The 10 Best Wah Pedals
10. Behringer Hell-Babe HB01
9. Dunlop GCB95
8. Morley Steve Vai Bad Horsie
7. Ibanez WD7 Weeping Demon
6. Dunlop 535Q Cry Baby
5. Dunlop CAE MC404
4. Dunlop KH95
3. Vox V845
2. Fulltone Clyde Deluxe
1. Xotic Effects XW-1
A Brief History of the Wah-Wah Pedal
Discovered in the 1920s by brass musicians who realized they could use mutes to make their instruments weep like sad children, the wah effect quickly became characteristic of jazz and blues music alike. For forty years, the effect remained a manual one until Bradley J. Plunkett designed the first electronic wah-wah pedal for Warwick Electronics in 1966.
Using a breadboard, transistors, and the volume-controlling pentiometer from a Vox Continental volume pedal, Plunkett was able to replicate electronically the fluttering mutes of crying brass instruments. A sound effect that was previously limited to instruments with brass bells could now be achieved using any amplified instrument from the guitar to the violin or even the snare drum, if one happened to be in the mood for experimenting.
Initially intended as an effects pedal for wind instruments, allowing jazz saxophonists and clarinetists to achieve the wah effect without having to grow a third arm, Plunkett's friends insisted upon hearing the pedal in action for the first time that the pedal be endorsed by and marketed toward electric guitarists.
Mere months after the pedal's release in February 1967, two of America's leading power trios, Cream and Jimi Hendrix Experience, recorded hit songs using Plunkett's prototype to great effect, resulting in an unexpected spike in demand for the new technology.
In no time at all, the wah effect unlocked new doors in many popular genres, but most of all, funk, with most funk guitarists today insisting no pedal collection is complete without a wah-wah pedal.
A Solomon's Key to the Temple of Funk
According to legend, Solomon, a king and a magician, possessed the wisdom and the power to compel both angels and demons: opposite ends of a spectrum constructively bent to Solomon's will. The light and the dark, the high and the low, blended together, surreptitious servants at Solomon's every beck and call.
That is how the wah-wah pedal works.
Using transistors to alter harmonics and a volume-style pedal that allows the player to control the resonant peak of any given frequency, wah pedals emulate the human voice in rather uncanny ways.
The human voice relies upon the tongues ability to control the size of two distinct resonating chambers in the mouth. Movement of the base of your tongue controls the size of the first main chamber situated near the top of your larynx. Movement of the tip of your tongue and your lips controls the size of the second main chamber situated near your lips.
As you make a wah-aow sound with your mouth, the high tones become louder than the low tones and then the low tones become louder than the high tones. By giving you the ability to emulate these sounds with an instrument, the wah pedal effectively places the instrument in a kind of virtual resonating chamber similar to that of the human mouth. As a result, an electric guitar can be used to replicate a human voice, allowing a highly skilled player to talk through the guitar the way Frank Zappa does during his "Inca Roads" solo.
Choosing a Wah Pedal to Suit All Your Needs
The key to choosing a wah-wah pedal that works right for you is knowing when and how you'll be using it most often. Which genre or genres will you be playing? Will you be using your pedal to add a bit of flare to some heavy distortion? Or will you be engaging your audience in a full-blown conversation?
For players interested in using wah effects similar to the way Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix, or Frank Zappa do, a volume-style, expression pedal is really the only option. If you really want to make your guitar talk, you need to be able to control as much of the effect as possible without having to bend over and twist too many knobs in the middle of playing your solo.
For those interested solely in recreating the wacka-wacka sound indicative of a lot of funk and disco music, subtle and constant control may not be quite as important. Thus, a press-and-release pedal or a stompbox with a fixed wah effect will suit all your funk and disco needs.
For bassists, a wah pedal with too much emphasis on higher tones may conflict with the style of music you're playing, and may even drown out some of tones from the other instruments in the band if used excessively. A wah pedal that allows you to control the range of the effect would be ideal.
In the end, it's important to know where you want to take the wah effect, whether or not you are the only person in the band using it, and if not, which pedal will allow you to complement the other wah effects in the project rather than clash with them.