The Story of the Digitech Whammy

There aren't many pieces of gear that passed into legend for revolutionizing rock music, and there are even less that continue to be relevant in current iterations even today. However, the Digitech Whammy is one of those.

If you're not all that into gear and simply use whatever you have at hand that gets the job done, you might be wondering what the hell is Digitech Whammy and what do I mean by saying that it changed the way rock was played at one point.

You know how deliciously Tom Morello's guitar wails during the solo from “Killing in the Name”? That's the Whammy at work. John Scofield's jazz-induced madness on “Blackout”? Whammy again. Jack White? Whammy. Buckethead? Whammy.
Dimebag Darrel, Steve Vai, Joe Satriani, David Gilmour, and Noel Gallagher have all been avid Whammy users throughout the years to name just a famous few more.

For those of you that are interested in a more granular explanation of what the Whammy does than “It's the thing that makes the guitar go ooo-wee-ooo”, here it goes: the Digitech Whammy was the first commercially available pitch-shifting unit which used a guitar pedal to control the rates by which the pitch is shifted.

Usually, pitch shifters work through an Octaver (a thing that adds a synthesized sound a couple of octaves above or below the original), combined with pitch bends and harmony shifts. The Whammy digitally produces such effects, has a wide variety of presets available and is controlled by a foot pedal.

Essentially, it is a digital equivalent of the vibrato (or “whammy”, hence the name) bar, but with a greatly enhanced pitch range with much more nuance and control, and without the danger of dropping out of tune.

This year marks the thirtieth anniversary of the Digitech Whammy, and throughout its respectable lifespan, the Whammy has gone through five iterations, each bringing variations of their own. So, let's take a look at just how the Whammy has changed throughout the years.

WH1, the first Whammy that came out back in 1989 was the original game-changer. Its nostalgia-inducing red body, which would set the signature aesthetic for the majority of later iterations, housed a pedal for pitch bending and a single rotary knob for sixteen presets.

Three of those effects attained legendary status: “Whammy”, which takes the signal up or down by full octaves; “Harmony”, which alternated the signal in harmonic increments; and “Detune”, for when you really wanted to go to town with pitch shifting. The WH1 ended its run in 1993, by which time it attracted a serious amount of attention within the guitar-playing community.

The redesigned Whammy II (1994-1998) dropped the now-iconic “Ferrari Red” color for black, and it came with a screen for effect engineering and storing presets. Given the Whammy's amazing popularity, Digitech also introduced a deep-blue-bodied Bass Whammy so that bass players could get their fix of flawless octave shifting effects as well.

Cue in XP-100 Whammy-Wah – this was the next big milestone in Whammy's history. An ambitious move from Digitech, the XP-100 Whammy-Wah strove to integrate wah effects in the signature octave shifting of the original Whammy.

This effort was met with mixed emotions of varying intensity by guitar players who had by then become full converts to the way of the Whammy, and due to its conflicting nature (and subsequent rarity), this iteration of the legendary pedal attained a cult following and can be now considered a true collector's item.

After a lesson hard-learned from the Whammy Wah's reception, Digitech came out with the Whammy IV, going back to the core idea of the pedal. During this era, the Digitech Whammy arguably reached the peak of its popularity and innovative relevance.

In fact, if you've ever heart the Digitech Whammy used in a famous song, chances are that you're hearing one from this generation. The Whammy IV went back to basics in more than one aspect – the gorgeous ‘Ferrari Red' once again shone on its body, and the interface being not much more than a single pedal and a knob for effect selection - while adding a few subtle improvements, such as midi integration and a new feature called ‘Dive Bomb'.

Next came the Digitech Whammy DT (short for Drop Tune), released in 2011, which extended the pitch shifting capabilities and featured right-side crescendo LEDs to display the range of the sound as it soared or dive-bombed.

Currently, the Whammy is living in its fifth iteration, which essentially took the idea behind the Whammy DT and crystallized it even further. The Whammy V got rid of DT's Drop Tune controls and renamed the ‘Drop Tune' setting as ‘Second Down' while getting rid of the ‘Second Up' setting altogether.

There is one important feature added to the Whammy V however, and that's the ability to switch between ‘Classic' and ‘Chord' modes. Given that none of the previous iterations were polyphonic, playing chords with the Whammy active resulted in what Digitech representatives described as ‘glitch-fest', and the newly-introduced ‘Chord' mode allows you to indulge in Whammied chord-playing that actually sounds decent.

Since its early days, the Whammy has gone quite a long way and has radically innovated the way we play and feel about our favorite instrument. And although there are many pitch shifters available nowadays, none have earned the right to go down in the annals of rock as the iconic Digitech Whammy did.

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1 comment

  • Hello, I have a Whammy DT pedal. I was hoping to change from standard tuning to Eb tuning by moving the shift down one click. Hoping to then have Eb tuning, but the sound I’m getting is way out of tune and not “clean.” I am running my guitar directly through the DT pedal and to a PA speaker. No effects in between. Am I doing something wrong? Just wanted to get a clean Eb tune. Any advice is greatly appreciated ! Steve

    Steve

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