Saturday, February 9, 2019

The Passing of Another Rock Music Giant You Never Knew

I learned today that one of the giants of rock music died on Thursday the 7th: Jim Dunlop, founder of Dunlop Manufacturing.  Jim was 82.

If you grew up with electric guitar-driven rock music, you know Jim's inventions, you just don't know his story.  Jim invented the Wah pedal.  Their most generic product is called the Cry Baby, but they have customized and refined the design many times over the years, tagging them for musicians from Jimi Hendrix to Joe Bonamassa and dozens of more models that are sold by (arguably) small variations in tone.  Hendrix's Voodoo Child is unrecognizable without the Wah pedal, as is the guitar solo in Chicago's 25 or 6 to 4 and hundreds or thousands of more songs.  (BTW, I'd recommend you just listen to the sound track on Voodoo Child and not watch the random, disconnected video).

Dunlop's corporate page dedicated to Jim opens this way
Born in Scotland in 1936, Jim traveled to Canada as a young man looking for new opportunities. There he met his bride and mother of his children, Bernice, and the two of them headed to California for warmer weather. By the 1960s, he had started a family and was working as a machinist and then mechanical engineer in the San Francisco Bay Area. Off-hours, he turned his lifelong interest in music to creating accessories for guitar players.

Jim’s fearless, innovative spirit led him to turn his hobby into a livelihood, and in 1965, he founded Dunlop Manufacturing, Inc. Finding local success with handmade capos, he made the life-changing decision to become a maker of guitar picks when his obsession for precision drove him to design guitar picks gauged by their true thickness.
The big problem that guitarists thought they were facing at that time was that the preferred material for guitar picks, sea turtle shells, was disappearing as the harvest was starting to be restricted.  Jim invented a nylon pick he called Tortex.  It's still a very popular product.

It has been said that the sound of modern rock was invented by a handful of guys.
  • Les Paul for inventing the iconic guitar bearing his name.  It has almost become a class of guitars with kit makers referring to the body shape as an LP guitar
  • Leo Fender for inventing the Telescaster and Stratocaster guitars as well as vacuum tube amplifiers that are still sought after for their tone
  • Jim Marshall The Father of Loud, for his amplifiers.  Often informally called a Marshall Stack.
  • Seth Lover for inventing the "humbucker" pickup that overcame the horrible line frequency audio hums that haunted early electric stage performances.  
I find it easy to accept the argument that Jim Dunlop should be added for the Wah pedal.  With his passing, all five of these greats are no longer with us. 

I also acknowledge that whenever you see a list of the five most important people in any field, it says at least as much about the person who made the list as the people in the list. 


  1. Hard to argue with that list.

  2. Replies
    1. Tom Scholz is definitely a big name, and this is where it gets down to what I said about a top five list probably says at least as much about the person who made the list as it does about the people on the list.

      In my mind, the Rockman is big but not as big those five inventions.

      Likewise Brian May of Queen, who did innovative phasing hook-ups on his own line of guitars. (Check the lead riff at about 1:45 in Killer Queen for the sounds of his phasing tricks) Cool stuff, but again a smaller impact.

  3. RIP Mr. Dunlop and thank you.
    You changed music for the better forever by opening up possibilities never before dreamed of.
    Greatt post SiG, thanks to you also for the information and the notice.

    1. I totally agree, Phil. A lot of my most loved songs from the sixties would not have been possible without men like Mr. Dunlop. Back in my misspent youth that music seemed almost life changing. I still get chills whenever I hear things like "Pictures Of Matchstick Men", which was the first thing that came to mind when reading this post......

  4. Whoa!
    I hadn't heard that one in a coon's age!
    I was just a little shaver when that one came out, 7 or 8 maybe?

    1. Yeah, I was 14. Getting old, man........

    2. Same age as me. In January of '68 when that came out, I was in 8th grade, so just turning 14.

      I didn't think of Matchstick men, but there are so many songs with a prominent Wah pedal nobody could list them all.

      IIRC, to this day, Slash uses nothing but a wah and a Marshall stack with his Les Paul. (I read it once on the Internet - it must be true!)