Six Masters of the Whammy

There are few guitar effects that can be so readily identified by ear as the DigiTech Whammy. Even to casual listeners, its sound is so unique that it is rather difficult to ever mistake it for something else. Besides just the sound, the Whammy's functionality and ease of manipulation practically beg the user to abuse it in dramatic fashion, further lending to its reputation and idiosyncratic sonic signature. All of this adds up to making the DigiTech Whammy one of the most iconic and recognizable pedals in the entire pantheon of guitar effects.

The Whammy's massive popularity stems partially from its unique sound and interactivity, and also from the fact that it has been prominently featured in the work of many well-known artists over the years, even making it into a number of genuine hit songs. Some of these artists are only occasional Whammy users, but a select handful are truly masterful manipulators of this distinctive effect. These Whammy masters can play the pedal as if it were an instrument itself, making it talk, sing, bomb, and barf with remarkable expressiveness and real musicality. Here are a few of my favorite masters of the Whammy pedal.

Agata

I'm going to begin with the least well known guitarist on this list, Ichirou Agata, of Japanese experimental noise rock geniuses Melt-Banana, both because he's a personal favorite of mine, and because he possesses a jaw-dropping mastery of the Whammy pedal. Melt-Banana's catalog is littered with Whammy squeals and divebombs, as is Agata's brilliant solo recording, Spike, but the band's "Shield for Your Eyes, a Beast in the Well on Your Hand" from 2003's Cell-Scape, is an absolute tour de force of Whammy madness. As far as I can tell Agata never turns the pedal off for the length of the song, deftly manipulating it throughout for effects both subtle and extreme, and the main guitar riff is undoubtedly one of the most badass, spine-tingling Whammy riffs of all time. Whammy maniacs, bow before Agata, for he is your king.

Melt-Banana - "Shield for Your Eyes, A Beast in the Well on Your Hand"

Jack White

One of today's most prolific Whammyists is Jack White of The White Stripes, The Dead Weather, The Raconteurs, and probably a bunch of other "The..." bands. White is a master of seamlessly incorporating the Whammy pedal, which one might be inclined to think of as a very modern, almost futuristic guitar effect, into his decidedly old-school mashup of punk, blues, and garage rock. In his hands, the Whammy often sounds surprisingly organic, blending with the saturated bark of his guitar and amp rig and magnifying its sweet upper-harmonic howl. His unhinged lead breaks in "Ball and Biscuit" are a great example of this application. White also uses the Whammy in very subtle fashion on "Seven Nation Army," where it is used in octave-down mode to convincingly mimic the sound of a bass guitar.

The White Stripes - "Ball and Biscuit"

John Scofield

There aren't a lot of legitimate jazz guitar icons that make extensive use of effects pedals, but John Scofield transcended the "jazz guitarist" label long ago. His more recent musical adventures find him diversifying extensively well beyond straight-ahead jazz, and along with these fresh musical developments, effects have become a bigger part of his sound. Sco is known for using an unusual variation of the Whammy, the XP-100 Whammy Wah, which incorporates wah, auto wah, volume, Whammy, and harmony effects. He uses quite a few of the presets extensively, particularly the auto wah, Whammy, and octave-up presets, and they can be heard throughout many of his recordings from the last fifteen years or so. The song "Blackout" from the Bump album has some deliciously tasteful Whammy manipulations beginning around the 1:17 mark, and is an excellent example of Scofield's sophisticated artistry with the effect.

John Scofield - "Blackout"

Buckethead

Buckethead is among the most virtuosic and relentlessly innovative guitarists on the planet right now. He combines nearly-unprecedented technical ability with a wild, fearless musical imagination, and he effortlessly adapts his peculiar style to any genre from straight-up metal, to funk and avant-garde jazz, to the "vicious ambient" stylings of his Death Cube K project. Of course he is also a master of effects, particularly the manually operated killswitches installed in his guitars, and the ever present Whammy pedal at his feet. By far the most well-known example of his Whammy (and killswitch) work is the song "Jordan," which became incredibly popular due to its appearance in Guitar Hero II, instantly vaulting Buckethead from cult shredder weirdo to household name. The main riff is a Whammy classic.

Buckethead - "Jordan"

Nels Cline

Speaking of innovative virtuosos, few guitarists embody both descriptors as completely as Nels Cline. A consummate musician, world-class improviser, and ever-restless sonic adventurer, Cline always pushes the music forward, whether he's playing subdued jazz, sculpting improvised guitar noise with Thurston Moore, or wielding a variety of stringed instruments with Wilco. His penchant for effects is well documented, and among his favorites is the original WH-1 DigiTech Whammy, which he masterfully controls to achieve everything from warped, dissonant harmonic bursts, to tortured sounding melodic passages. One can find numerous moments of creative Whammying throughout Cline's work, as the pedal has been a staple of his sound for quite some time now. A wonderful example is his short solo at the end of Wilco's "One Wing," starting at around the 3:17 mark. It begins rather subtly, but morphs quickly into a twisted, Whammy-bent yelp.

Wilco - "One Wing"

Tom Morello

If there's one guitarist whose name is practically synonymous with the DigiTech Whammy pedal, it's Tom Morello. Both with Rage Against the Machine and the various bands and projects that followed, Morello's inventive playing has frequently featured Whammy effects. Over the years he's used most versions of the pedal, from the original WH-1 in Rage's early years, to the latest Whammy DT that he uses today. For many players (me included), Morello's Whammy breaks on Rage Against the Machine's self-titled debut album were the first time they heard the effect in action, or at least the first time they had heard the pedal used in such a deft and unorthodox fashion. The solo from "Killing in the Name" is an oft-cited example of pioneering Whammy brilliance, and certainly a defining moment in the pedal's history. It is also directly responsible for selling at least a few gazillion of DigiTech's greatest creation over the years.

Rage Against The Machine - "Killing In The Name"

As the DigiTech Whammy is well into its third decade of existence, the list of notable artists that have used the effect has grown substantially. Besides those I've already discussed in this article, Pantera's Dimebag Darrell, Jonny Greenwood of Radiohead, Kevin Shields of My Bloody Valentine, David Gilmour, Steve Vai, and The Edge are all well-known Whammy players who have contributed substantially to the effect's lofty legacy (I've undoubtedly forgot to mention someone's favorite Whammyist, but that's the way it goes, so don't send too many angry emails). The fact that it is still so popular and continues to inspire so many guitarists speaks to the wealth of sonic possibilities that lurk within it, as well as to its interactive nature, which makes it very satisfying and tremendously fun to manipulate in real time. DigiTech constantly updates the Whammy with new features, and the company has recently begun expanding the Whammy family of effects by releasing individual elements of it a la carte in compact stompbox format, so it would seem that this iconic effect still has much to offer, and will undoubtedly be inspiring musicians decades from now.

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