The wah pedal is one of the most useful pedals in a guitarist’s arsenal. This pedal can make simple riffs and solos into awesome licks and is equally at home in almost any style or genre of music.
WHAT IS A WAH PEDAL
While wah pedals make a unique and recognizable sound, the idea behind the wah is quite simple.
The wah pedal starts with a band-pass filter. This is a filter that allows sounds in a specific frequency range (or band) to pass through – blocking (or attenuating) frequencies above and below that band. The wah’s band-pass filter features a resonant peak (the specific frequency that is the loudest or most prominent) that is adjustable by means of a foot pedal.
The specific frequency range of the band-pass filter and resonant frequency vary from wah pedal to wah pedal, and this is what gives each wah its own unique character.
While this article will be focused on traditional wah pedals that feature an expression pedal, there are wah pedals that adjust the frequency without an expression pedal. These are called envelope filters or auto-wah pedals, and they either use either a low-frequency oscillator or (more commonly) the strength of the input signal to control the wah effect.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR IN A WAH PEDAL
While most wah pedals are straightforward, you do have a few options when shopping. Here are some of the most common features to look for, and some advanced features you may want (or need).
BASIC WAH FEATURES
Basic wah features include:
- Potentiometer type – While most wah pedals use potentiometers (also known as ‘pots’ – just like the knobs on your guitar) there are some brands that make wahs that use optical controls. These are generally considered “zero wear-and-tear” and while they certainly are less likely to wear out than pots (which can get scratchy or wear out) they also can’t be easily serviced by the end user. While it’s relatively easy to replace a pot, most optical wahs are not as easy to service.
- Switching mechanism – Most wah pedals are activated by a mechanical switch in the toe, meaning that you must push down rather hard (depending on the pedal) to turn the pedal off and on. However, some pedals will turn on as soon as you move the wah pedal from the heel-down position, making activation much easier (especially if you are sitting down). Whether you prefer the simple toe switch or automatic activation is largely a personal preference.
Some of the most advanced features that you may want or need:
- Adjustable boost – Most wah pedals will give you a small volume boost when you activate the effect, to compensate for the reduced high and low frequencies in the sound when the wah is engaged. Some pedals, however, offer an adjustable boost that can be used as a solo boost to really cut through. Some wah pedals engage this additional boost automatically when the wah is engaged, while others have a separate switch to engage the additional boost. Some pedals also allow this boost to be used independently of the wah function, giving you two pedals in one!
- Adjustable Q/Frequency range – There are several different kinds of options that some wah pedals give you to provide a more flexible wah sound. Here are what they mean:
- Adjustable Q – If you think of the EQ of a wah pedal as a mountain, the Q controls the steepness of the sides of the mountain. More specifically, Q is the resonance peak (or peaks) of the wah’s tone filter, although some pedals also use the Q adjustment to control the width of the bandpass filter – it all depends on the specific model and how it’s wired. All you really need to know, though, is that a higher Q gives a more nasally, quacking sound while lowering the Q gives a flatter sound. If you want a flexible wah pedal, this is probably the most important control to have.
- Adjustable Sweep Range – This adjustment controls the frequency range that is covered when the wah pedal is moved from the heel-down to the toe-down position. Usually, slightly lower frequency ranges are better for bass (or 7-string guitar), but this is also a useful option to have if you want to switch between a shriller, cutting wah sound and a deeper, growling wah sound.
- Adjustable Sweep Peak – Although like the adjustable range, this adjustment controls the frequency of the wah pedal at the toe-down position only. Having a higher peak frequency means that the wah effect is more dramatic, but it may be harder to find a “sweet spot” in the middle of the pedal’s travel.
- Additional effect options (volume, distortion) – Some wah pedals incorporate other effects, to help guitarists that may have limited room on their pedalboards. Probably the most logical combination of pedals to include is the wah/volume pedal, since they both use an expression pedal, and volume pedals are both somewhat bulky and relatively simple circuit-wise. Some wah pedals incorporate drive or boost effects, but make sure the extra effect is to your liking before you commit to a multipurpose pedal.
TRUE BYPASS VS BUFFERED BYPASS
Many boutique pedals feature true bypass construction, but what does that mean? It’s worth taking a minute to explain the differences between a “standard” buffered bypass and true bypass.
True bypass means that the pedal’s on/off switch physically connects the input jack to the output jack. This should make the input signal and output signal essentially the same, but it does have one drawback. If you have long cable runs (or a lot of pedals) remember that each pedal and cable introduces a bit of resistance into the original signal. In this case, you may want a buffered bypass pedal to keep the signal clean and strong. Some true bypass pedals also have significant noise when turned on or off, due to the physical on/off switch. If you have a true-bypass reverb or delay, you also won’t get a natural decay of sound, since the effect will stop as soon as the circuit is disconnected.
Most standard pedals (like Boss) use a buffered bypass. While cheap pedals with poorly-designed buffers can degrade your tone, most buffered pedals have a negligible effect. Additionally, buffered pedals can help maintain signal level over long cable runs (or through true bypass pedals), and can have completely silent switching. For reverb and delay pedals, buffers also allow the reverb or delay “tails” to hold over after the pedal is switched off.
In the end, like most guitar effects, there is no one right answer. In fact, most guitarists use a mix of true bypass and buffered bypass pedals, depending on their specific needs.
HOW TO USE A WAH PEDAL
While this article isn’t about guitar techniques, if you’ve been considering a wah pedal, but aren’t sure exactly how you would use it – here are some possibilities for you to consider.
For the characteristic “waka-chika” wah pedal sound, the technique could not be simpler. Simply strum your desired rhythm, while rocking the pedal back and forth in time. Usual patterns include 1 beat to completely lower the pedal and 1 beat to raise it, but using a 2-beat/1-beat or 4-beat/1-beat pattern can also be effective. You can strum on either open or muted strings, depending on the sound you want. This technique is simple but effective and can be heard on the theme song to “Shaft” – one of the most iconic (and simple) uses of the wah pedal.
This is not the only way to use a wah pedal, though. You can also use it to accentuate individual notes or groups of notes during a solo. Jimi Hendrix (and later Stevie Ray Vaughn) did this very effectively in the song Voodoo Child (Slight Return). This can give the guitar a very vocal character, although it is more difficult to do than the simple rhythmic “waka-chika”.
You can also use the wah pedal as a combination boost/filter for solos or rhythm riffs, by turning it on and leaving it “parked” in one position. Since most wah pedals give at least some boost to the volume, this plus the more nasally “cocked wah” sound can give a very cutting sound that is easy to hear over other players.
WAH PEDAL BUYERS GUIDE
Here are our top three recommendations for wah pedals, depending upon your specific needs. Keep in mind, wah pedals are very personal – both in sound and in controls – make sure to try these out with your rig to see what works best for you!
A basic, traditional wah pedal with dead-simple operation and controls
If you want the traditional wah sound without a lot of knobs and switches to get in the way, you can’t go wrong with the Original Crybaby Wah.
This pedal doesn’t have the features that some of our other recommendations have, like true bypass, adjustable boost, or selectable wah ranges, but what this pedal does it does extremely well. While the range of the pedal may not be to everyone’s liking – some think the sweep may be too wide, while some think it’s too narrow – it is a middle-of-the-road wah sound.
Additionally, because this pedal has been so popular for so long, there are lots of customizations available. You can modify the pedal for true bypass, modify the circuitry, and even modify the sweep range to accentuate either the higher or lower frequencies.
Key Features: Sturdy construction, buffered bypass, powered either by batteries or AC power.
Pros: Very easy to use, a very traditional wah sound that works in all sorts of styles.
Cons: Not especially flexible – may be a bit shrill or dull for some. Not true bypass.
Score: 4 / 5
Combining a switchless and potless design with more flexible circuitry makes this a great choice to use with a distorted lead tone.
Morley makes lots of different guitar effects that use expression pedals, and most of them incorporate electro-optical circuitry instead of potentiometers. This means that there are no pots to get dirty or scratchy and in theory, this means that the expression pedal will work without the need for service or replacement.
In addition to the electro-optical expression pedal, the Morley Bad Horsie 2 features a couple of other nice options. The first is the automatic on/off design, that engages the wah as soon as you press down on the spring-loaded expression pedal. This means that you don’t have to engage a switch located underneath the toe of the expression pedal to get it to turn on, simply pressing slightly will engage it. The pedal will also turn off automatically when your foot is lifted off the pedal, and there is even an adjustable trim pot located inside the pedal that can set a delay to this auto-off feature. The delay can be anywhere from near-instantaneous to about 3.5 seconds.
One downside of this automatic design is that the expression pedal is spring-loaded. This means that if you want to turn on the wah and leave it “parked” in one position without resting your foot on it, that is not possible on this pedal. You can manually hold it in an in-between position, but the springs mean that you must keep some force on the pedal to hold it in position.
Another feature of the Bad Horsie 2 are the two selectable wah modes. The normal mode is Steve Vai’s Bad Horsie mode, but the footswitch next to the expression pedal can put the pedal into Contour mode, where two knobs (Contour and Level) can be used to more precisely control the wah sound.
Key Features: Electro-optical expression pedal, switchless, selectable wah sound, buffered bypass, powered by battery or AC power.
Pros: Electro-optical control and switchless design make this pedal easy to use. Two selectable modes (one customizable) make this pedal more flexible than a traditional Cry Baby.
Cons: The spring design means you can’t easily “park” the pedal in a single position. Bad Horsie mode is a bit subtler than most vintage wah sounds.
Offering controls over almost every wah parameter, the 535Q can give you exactly the wah sound you want!
Although we already have a Dunlop Cry Baby on this list, the 535Q takes the idea of a versatile wah pedal to the next (and probably final) level, and so we had to include it on this list. Coming in at just about twice the price of the Original Cry Baby, the 535Q is not a wah pedal for everyone, but if you want to get your wah sound just right, or if you need to use this pedal for lots of different instruments, this pedal can’t be beaten.
In addition to the normal expression pedal/toe switch you’ll find in the Original Cry Baby wah pedal, this pedal features three additional knobs and an extra switch on the side. These knobs are what gives the 535Q its flexibility. On the left side of the pedal, there are two small knobs. The knob closest to the pedal’s toe controls the amount of boost available (up to +16 dB), while the back knob controls the Q. Having the adjustable Q can make this wah either subtle (like a guitar’s tone control) or very sharp and “quacky”.
On the right side of the pedal, you’ll a see a large 6-position metal knob. This knob controls the wah’s range. The low range can make the pedal growl, while the higher ranges can make the wah effect much sharper. Also on the right side is a red side-switch that engages (or disengages) the selectable boost.
All these controls give the 535Q an enormous range of expression that you really must hear to believe. If you think that you wouldn’t be satisfied by a one-size-fits-all approach, or you’re a tinkerer by nature, you owe it to yourself to try the 535Q. If you can’t find a wah sound in this pedal that you like, then you probably just don’t want a wah pedal!
Key Features: Lots of controls to customize the wah sound, powered by 9V battery or AC, true bypass.
Pros: Adjustable Q, sweep range, and boost controls allow you to find just about any wah sound you may want.
Cons: Lots of controls may mean you spend more time fiddling with controls than playing! The amount of pedal sweep is on the small side for some.
As an effect to liven up a basic rhythm track or a blistering solo, the wah pedal is versatile and easy to use with only a little bit of practice.
As always, if you’re looking for more wah pedal choices, check out our more in-depth reviews where we cover lots more wah pedals for just about every possible use.
Lawrence is our mysterious chief in house writer. Is he a famous novelist? Is he a famous journalist? We don’t know. All we know is that he is Lawrence.