Thomas Organ Company Cry Baby Wah
Even though the most obscure effects often become the most collectible, the Cabinet would become a trove of curiosities rather than a real collection without a few stone-cold classics. And a classic doesn’t achieve such a status without a real story. Though you wouldn’t think so, the modest Cry Baby wah has one of the most convoluted histories of all effects, but it starts with the Beatles.
To condense this into a bite-sized piece, Vox amps were manufactured and sold by two different companies. If you were an American guitarist, chances are the Vox amps you were buying came from the Thomas Organ Company, while players in Europe enjoyed the designs of Dick Denney, under the guidance of JMI, Vox’s parent company founded by Thomas Jennings, himself the original founder of Vox. These English-made amps were just a bit more en vogue than their American counterparts, courtesy of the Fab Four.
Eventually, Thomas decided to create a new line of amplifiers that were centered around the Beatles, namely the Super Beatle amp, and with it, the choice to completely transistorize each amp rather than fill them with vacuum tubes. The decision was made to double down on Beatlemania; the reasoning was that these lower-cost amps would find themselves in as many hands as possible. In the midst of this Beatlization, Thomas, headed by a big bandleader named Bill Page, assigned an engineer named Brad Plunkett to transistorize the popular MRB circuit found in Jennings-made Vox amps.
This circuit consisted of a rotary switch filled with capacitors and inductors that formed a band pass filter, of which there were three positions. Imagine a wah pedal with three different frequencies and no sweepable filter! After Plunkett housed his circuit in an old organ expression pedal, Page grabbed his saxophone and played through it. Everyone loved the sound of the sax through the pedal, and the CEO of Thomas made the decision to sell it as a wind instrument effect. An employee of Thomas remarked to Reed that the sound reminded him of a trumpet mute used by Clyde McCoy on his rendition of “Sugar Blues” and suddenly, this new device was a Clyde McCoy signature model, whether McCoy himself used it or not.
From there, manufacturing splintered as it was prone to do in those days, with certain factories licensing effects to other companies that eagerly bought and rebranded them. The earliest wahs were built in Italy, and they continued making them while Vox and Thomas figured it out amongst themselves. Thomas changed the stateside release’s name to “Cry Baby” but failed to trademark it, and so imitators were cropping up everywhere. And since the wah pedal was a relatively new development, everyone had to have it and all but the most die-hard brand loyalists didn’t care whose hands were building them.
This is the reason there are so many different manufacturers of vintage wah pedals, so many unofficial names such as the “picture wah,” named for the picture of Clyde McCoy on the bottom panel, and so many related to crying, several of which I actually own---the Apollo Crier, the Maxon Blubber and so on and so forth. For a time, it was the Wild West out there. Most of these feature nearly identical component values but vary wildly on the one component that wah geeks say makes all the difference: the inductor.
If it weren’t for the wah pedal, many casual pedal electronics dabblers might not know that an inductor is an actual electronic component. But because so much effort has been made to replicate the wah pedals of yesteryear, there are myriad types of aftermarket inductors out there, in addition to the ones used in the actual pedals. And even back in wah’s heyday, these inductors were varied and plentiful. Today’s wah fans identify older pedals chiefly by these inductors, and with that long-winded intro, I give you this week’s piece, my very own Thomas Organ Company Cry Baby, built in 1977 in Chicago.
To understand the lore behind these wahs is to understand the manufacturing regions. While the first Cry Baby pedals were built in Sepulveda, California, the second run was built in Italy. However, the bulk of Thomas Organ wahs were manufactured in one of two places: Sepulveda (for the second time) and Chicago, Illinois. Of these two, most of the Sepulveda pedals use what came to be known as the “TDK” inductor, because it was, well, made by TDK and said as much on the component. And most of the Chicago pedals featured what came to be known as the “stack of dimes” inductor, because that’s what it looks like. Mine was the rare case, a Chicago model with a TDK inductor. I swapped it out for a Whipple inductor, my favorite aftermarket, and with Q1’s emitter resistor changed from a 470 ohm to a 255 ohm precision resistor because I’m bougie like that, and the 1.5K changed to 1.2K to decongest the mids. That’s how I like it and I’m sticking to it.