized on the original Vox Wah Wah pedal and not someone like Bubber Miley or Tricky Sam Nanton. It’s curious.

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