Social Distortion

Bands need to stand out, no question. And ever since Chuck Berry first chicken-walked across the stage 50 years ago, it's the guitar player who has acted as the voice of his group. More than the drummer or the bassist, the guitarist feels the pressure of supplying the sound that distinguishes his band from countless others.

This holds true, in particular, for local guitar players, even if their desire to be unique merely means avoiding clichés instead of mining an original voice. They are the vanilla that wishes it were Bavarian chocolate.

There is a reason the local guitarist is all Blue Bell. And it's relatively tiny. It's an effects pedal, called the wah-wah, which generally looks like the accelerator on a riding lawn mower. That screaming waw-waw-waw-wuhhhhhhhhhhh you hear from 90 percent of local rockers around town comes courtesy of this machine, situated at the feet of guitarists. They plug their guitars into it, then it into their amplifiers, and operate the gadget (turn it on, off, up or down) from the stage by sneaker. It's just like any other distortion effect in that it helps give players that competitive edge. (God forbid they would practice.)

To be the Next Big Thing, most local guitarists are forgoing soul and technical proficiency for these abrasive cookie-cutter sounds, which they mistake for moments of originality. These players are no doubt influenced by the wah's faddish qualities and the still-fashionable wah-wah work of Hendrix (whose name is on a brand of pedal known in shorthand as the JH1FW Fuzz Wah Pedal) and Cream-era Clapton. Both popularized the effect that country pickers had been using since the late 1950s. After Hendrix died and Clapton went the way of the crisp-sounding Fender, and during the rise of hair-metal bands in the 1980s, young players lost interest in the pedal. Contemporary six-string slingers like Tom Morello with Rage Against the Machine and Steve Vai (who also sells a brand of wah-wah pedal, Bad Horsie) and acts like Soundgarden and the Screaming Trees brought the effect back into vogue in the early 1990s. Which makes you wonder if there should be a license to use a wah: Only after you've proved your ability to play wonderfully unaccompanied by any guitar effects will you earn your wah badge and gizmo. Unfortunately most local rock guitarists would fail.

"A lot of people use it for noise," says Chris Sacco, guitarist and lead singer of Dune, TX and one of the few players brave enough to employ the wah-wah artistically. If the wah pedal were a nuclear warhead, then Sacco's finger should be on the trigger. "It's cool if it fits, and some bands can do that, but a lot of them just get one effect through a whole song."

Overused wah is most noticeable in "solos." Expectedly. Constructing a solo is difficult. It takes a mix of inspiration (which comes only through hard work), technical mastery and a good -- no, make that great -- sense of intuitive direction, knowing where the next tone should be, then finding it on the fretboard (snap!) that fast. These portions of songs are glossed over by most local rockers. In their anxiousness to land that next gig, most guitar players blow off working out solos. They simply tell their bandmates, "Oh, I'll do a little something." What they mean is, "Oh, I'll just step on the wah and play staccato."

This hegemony of sound should not go unchecked. It stands to bring out the worst in fledgling axmen and -women. Wah-wah pedals should be used sympathetically and judiciously. They're tinsel, not the whole damn Christmas tree. And when every player in town begins to feel compelled to plug into a wah, a worse alternative will arise: Guitarists playing without any sonic aid. (God knows they're certainly not going to practice more.)

"It's a big deal right now," says Gary Burgess of Fuller's Vintage Guitars, which sells several brands of wah-wah pedals. "Things are still retro.Maybe the wah will be gone next year."

We can only hope.

'Round Town

Plenty of non-wah-wah musicians will be lining up for Houston Blues Society's third annual Regional Blues Talent Competition, which takes place this fall. The winner will be judged on five criteria and, in addition to taking home neat prizes, will be sent to Memphis in February to compete in the International Blues Challenge, sponsored by the Blues Foundation. Prospective entrants should contact HBS at (713)942-9427 or e-mail HBS president Diunna Greenleaf at [email protected] for more information. The deadline is September 22.

Speaking of wah-wah pedals, Mars Music has a shitload. Sales from the effects pedal probably account for half of the store's annual profits. So what's tens of thousands of dollars in prizes to them? Not much. But for some aspiring unsigned musician, that could buy enough wah-wah pedals to empty the Aerial in record time. Friday, September 1, is the last day to enter the store's nationwide music search competition. In addition to the prizes, the winner will be awarded a recording deal with the Box Music Network, an interactive 24-hour company. Entry forms are available at Mars superstores or on-line at Entrants must provide a CD of at least three original songs. Winners will be announced November 17.