When watching guitarists play live, you may notice that when it comes time for a funky rhythm section or for a ripping solo that they rock their foot back and forth on a Wah-Wah pedal.
If you’ve ever wondered “What does a wah pedal do?”, then you’re in luck because we’re going to answer that very question with this article.
The Name Gives It Away… Kind of
To get a basic understanding of how a wah pedal effects your sound, all you have to do is say the pedal’s name.
In slightly more detailed terms, a wah pedal is a filter effect that amplifies certain frequency ranges depending on where you sweep the foot lever.
Wah pedals have a pot inside them similar to the tone control on your guitar. This pot is mounted sideways, and the foot lever moves it, creating a sweep over the frequency spectrum.
You can achieve a similar (though not exactly the same) type of effect if you play your guitar and move the tone control back and forth.
The wah pedal works like this… moving the foot lever toward the heel creates a dark, muted tone that emphasizes low end frequencies and provides high-end roll off. Moving the foot lever towards the toe does the opposite, brightening your tone by amplifying high end frequencies and cutting low end.
You can then move your foot between these two extremes, creating the “wah-wah” sound that gives this effect its name.
To see how wah pedals effect your tone, watch this video below that shows the wah pedal in action with a spectrum analyzer.
Parameters – What Makes Wah Pedals Sound Different?
If all wah pedals do the same thing and they all have basically the same control layout, what makes wah pedals sound different from one another? It all depends on some fundamental parameters that wah pedals effect, as each wah pedal changes these parameters differently.
- Q: Width of filter peak
- Frequency Range: Lowest and highest frequency that the way pedal sweeps across
- Amplitude: How much the wah pedal boosts these frequencies
- Bias: effects the voice/output of the wah
These are some of the fundamental parameters that set one wah pedal apart from another. The Dunlop Crybaby, for example, has been modified into signature versions by dozens of different professional guitar players. This is achieved by the engineers slightly tweaking the voice of the wah to guitarist’s exact specifications.
Some wah pedals, like the Xotic XW-1, allow you to set these parameters how you want. However, most don’t.
How to Use a Wah Pedal
Using a wah pedal is as easy as rocking your foot back and forth, but this simple effect has had a profound impact on music history.
Wah pedals have been around since 1966 and were originally intended for trumpet players. This is why one of the earliest wah pedals was named after Clyde McCoy, who was a famous trumpet player at the time.
All of that changed, however, once Jimi Hendrix stated using a wah pedal.
Using Wah with Fuzz
Speaking of Jimi Hendrix, let’s make a quick note about using wah with Fuzz pedals.
When it comes to pedal order, wah pedals and fuzz pedals are almost always going to be first in your signal path.
Which one you choose to go first is going to be up to your own personal preference and based on how your pedals are built.
Vintage germanium fuzz pedals, for example, don’t play well with some buffers that are present in wah pedals.
When in doubt, I would recommend staring with wah first, then fuzz. Try both and decide for yourself as won’t harm your pedals either way.
Ways to Use Wah Pedals in Music
While the name of the “wah-wah” pedal suggests it’s use be for creating rapid filter sweeps, there are a number of different uses for the pedal. Here are some of my favorites that go beyond the traditional “wah-wah” effect:
- As an EQ: Also known as the “Cocked Wah” effect, setting the foot pedal in a stationary position turns the wah into a very effective EQ pedal. Throwing it back to the heel with heavy distortion gives body to heavy rhythm tones, while parking it in the center makes for a great Mid-boost for solos.
- Slow Filter Sweep: Slow your foot down and you can turn your wah into a cheap phaser or other modulation effect that is really cool for rhythm guitar tones.
- Percussive Emphasis: Palm muting your strings and doing a cool rhythm with your right hand will pair well with the wah pedal, which turns your guitar into a drum/snare combo. This technique is great for funk music, as well as singer songwriters playing solo with a looper pedal.
- Creating Feedback: When using a fuzz or distortion pedal, turning on a wah pedal and using the toe position is a great way to induce feedback. This technique is perfect for high-gain guitar solos.
Recommended Wah Pedals
There are a lot of great wah pedals available on the market today for any budget. Some are designed by famous guitarists, while others combine wah with Volume or Expression pedals to save space on your pedalboard.
- Dunlop GCB95 Cry Baby – Best Budget Option
- Xotic Effects XW-1 – Best High-End Option
- JOYO Multimode Wah II – Best Mini and Best Overall
Wah-Wah: An Expressive Filter Effect
I hope that this article was helpful in answering the question: What does a Wah pedal do?
It is one of the most expressive filter effects ever created, with all the filter sweeping power right at your foot. Whether you use it as a percussive effect, for emphasis on guitar solos, or as a standalone EQ, there is a lot that the humble wah pedal can do for you and your electric guitar.
To learn more about what the wah pedal does and which are our favorite wah pedals that we recommend, check out our full write-up.
Back to: Best Guitar Pedals: All Effects, Budgets & Brands
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Davis Wilton Bader is a professional guitarist/writer based out of St. Louis, MO. He plays in the bands Lumet and The Outskirts.