PICTURE, IF YOU WILL, ALL THE MILLIONS OF stompboxes, effects, and guitar pedals in the world. Now imagine a family tree with all those pedals leading back to the one device that started the whole shebang. At the very top of that family tree would be this lovely art decostyled volume and tone pedal, the 1937 Rocco Tonexpressor—the very first guitar pedal. The idea of the pedal came from the automobile’s accelerator, and the first known use of a volume pedal for musical purposes was with the early electric theater organs. However, it would take the ingenuity of an obscure steel guitarist named Anthony Rocco to take those ideas and apply them to the world of the electric guitar.
Rocco was one of the earliest electric steel-guitar players, and he carved out a career for himself in the New York City area, playing with big bands and orchestras. In addition, he befriended Epi Stathopoulo, who manufactured Epiphone guitars, and Rocco came on board as advisor to the company.
Based on Rocco’s designs and inventions, Epiphone began manufacturing a whole line of Rocco devices in 1937, including a Rocco doubleneck steel guitar, a Rocco signature steel bar, and the innovative Rocco Tonexpressor, a combination volume and tone pedal.
When you open it up, the Tonexpressor looks like some kind of antique telephone switchboard with gears, transformers, and a series of relay switches. The volume control (up and down) worked in a fairly normal way, with a potentiometer and a string, but the tone control (side to side) produced three distinct tonal characteristics that can only be described as bass, treble, and super-treble, to make the familiar “doo-ahh” sound effect that was popular among steel-guitar players for several decades. Many years later the same basic concept was applied in a different musical context to become the wah-wah pedal, but we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
Rocco’s inventions were ahead of their time and, as such, sold poorly on initial release. Steel guitarist Jody Carver remembers Rocco playing around New York City for decades (where Carver got him to autograph the promo photo shown here), but then Rocco slipped into obscurity, a forgotten innovator in the world of electric guitar.
It’s humorous to imagine Anthony Rocco in the middle of a modern-day music store, listening as dozens of kids blare guitars through flangers, choruses, distortions, and wah pedals. For that noise—and the invention of the first guitar pedal—we thank you, Mr. Rocco.