What's a Muleskinner, anyway?

My name is Deke Dickerson. I'm a full-time musician, with lots of interests. One of those interests is writing. I write for guitar magazines such as Guitar Player, Fretboard Journal, and Vintage Guitar. I also write music articles, liner notes, and books that accompany box sets.

Once, a long time ago, I thought it was weird to have your own web site. Then, I thought that myspace and Facebook were immature (turns out I was right about that one, but I'm on them anyway). When I heard the word "blog," I decried I would never have one. And yet, here I am. Enjoy...

Monday, November 8, 2010



Imagine, if you will, all the millions of stomp boxes, effects and guitar “pedals” in the world.  Now imagine a family tree with all those pedals leading back to one device that started the whole shebang.  If you can believe it, at the top of that family tree would be this lovely art deco-styled 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 use came 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 (whose Italian name was Rocco Aiala, nee Antonio 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 Hawaiian-style steel guitar with big bands and orchestras around the city.  In addition, Rocco 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 double-neck steel guitar, a Rocco signature steel bar, and the innovative Rocco Tonexpressor, a combination volume and tone pedal.

         Rocco held a patent on the Tonexpressor, which was a complicated device utilizing gears, transformers, and a series of relay switches—the damn thing looks like some kind of antique telephone switchboard when you open it up.  The volume control (up and down) worked in a fairly normal way, with a potentiometer and a string, but the tone (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” crashing sound effect that was popular among steel guitar players for several decades.  Many years later the same basic concept was applied in a much different type of 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 this promo photo shown above), but then Rocco slipped into obscurity, a forgotten innovator in the world of electric guitar.
         It’s a humorous thought to imagine Anthony Rocco, Hawaiian steel guitarist extraordinaire, in the middle of a modern-day music store, listening as dozens of kids blare guitars through flangers, choruses, distortions and wah-wah pedals, yelling “Turn that goddamn noise down!”  For that noise, and the invention of the first guitar pedal, we thank you, Mr. Rocco.

--Deke Dickerson

Below: The three different types of Rocco ToneExpressors.  All have that same guts, but different types of housings.  The one on the left is the oldest version.

Thanks to Jody Carver, Mike Black, Jeremy Wakefield, and Marty Smith.  Anyone with more information on Anthony Rocco, please email the author here.

1 comment:

  1. If you can believe it, at the top of that family tree would be this lovely art deco-styled volume and tone pedal, the 1937 Rocco Tonexpressor—the very first guitar “pedal.”Dave C