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What is a Wah-wah Pedal: How to Use It?

The Wah pedal is one of the oldest and most popular guitar effects ever made. It has a very distinctive tone that even those who don’t play the guitar can recognize. The feature that sets apart this guitar effect from others is that it is directly controlled by the foot movement of the guitar player by pushing the pedal forward and back. By manipulating the peak frequency in the pedal, it produces a sound that resembles a human voice, more like when we say the word ‘wah.’ This sound is the guitar sound that you can hear in many Jimi Hendrix songs or the guitar solo of the Guns and Roses song Sweet child of mine.
The wah effect was designed to mimic the crying sound of a muted trumpet, and later it was implemented into a guitar pedal. It is mostly used in guitar solos, but it is also an excellent tool to create funky styled rhythms.

An Introduction to Wah Wah Pedals

Around the mid-1960s came along a type of foot pedal called the wah-wah pedals that swept from bass to treble and back, attempting to mimic the human voice – a “wah.” Rock musicians were among the first to take it up because of the spectral ‘wah effect’ created.
Interestingly, the wah-wah pedal was created accidentally during the redesign of a Vox Super Beatle guitar amplifier. In 1967, the first-ever electric guitar wah-wah pedal was released publicly. It bore the endorsement of Clyde McCoy, the ever-famous jazz trumpet player, who had developed a signature ‘wah-wah’ sound back in the 1920s. The Vox Clyde McCoy Wah-Wah Pedal was among the first wah-wah pedals to hit the market and create a crowd-pleasing furor. Thomas Organ, the company behind the Clyde McCoy pedal, later changed the name of the pedal to Cry Baby, because the wah sound often resembles the voice of a crying baby.

The distinctive sounds/tones produced by wah-wah pedals were well-loved by expressive guitarists back then, a trend that is resurging after an apparent decline in the late 1900s. The “wah” sound can be heard on thousands of popular records. Among the early users popularizing the use of wah-wah pedals were legends like Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, and Led Zeppelin.
Particularly interesting is the fact that using wah-wah pedals can bring expressiveness to even single-note guitar lines. Remarkable examples of this are Voodoo Child by Jimi Hendrix, Alive by Pearl Jam, and Enter Sandman by Metallica, among others.
The wah-wah pedal is a versatile device as one can create a vast number of effects depending on the speed and the amount of the effect used while toeing down (treble) or heeling down (bass) on it. Other than electric guitars, the wah pedal can create amazing effects with other instruments like keyboards, fiddles, and mandolins.

History of the Wah Pedal

The first wah-wah pedal was created in 1966 from the Vox Continental Organ volume pedal by the Warwick Electronics Inc. The first wah effect was designed by a young engineer, Brad J. Plunkett. Although his task would have been to redesign the USA Vox amplifier to create a new product line for the company (Vox Amplifonic Orchestra), Plunkett accidentally created the first wah sound.
Plunkett was instructed to replace one of the circuit switches to a transistorized circuit from a Thomas Organ. When he adjusted the amplifier using an electronic oscillator and connected the output to the speaker, he and the other engineers noticed the new sound that was produced by this new bread-boarded circuit. They went on testing the wah effect, first on a saxophone; then, they tried to install the circuit into a volume control pedal. The first guitarist who connected his instrument to a wah pedal was Del Casher, who also suggested that this new effect is better used with guitars rather than with wind instruments.

The first wah pedals were marketed under the famous jazz trumpet player, Clyde McCoy’s name. The new guitar effect became known as the Vox Clyde McCoy Wah-Wah Pedal. The Clyde McCoy pedals were originally made in Italy and featured the famous Fasel inductor. The pedal has an image of Clyde McCoy at the bottom. The name of the pedal was later changed to Cry Baby, which became the most popular and recognizable wah pedal in the world. Warwick Electronics Inc. successfully patented the wah pedal on September 22, 1970.

Modern Wah Pedals

After the success of the first wah pedals, other companies came out with their versions. The most popular one is the Dunlop Cry Baby Wah pedal. Dunlop Manufacturing, Inc. managed to register the name “Cry Baby” as a trademark and has created several different versions, including many signature pedals endorsed by famous guitar players such as Slash, Dimebag Darrell, Zakk Wylde, Kirk Hammett and Eddie Van Halen.
Today’s wah pedals usually offer more than just a wah sound. Some of them feature several different settings, have volume boost or distortion options, or allow the players to create their unique wah tone.

How to Use a Wah Pedal?

The Wah pedal is something that many guitarists use in their performance to add a little wah-wah to their music.  But, it is something that could easily be overused during the right parts of a song, or in a particular song altogether.  The key is to practice, practice, and practice.  Get the guitar part down first, and know the songs so well that you can do in your sleep after you’ve been drinking for three days.
The reason you want to have the songs down is so that when you start to use the wah pedal, you don’t get distracted and mess up your guitar.  It happens a lot, and it frustrates musicians so much in the beginning, that they give up on learning how to appropriately use this great guitar pedal that became popular in the 1960′s.
The wah pedal is like a gas pedal on a car, you push down, and it makes one sound, and you let up, and the volume, tone, and bass level change.  Each wah pedal is different.  Some you press down on with your foot, and with others, you rock your foot on top of the pedal that is more set up like a little see-saw.  By moving your foot back and forth, you control the frequency boost of the pedal and make the wah sound. Some guitar pedals are big, others are small, and you can find a wah pedal that his heavy and made of metal or a cheap battery operated one that is made from plastic. Some of the better quality pedals are equipped with additional controls that let the player fine-tune the effect.

Some Tips While Using The Wah Pedal

  • Mute the strings (put your finger across the strings and push the pedal back and forth)
  • Try using a clean tone and rock the pedal (pay attention to the tempo)
  • If you use more pedals, try to place the wah in front of the others in your effect chain.

If you are just starting and don’t have that much money, try and invest in one that is durable so that you don’t break your guitar pedal as you are starting to get a feel for how it works.  One of the problems with plastic guitar pedals is if they are plastic and a heavy player starts putting a lot of weight onto the wah pedal, it can easily break.
Learning the wah pedal is distracting when you are playing.  It takes time to learn to coordinate your foot and still keep your fingers, hands, arms, and hips moving while you are playing.  That’s why it is so important that you get your songs down before starting to incorporate a wah pedal into your routine.  But, a wah pedal sounds awesome if done properly, and the big advantage is that you can enhance your talent and ability if you learn how to master and get comfortable with this great and one of a kind guitar pedal.
There are so many different guitar pedals out there, and getting a good wah pedal takes trial and error.  Don’t just find the cheapest one in the catalog, because you are going to want to try out a few different ones before you make up your mind.  While there are many cheap ones out there, it’s not the price that is important in choosing a good guitar pedal; rather, you need to concentrate on how comfortable you feel when using one.
Your wah pedal should have the perfect amount of resistance when you step on it, and it needs to be responsive enough that you can fully control it when you are using it in the song.  You want to know that it will change tone when you apply or release pressure on the guitar pedal when it’s supposed to so that it won’t ruin the rhythm or tone of the song either.
So, you can see that this guitar effect is trickier than many people think, but it is easy to learn and adds a lot of different sound possibilities that your music doesn’t even know it has yet.  Check out many of the bands of the late 60′s and 70′s and see how it worked for them, and then you can start thinking about how a wah pedal can work for you.
If you are more experienced and are looking for a new wah pedal for yourself, you can take this advice as well and check out some different models and see if your tastes of preferences have changed since you got your last guitar pedal.  A wah pedal isn’t essential, but it’s handy, and you’ll find a lot of different possibilities that you didn’t realize your music had.

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