Wah Pedals: Gear Guide

February 17, 2021  
Wah Pedals: Gear Guide

The wah pedal, a long time staple of guitarists worldwide, is a versatile pedal that can be used in almost any style. This iconic pedal has shaped some of the best guitar solos of all time.

It can make your riffs stand out

Think of the iconic intro to Jimi Hendrix’s “Voodoo Child”. It instantly catches anyone’s ear. Or the thumping second riff of Rage Against the Machine’s “Bulls on Parade”.  How about Dire Straits’ “Money for Nothing” riff where the wah pedal is set at a half-way point? A personal favorite of mine would be Dream Theater’s “Home” featuring a wah with a very wide sweep. It makes the guitar explode! Then slowly builds the intensity back up for another face smacking assault of awesome riffage.

One of the more unique uses I can think of would be Metallica’s “For Whom the Bell Tolls”.  That’s right the wah isn’t just for guitarists. Bass players can use it too! Just listen to the live version from the Cliff ‘Em All documentary and you’ll see Cliff Burton tearing a wah pedal up during a killer solo. The wah pedal can be used to add a sonic element to make a musical phrase go to a completely different level. You can take a riff that might not have much impact and really give it a life of its own. If you have a riff that you think might sound too generic or stock, throw a wah on it!  You’ll be surprised how it can inspire new ideas. You can also use it in a certain position as more of a “tone sculpting” tool as well. Players such as John Frusciante of the Red Hot Chili Peppers is known for doing this. But it’s not just for riffs!

It can make Solos and Melodies amazing!

One of the greatest strengths of the wah pedal is its ability to give any player a more lyrical or vocal quality to their playing. Whether it’s a searing lead solo designed to blow your hair back or a more expressive melodic line, the wah pedal brings a new element to the game.

Jimi Hendrix was a master of creative solos with the wah. He has so many epic moments with it that I could spend the rest of this article citing nothing but examples from him. I still get goosebumps when I hear the main solo in “All Along the Watchtower”.  Jimi uses it perfectly right after the slide guitar part with a slight delay. Then as quickly has he brought the wah in, he turns it off leaving the listener hungry for more. Jimi was known to have used an armada of wahs too. If you are looking to get Jimi’s type of sound you should definitely give the following pedals a serious play through: the Vox V846, a regular Dunlop Cry Baby, or the Jimi Hendrix Signature wah pedal. All will get you closer to his classic sound.

Another extremely well known player for using the wah pedal would be Kirk Hammett of Metallica. It’s no secret he HEAVILY favors using it more these days than not but you also can’t deny that  he’s performed some absolutely KILLER solos with it. Try playing the “Enter Sandman” solo without a wah. It just doesn’t have the same emotional impact. But with a wah on it adds an element of energy and excitement. A driving force that helps the solo cut through and grab the listener. Kirk also has a very melodic and vocal way of using the wah on the track “Wherever I May Roam” from the 1991 self-titled Metallica album (aka The Black Album). Around minute 4:19 in the song there is a drum break and Kirk bends a soaring note going from heel to toe position using a whammy bar for vibrato. The effect on the listener is undeniable. It’s certainly one of the most memorable moments in that song.  Kirk in his early days also used a Dunlop Cry baby as well but he’s a wah fanatic and has played a plethora of them.  Since his signature wah came to market, it’s been his main wah unit for studio use. However on stage due to the complex live set up, he also uses the Jim Dunlop Rack Module for all of his multiple wahs on stage.
The killer thing about Kirk’s signature wah is that it IS the exact tone that Kirk dials in on tour using his Cry Baby Rack Wah. Dunlop’s took down Kirk’s EQ, volume and tone settings. Then reproduced them with exacting precision. It’s a great way to have for any metal or rock players.

Now speaking of melodic wah users, this brings me to my next two guitarists. Joe Satriani and John Petrucci. Both are masters at their instruments and two of my favorite wah users. They both make the wah “Sing”. Go take a listen to “Surfing with the Alien” by Joe Satriani and you’ll hear exactly what I’m talking about. Satriani’s incredible use of melody, vibrato and his knowledge of exactly how to rock the wah in that song are otherworldly. Plus the TONE. Tone for days! Joe is also a player who’s used different wahs over the years. He mostly favors the Vox wahs as they have a more “throaty” tone. He did also work with Vox to release a signature wah called the “Big Bad Wah Pedal “.  It’s like having two wahs in one. A more vintage wah and a modern sounding one that are changeable by a switch on the pedal. The modern setting can also have its tone tweaked by the EQ knob on the pedal. If you can’t track one of those down you should also check out Vox V847 Wah Pedal. I’ve had great success getting Satch like wah tones from that pedal.

John Petrucci is also an extremely versatile guitarist who masterfully uses the wah to create emotional moments that will take your breath away.  A longtime fan favorite example would be the solo in “Lines in the Sand”, from the album Falling Into Infinity. Known for his “wider” sweep range on his wah, John uses a stereo delay with long bends and slowly rocks the wah from heel to toe to create a massive sustained note that screams!. It’s extremely tasteful playing that I simply love.  For years John used the Dunlop Rack Module like so many others to sculpt his tone. Now with his signature wah you can get HIS EXACT sound. They literally took his rackmount and put it inside a pedal! You can also open up the back and tweak all the controls inside the wah just like you would on the rackmount unit. The JP95 features all the controls he used to find his Cry Baby voice: Volume to add gain, Q to shape the width of the effect, and a 6-band EQ to shape the tone of the wah sound, from 100Hz to 3.2 KHz. It comes in a smoked chrome finish and is a monster of wah pedal. It’s extremely recognizable when you hear it. Especially in the lower to mid register.

Now before the JP95 was available, I used a Dunlop 535 Q wah pedal to get similar sounds. It’s my go too wah to this day. It’s basically five wahs built into one pedal with a Variable Q switch for tonal sculpting control and a 15db boost switch on the side for when you REALLY need to cut through the mix. For each one of the wah settings it gives you a different wah “scoop”.  Do you want a shallow one or a super scooped sound? This wah can do it all. I highly recommend checking them both out.

There are so many amazing examples to talk about that I could go on forever but I wanted to make a short list of some my personal favorite uses of the wah pedal. Forgive me in advance if I leave off one of your favorites. These are not ranked or in any particular order.

Now that we’ve discussed how a wah can be used on riffs and solos, you are probably thinking “What else is there?”

The Wah can create textures and sound effects

Read the following words and tell me what you hear in your head. “Wacka chicka wacka chicka wacka chicka wacka chicka”. You and I both know what you just heard. We ALL hear that! Can you think of another pedal that you can put into words like a wah? It’s iconic. You’ll never hear someone say “Sing a chorus pedal” or “Man do that tremolo impression!”  It’s the only pedal I can think of that you can get a useful sound out of it without playing anything at all! If you mute all the strings and strum 8th or 16th notes while rocking the wah pedal back and forth you can easily create an extremely recognizable sound. This technique was overused to death in the 70s on everything from disco, to funk, and even TV Theme songs. I can’t even list all the theater shows and musicals that I have been asked to make the “Wacka Chicka” sound for a dance number. It’s a perfect example how the wah can create a sound effect and be very musical.

Another example of a more unorthodox use of a wah would be the following. I’ve had some film scoring gigs that required me to create “atmospheric creepy mechanical textures”. I had great success using a massive plate reverb, pushing my whammy bar down until my strings where hanging off the neck and then slowly scraping a coin across the strings while I rocked my wah from Heel to Toe in random patterns. It created an unnerving sound. The director loved it and that got me thinking, what else could I combine with a wah to create textures and sound effects? Here’s some fun ones I’ve come up with. Try using a wah and a Slide together. Go up the fretboard with one and down with the other.  Or use a wah and a Whammy Pedal at the same time! Try using a wah, a Volume Pedal, and a pitch shifter while doing bends.  Or Combine a faster tremolo effect and heavy distortion. Then use a wah with a wide sweep to create a “oh oh AH AH oh oh AH AH” kind of sound. The possibilities are endless.  Here is a list of wah pedals you should check out and a few key features on them:

Classic Rock / Blues Tones

Modern Rock Tones

Versatile / Multi-Function Wah

Bass Wah

Switchless Wahs (You press the wah pedal and it activates. Let go and it turns off)

It’s up to you to decide how you want to utilize the wah pedal. It’s easily one of the most versatile pedals ever created. There is a wah pedal out there for everyone regardless of playing style or skill level. My advice is to try out a bunch and pick what you like best! It’s a pedal every player should have and they are a lot of fun to use.

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