What Are Wah Pedals?
More popular than ever today, wah pedals are adored for the amount of colour and articulation they give to guitar players and their sounds. With most typically made in an expression pedal format, you can physically manipulate the range of the effect via a rocking plate controlled with your foot.
Essentially a filter, a wah works as a moveable peak in your signal’s EQ; drastically altering your tone. With a wah, you can go from a rounded throaty sound to a treble-boosted scream that can cut through a mix like a hot knife through butter.
In terms of what’s out there - you’re pretty spoilt for choice! There are many companies that make there own wah pedals, with brands like Jim Dunlop manufacturing tweaked and signature versions of essentially the same formula; providing you with a raft of tonal options.
In this guide, we’ll highlight the main contenders but also give a shout out to some affordable wahs, as well as the premium-made powerhouses. But first, let’s delve deeper into their sound and how they work…
What Does A Wah Pedal Sound Like?
The name of this effect is most indicative of how it sounds. It essentially accents your guitar tone in the way that we pronounce the “a” vowel, caused when you sweep the pedal from its heel-down position up to full. It’s fair to say that a wah imitates a human voice in a way, giving this animated crying sound; especially when used with overdrive and distortion effects.
In heel-down position, a wah gives a nasally and anaemic sound. Some players adore this “cocked” wah tone, leaving the pedal in a fixed position to provide a sound that is somewhat similar to a guitar’s tone control rolled down. Electro Harmonix’s Cock Fight pedal (pun definitely intended) is a pedal made specifically for replicating that sound, but has more options and controls to really let you tweak that perfect fixed wah tone.
Michael Schenker of UFO was one of the most well-known players to adopt and pioneer the cocked wah method back in the '70s and '80s. The legendary Peter Frampton is also a fan of this particular effect too, using it to great effect in his cover of Soundgarden’s "Black Hole Sun":
Peter Frampton - "Black Hole Sun" (Cover)
How Does A Wah Pedal Work?
The circuitry of a wah is fairly simple. A potentiometer, an electrical resistor with a rotating contact, divides the pedal’s internal voltage level when adjusted. This component is connected to the pedal’s rocking plate, and the change in voltage is what affects the sweep and tone of the wah. Therefore, the movement of your foot on the plate is ultimately what shapes the sound of the pedal.
The majority of wah pedals use a standard footswitch in order to work, where the user must press down hard on the top of the pedal to engage the effect. Most wah pedals are as basic as that in terms of functionality, featuring no other controls to alter their tone. However, there are many modern wah pedals that feature “Q” knobs that adjust the width of the wah pedal’s sweep and its peak frequency.
Some wah pedals also have a built-in boost function, raising your overall output when the pedal is engaged. This is great when playing lead parts, where the extra kick of volume can really let your solos cut through effortlessly.
How Do I Use A Wah Pedal?
A wah pedal can be used in lots of contexts, despite having a fairly one-dimensional sound. Many guitar players will take advantage of the extra top-end and mid-range bite for squealing solos. Pearl Jam’s “Alive” is a prime example of this, where the outro solo features a wah effect almost entirely throughout (skip to 3:25):
Pearl Jam - "Alive"
But wah pedals are used in all kinds of styles and genres, not exclusively rock. They are heard very often in funk music, with guitar players using the pedal to achieve a “wacka-wacka” style sound to accent parts in a fast staccato-style rhythm.
A wah can therefore merge very well with all types of tones, but with high-gain you can actually get some huge engulfing sounds with a wah! Jerry Cantrell of Alice In Chains is renowned for adding wah to riffs for an even bigger and more moody tone. A good example of how he uses a wah for this effect can be heard in the songs “Rain When I Die” and “Dirt”:
Alice In Chains - "Dirt"
Where Does A Wah Pedal Go In My Signal Chain?
Regarding how to integrate a wah into your rig, the pedal should typically be placed early in your pedal chain; usually after only your tuner. This is so that the wah alters your signal before it is influenced by your overdrive and distortion stompboxes, to give you the widest and most natural-sounding sweep.
Placing it late in your chain and after those aforementioned pedals will give you a very exaggerated wah sound, and will hinder the tone of your gain pedals by filtering their sound too much. This isn’t always a bad thing, as it can give you some very interesting and experimental sounds - great for psychedelic-style swells.
Can Wah Pedals Work With Fuzz?
Using a wahs with fuzz pedals is like trying to tame two wild beasts at once; they can make a lot of noise when used alone, but when put together - things can get truly out of control!
Some people love running a wah into a fuzz, as it gives them that iconic soaring Hendrix sound. But most of time, it just sounds strange. So, why not run a wah pedal after a fuzz pedal? Well, that can sound even worse; exaggerating the wah sound and producing a harsh, chaotic tone that will deafen your audience. This is because a wah has a fairly high output impedance, whereas a fuzz has a far lower input impedance. This means that you just can’t get the most out of your wah, as its range is hindered by the fuzz.
So, this is where buffer pedals may come in handy. If you run a wah into a buffer and then that into a fuzz, this can resolve the problem and give a more natural and usable tone. Basically, the buffer will convert the high impedance signal from the wah back into a lower impedance, which the fuzz prefers in this context. You can buy specialised buffer units, such as the TC Electronic Bonafide Buffer or JHS Little Black Buffer to do this.
If you try this method then it’s important to find a way to turn off the buffer when you don’t require the wah, so that you can get the best out of the fuzz normally. A true-bypass wah with a built-in buffer that is engaged only when you turn on the pedal is one solution, although they’re hard to come by. The best solution is to run your pedals though a switching system like the Boss ES-8 or ES-5 units, where you can isolate and rearrange the order of your pedals on-the-fly. They’re expensive, but they make your setup more tweakable so that you can experiment and overcome signal chain problems.
What Are The Best Wah Pedals?
There’s a huge amount of wahs out there, and we’re going to identify all of the big hitters and highlight some special ones that we love here at Andertons Music Co!
The Cry Baby is a classic in every sense of the word. One of the most recognisable names in the pedal world, well over a million of these units have been sold since their introduction. Deriving from the original design manufactured by Thomas Organ/Vox, Jim Dunlop trademarked the name and started building their own versions of this pedal from 1966 onwards.
With the original GCB95 model still in production, over the years Jim Dunlop have subsequently tweaked this formula and developed variants of the established design. The 95Q for example features “Q” and volume controls, letting you adjust the wah sweep and boost the output (by up to 15dB) respectively. This pedal is also switchless, meaning that it is engaged as soon as you start moving the rocker plate, and has an auto “return to off” function when you stop using it. This means that you can easily use it on-the-fly for the odd lick here and there - pretty neat right?
The 535Q is another versatile option, featuring further tone-shaping controls to give you one of the most tweakable wah pedals available. This was Joe Satriani’s weapon of choice for years, so you know it's something special! However, if you’re looking to attain the wah sound of one of your favourite players, Dunlop produce a whole range of signature wah pedals for some of the blues, rock and metal world’s biggest names!
'Which Cry Baby Is For Me?' on Andertons T.V.
Dunlop have formed a huge line of signature pedals in recent years. For iconic names such as Slash, Dimebag Darrell and Jimi Hendrix, these pedals are tonally tailored towards the wah sounds heard in some of their most legendary recordings.
Slash has two current signature models, the Slash Classic Cry Baby and the high-end SW95. Both featuring ergonomic LEDs to indicate when the effect is on/off, these wah pedals have more focus in the upper-mid-range to deliver more sizzle and definition. The SW95 model goes one step further however, with a built-in distortion circuit giving you Slash’s sought-after tone at literally the touch of a button. Able to run at 18V, this pedal has more headroom for a broader sweep and thicker tone. Check out our ‘Sound Like Slash’ video below to hear the SW95 in all its glory (skip to 21:30):
Dunlop Slash Signature Wah on Andertons T.V.
The Kirk Hammett KH95 wah is another highlight of Dunlop’s signature series, with eye-catching aesthetics and a unique sound. Renowned for his fast, shreddy solos all over Metallica’s back catalogue; Hammett is one of the most high-profile wah addicts in the industry. His signature model has a super-wide sweep, with a tonne of top-end presence and an accurate and even response as you move from heel to toe.
The Hendrix signature wahs ooze old-school goodness. Built to unleash the same dynamic tonal sweep of Hendrix’s original Italian-made Thomas Organ units, these models capture Jimi’s legendary tone with amazing conviction and precision. Available in full-size and mini formats, these pedals take you back to the '60s with their vintage styling and sounds.
Vox were the company that got the wah pedal off the ground (well, technically-speaking - on the ground!). Invented by accident, a group of engineers were assigned a task to redesign one of Vox’s amps back in the '60s, and the “wah sound” came to fruition during the testing process. Initially tested with a saxophone, a guitar was plugged in for the sake of curiosity, and it was agreed that the effect suited guitars better. And the rest, as they say - is history!
With Jimi Hendrix using one of the earliest models, the Vox wah pedal became an instant classic. With three models available, the V847-A Original wah will get you closest to the sound of the initial versions of this game-changing wah. Giving you that true vintage feel, this pedal is simple yet convincingly delivers those super-nostalgic tones of the '60s - just plug in and play!
The V845 is a more affordable version of the aforementioned pedal, but don’t let its low price fool you. This model is lighter than previous units, yet still has a rugged and sturdy casing to ensure that it will survive gig-after-gig. The V846 Hand-Wired wah, however, is on the other side of the spectrum in terms of price. With premium components and unbeatable human attention-to-detail, this is one for the proper wah aficionados out there.
In a time where smaller, more portable pedalboards are becoming favoured, it would be silly if we didn’t show you some mini wah pedals too! In terms of functionality, most mini wah pedals don’t feature some of the tone-shaping gizmos you would expect on their full-fat counterparts. However, they still provide the same basic operation and tones offered from their bigger brothers - and they look awesome!
The Jim Dunlop Cry Baby Mini has been a phenomenon since its launch at the 2015 NAMM Show. With the rocker giving you as wide of a sweep as the standard Cry Baby models, the Mini does however have a couple of tricks up its sleeve. An internal switch gives you access to some old-school tones, with the low voicing reducing the spectrum of the sweep for more subtle sounds. The vintage setting takes you back to the voicing of the original Cry Baby, immediately evoking that iconic “super sound of the '70s”. And with true-bypass, this thing won’t colour your tone in the slightest when disengaged.
Jim Dunlop Cry Baby Mini on Andertons T.V.
Hotone and Mooer manufacture a couple of ultra-affordable mini wah pedals, which also have some unique idiosyncrasies too. The Soul Press is essentially a 3-in-1 pedal packed into a tiny enclosure. Its main function is as a wah, based on the tone of a classic Cry Baby. However, it can also be used as a volume pedal for ambient swells, and as an expression pedal to control the parameters of compatible pedals, such as delay or reverb units. This tiny pedal really packs a punch!
We’ve covered loads of different wah pedals, however if you’re on a budget and looking to save some cash; there are some brilliantly affordable options available for you. For under £100, there are some seriously good wah pedals on the market that could really add some spice to your rig!
Despite some of the big names having affordable versions of their own wah circuits, Electro Harmonix have also thrown their hat into the ring with a couple of inexpensive wah pedals too.
Released in 2017, The Wailer is a superb-sounding wah pedal that you can get at a seriously good price. With a wide and natural-feeling sweep under the foot, the Wailer is made of a super-lightweight polymer material that has enough strength to withstand the rigours of the road. This is a great option if you’re someone that really likes to keep the weight of your pedalboard down.
EHX’s Crying Tone is another great affordable wah, however its design is slightly more unconventional. With no moving parts or components, the pedal is operated by rocking the entire unit up and down, rather than via a typical plate. This means that nothing can wear down over time, making it an incredibly reliable and unique pedal in its class. Want to see and hear it in action? Check out this video with Chappers and Captain Lee on Andertons TV!
Electro Harmonix Crying Tone on Andertons T.V.
The only disadvantage of the Crying Tone is that you can't mount it to a pedalboard, as the whole unit rocks on its chassis. But as many players run their main pedalboard with the wah seperate to the side, whether that be through lack of space or for easier operation - the Crying Tone is a great shout!
There are plenty of high-end wah pedals available too, many of which offer incredible sounds and tone-tweaking controls to help you make the tone in your head a reality.
Fulltone manufacture the acclaimed Clyde wah, a premium wah pedal with unparalleled versatility. Hand-wired, the Clyde Standard is an optimally-voiced wah based on the sound of an early Vox unit. The Clyde however has a few modern appointments to make it more user-friendly in the 21st Century. The inductors within the Clyde have a custom “MuMetal” cover for example, which virtually eliminates hum to ensure quiet operation.
Fulltone also identified some issues that they had when using wahs with high-gain amps and pedals. In order to tame the wah’s high-end when used in conjunction with fire-breathing distortion, the Clyde has a built-in buffer/booster that can process the impedance. This means that the sweep is more natural-sounding, and won’t have any of that ear-piercing brittleness that you would experience otherwise. With the control delivering up to 20dB of boost, this thing can really make your solos punch through the mix. The “fuzz-friendly” circuit also helps to tackle that issue we mentioned earlier in the article!
With a Deluxe version also on the market, this model boasts the same features as the standard Clyde wah but with an indication LED, an input level control and a three-way voicing control for further wah flavours. With both models featuring true-bypass switching when disengaged, these pedals are made for performance and are truly in their element as part of a larger pedalboard setup.
If you're not a big fan of using expression-style pedals yet like the wah sound, an auto wah pedal might be just what you need. An advantage an auto wah has over most traditional wah pedals is its size, with many available in a compact pedal enclosure. But without the expression function/rocker plate, auto wahs can lack that feeling of direct control and manipulation over the sound of the effect.
Auto wahs work at their best if you play funk-style lines or chord progressions, as you can tailor the attack/speed of the frequency sweep to simulate the movement of your foot. You can also adjust the width of the sweep, for a wide and exaggerated wah or a more subtle and understated sound that just adds a little bit of character. Setting the attack and width high can deliver some otherworldly sounds, great for experimental players wanting something different.
The Boss AW-3 Dynamic Wah is a great option, with designated guitar and bass inputs to give you the best tonal results for those instruments. An expression pedal input will also let you use the AW-3 as a typical wah, making it a very versatile stompbox.
Which Wah Pedal Should I Buy?
From what we’ve investigated, it’s clear that there are a lot of wah options available out there! But don’t feel overwhelmed, because it’s worth remembering that wah is a fairly one-dimensional sound, and most of them sound incredibly similar.
If you’re happy having a wah on your board to use occasionally, whether that be for just a handful of songs in a setlist, then investing in a very expensive wah may not be a good idea. But on the other hand, if you have a very acquired taste and certain tonal needs to satisfy, you will probably prefer one of the high-end pedals with extra tone-shaping features - especially if you intend to record in the studio for example.