Dennis Coffey Recalls Introducing the Wah-Wah Pedal to Motown

August 13, 2019

Dennis Coffey is a Detroit legend, and it's safe to say that without him, the sound of Motown wouldn't be the same.

Coffey's career began when he was just a teenager in the mid-1950s, after he first learned to play guitar with his cousins in Michigan's upper peninsula. 

Soon afterwards, he hit the studio as a session musician, and later joined the band The Royaltones, who enjoyed modest success with hits like "Poor Boy" and "Flamingo Express." By the late 1960s, Coffey was performing with the Motown studio band, the Funk Brothers, and became responsible for introducing a more rock-heavy guitar sound into the mix.

During a recent epsiode of Behind the Mic with Pam Rossi, Coffey recalled the reaction in the Hitsville studio when he busted out a wah-wah pedal during his first-ever Motown recording session for The Temptations' song, "Cloud Nine" in 1968.

"I think it was the first time [the wah-wah pedal] was used on an R&B record," Coffey told host Pam Rossi. "They were giving me funny looks. A guy was playing tamborine there and he said, 'You should've seen the way the guys were looking at you when you were playing that wah-wah pedal thing.'"

Coffey also recalled the time that he met a young Michael Jackson when The Jackson 5 came through, and family patriarch Joe Jackson was asking about his pedal board.

"They wanted to see what we were doing as Funk Brothers," Coffey explained of the Jacksons. "Joe Jackson was looking at all these pedals I was using, so I directed him to a friend of mine at Capitol Music. He took notes on all the gear and went over there and bought a bunch of stuff for their band."

Along with the wah-wah pedal, Coffey introduced the Echoplex on Temptations' tunes such as "Ball of Confusion" and "Psychedelic Shack." He also scored his own hit, "Scorpio," in 1971, which gained him a gold record as a solo artist.

These days, Coffey continues to have a very active music career in Detroit. He released his latest album Down by the River back in May, and he's been playing a weekly residency at Northern Lights Lounge with his trio for several years. The Dennis Coffey Trio is also slated to perform at this year's Jazz Festival, which celebrates its 40th year during Labor Day weekend in Hart Plaza.

See Dennis Coffey's entire interview and live performance on Behind the Mic with Pam Rossi below, and check out his website for more music and updates on his upcoming live shows.