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The spectral glide we call wah-wah has been around for quite some time. Trumpet and trombone players were doing it manually since the 1920's, and in 1966 the first guitar wah pedal was invented.
These pedals have gone through a lot of revisions in technical terms of how they pull off the effect, but the sound itself remains the same.
It's the same one that some of the top guitarists of all time popularized, from Frank Zappa, Jimi Hendrix, and Eric Clapton, to more recently Steve Vai.
Users are even developing new ways of working with these rocking pedals to achieve different enhancements to their tone. It's boiling down to the cold, hard fact that a wah pedal is no longer negotiable. You need to have one in your arsenal and know how to use it.
Today we'll be looking at how these work, how to use them, and what to look for when you start evaluating them. We'll also share our top picks from the current line-up that offer all the newest features and reliable construction (since you'll be stepping all over them, literally). Let's do this.
What is the Wah Effect?
The wah effect sounds like different things based on how it's used and who's listening and interpreting it. Most everyone agrees it has a very human vocal quality to it, akin to a baby wailing. This is achieved by using a band-pass filter and sweeping it up and down the frequency spectrum, controlled by the rocker on the pedal.
The band-pass filter is essentially a tight equalizer boost. When it is swept up and down the audible portion of the spectrum, the pitch of the guitar's tone isn't changed itself. Specific frequency ranges of the pitch are boosted in volume, and this boost is moved from lower to higher pitches, and vice versa.
Although the sweeping motion is the most popular use for the effect, some players will 'park' the pedal in a certain position (often before a solo) in order to accentuate certain frequencies to help them cut through the mix and create more excitement.
The exciting aspect for the guitar player and the listener is that this is one of the few effects that is actively controlled and changed by the player, instead of simply being turned on and forgotten. It's interactivity has made it a fan favorite.
What to Look for in the Best Wah Pedal?
There are two main considerations when looking into a wah wah. The first has to do with the reliability of the potentiometer. Yes, you'll be stepping all over this thing but all of the working parts are protected from that abuse.
The part in question, the potentiometer (also called a 'pot'), is what tells the rest of the electronics how far you've tilted the pedal. If it's a mechanical pot, you'll need to worry about rust, dirt, and grime building up within it.
You've probably heard of dirty pots before that crackle and create noise. That's what we're talking about, but at the extreme they can fail completely too. It's often as cheap to get a new pedal as it is to buy new parts and pay for the tech labor to fix it.
The other type of potentiometer is optical, as opposed to mechanical, where the control of the effect is guided by light. Companies will market this as a "no wear or tear" device, which is an exaggeration.
They will wear much slower but there are still concerns with dust and dirt getting inside of the light cavity. Regardless of this fudging of the truth, the optical option is often a better choice, in my opinion, if only for needing far less maintenance and increasing reliability.
The other thing to consider is where the range of the effect occurs in relation to the 'taper' of the pedal. The taper describes how far you've tilted the pedal and the resistance you create in the potentiometer.
The taper is set by the manufacturer, and although some offer the option to change the taper, most won't. They're designed with a guitarist and keyboardists normal and average foot travel paths in mind, so none are that far off from one another. It's just something to keep in mind, and is definitely something you'd become accustomed to regardless.
How to Use a Wah Pedal
Understandably, there's a lot of confusion surrounding the wah-wah. The main question is it should go in the order of guitar pedals on your pedalboard. There's a lot less questions about how to actually use it, but for the sake of every reader we're going to cover both real quick.
Where to Place it in the Signal Chain
Despite a few loud dummies claiming otherwise every chance they get, there is indeed a very specific, natural, and logical sequence your pedals should be in. The signal path looks like this:
- Dynamics, Filters, & Pitch Shifters
- Boost & Distortion
Wah is a type of envelope filter like the auto-wah. You're sweeping an equalization boost up and down the frequency spectrum when you rock the pedal, where as envelop filters do this automatically based an amplitude.
Naturally, you want this done well before your distortion, flangers, and reverb, or you're going to get some really weird sounds coming out of your amplifier. To get specific, you want to use your noise gate, compressor, equalizer, pitch shifters, and then your wah.
After that, go wild with your harmonizers, distortion, and phasers. The point is you definitely want your wah to come right after you shape your waveform and define your tone.
Understanding the Knob Settings
The main component of a wah pedal is the Foot Rocker that you use to sweep the frequency boost around. Usually, you press it all the way down to engage the On-Off Switch and then go to town with it, pressing it all the way down again to cut it off.
However, it's better marketing to have some knobs to play with, so many companies have started to add a Boost switch and Volume knob so you can increase the output gain. Not to be outdone, others have included a Mode switch that lets you choose different shapes of the Q-curve of the frequency boost you sweep around.
That's pretty much it. Before long they'll add EQ stages and more, but for the time being we're safe from extra complexity.
The Best Wah Pedals
Note: Each image and text link leads to Amazon.com where you can read additional user reviews, find specific technical detail listings, see additional product options and sizes, and make your purchase.
Now that we which features to keep an eye out for and how to use wah pedals in general, it's time to peruse the marketplace and see what we can find. We've already shed the nonsense and collected the best options for you.
All you need to do is consider each and see if one matches all of your preferences. We don't order them in any way other than to point out our top pick. You can see our two other "best in class" options in the table at the top of this article. If they made this list, they're worth your time to check out.
Dunlop GCB5 Cry Baby
You're looking at the original, the wah-wah that started it all. The Dunlop GCB5 Cry Baby was popularized by the likes of none other than the likes of Jimi Hendrix, David Gilmour, and Eric Clapton. When people think of this sound effect, they're thinking of the sound that came out of this exact pedal model. It is the standard.
The icing on the cake is the die cast enclosure that is built like a tank. You could try to destroy this thing and have a hard time, let alone through normal use. Powered by 9-volt battery or an AC adapter for your pedalboard, the 100k ohm "Hot Potz" potentiometer is sensitive in the sense that you'll get out the sound you expect without fail. It hears all of the micro-movements you're making.
What you get here is pure wah. You don't get a million knobs to distract yourself with. It's you and your guitar and the rest of your pedal chain. You'll save some cash with this minimal, focused, and classic option. It's good enough for the best guitarists in the world.
- LedgerNote Favorite
Morley VAI-2 Steve Vai Bad Horsie 2
As nice as the Cry Baby is above, the new leader in the game was designed with the help of perhaps the best guitarist alive, Steve Vai. The Morley Bad Horsie 2 can be heard in its full glory on the Steve Vai track "Bad Horsie," where he puts it through the paces and even makes it sound like a horse.
The coolest thing about this pedal is there's no button you have to step on to engage the effect. As soon as you put your foot on it and move the rocker, the effect is engaged. Many wah's produce noise when their button is clicked on, but you dodge all that here with the optical switch.
You get two settings, one being the Bad Horsie setting and the other being the Contour Wah setting. Contour mode allows you to use the two knobs to alter the wah frequency and intensity to create your own setting.
In addition to all of this, it also has "Clear Tone" buffer circuitry to stop any tone loss and signal drop over long cables and resist any signal loading that may occur. I could go on and on, but I'll just say this. This pedal has established itself as the new, clear winner on the market.
Vox V847A Wah Pedal
This is quite the story. This Vox V847A wah-wah is the actual original Cry Baby. Dunlop's Cry Baby (the first pedal in this list) was a clone of Thomas Organ / Vox Cry Baby pedal, but they failed to register the trademark for that name and Dunlop got it for their own clone. It's a dirty game out there.
The two pedals have diverged from each other, but if we're honest this is the one that started it all, even if the professionals jumped on the Dunlop train. Keeping their original 60's model around, the Vox V847A keeps the same tone while adding modern features such as an AC power jack and a buffered input.
When the buffered input is on, you get an authentic golden age wah. When switched off, it's in a buffered bypass so you get no alterations in your unprocessed tone.
The chrome plating on the rocker is very nice when practicing or on a dark stage because you can easily see where your foot should land, requiring very little repositioning. The rest of the construction is as solid as you would expect as well. Many prefer this option over the Cry Baby, considering it more authentic. If you want to go to the roots of the wah effect, this is it.
If you want to go where the pro's went, check out the Cry Baby instead. Both arguably just as good as the other (since they're nearly the same).
Ibanez WD7 Weeping Demon Wah
Although the Bad Horsie above has some nice extra features, the Ibanez WD7 Weeping Demon takes it to the next level. First and foremost you start with a Range switch that lets you move the effect into the lower frequencies or higher ones.
From there, you can fine tune it with the three knobs, including the level (setting the intensity), the Q (setting the width of the effect), and LO (allowing you to keep more of the low frequencies, since wah is a band-pass filter).
You've probably realized the Range switch & LO knob make this a suitable wah for bass guitar as well. What's nifty is after you're done setting the knobs where you want them you can depress them so they can't be accidentally changed on you.
In addition to all of this, there is an auto-switch mode so that it acts more like the Bad Horsie, where you don't have to engage a button to turn it on. It relies on an optical switch instead so you can get right to work. It also has an auto off delay so that you can rock it into the off position while using it and not immediately halt the effect. You can set this delay yourself. Or you can use the typical foot switch mode.
There's a spring tension knob you can adjust so that you can adjust the return-spring in auto switch mode, so that if you take your foot off without rocking back to the base position, it'll do it for you. Check out this serious contender if you like to get into customization.
Hotone SP-10 Soul Press
The Hotone SP-10 Soul Press has a lot going for it. I'm not usually a fan of multi-effects pedals but the Soul Press does what it does very well. It's a 3-in-1 pedal, cramming Wah, Volume, and Expression into one pedal. That makes sense since they're all of the same shape and functionality. These come in modes, of course. You can't use all three at once. But the wah is why we're here...
Like most, the Soul Press patterns its sound after the Cry Baby, describing themselves as having a "legit vocal sweep and lush harmonics." I'd say that's accurate.
Of course, for a similar price why wouldn't you just get the Cry Baby? Well, because you're getting that 3-in-1 action here plus a few extras. For instance, the output jack has a bottom value control, meaning you can tweak the sensitivity of the volume and expression modes.
You have the choice between a 9 Volt battery or a DC adaptor. You get True Bypass circuitry so you'll always get a pure tone when it's switched off. It sounds very much like the Cry Baby. The rocker has rubber stoppers so the kick switch doesn't get smashed to death. If you want to knock out three birds with one stone, this is a very decent choice.
Boss AW-3 Dynamic Wah
Oh, Boss. Boss appears in every "best list" for every pedal type, for a reason. They have the game on lock down, and that goes for the Boss AW-3 Dynamic Wah too. They call it the "Dynamic" wah because you can put it in fixed mode or auto-wah mode, making this a 2-in-1 pedal. This one might be confusing so let me explain.
Think of this as an envelope filter pedal that has a fixed wah effect. In order to turn this into a classic wah pedal like the rest of these, you'll need an expression pedal to control it. Otherwise, you can use it all day like an auto-wah. The knobs allow you to configure the effect, setting the decay, the tempo (at a fixed rate or manual setting), and select between a few modes.
One of those is the Humanizer mode, which lets you accentuate certain vowels in order to sound even more human-like. This "human sounding effect" is why the original was called the Cry Baby after all, but now you have control over it.
If you're looking for a manual wah and you don't already have an expression pedal, you may be happier with a choice above. If you're already set with expression and have a wah, you may find the amount of control you have over the effect here makes it the obvious choice for your pedalboard, as well as tacking on an auto-wah.
This is a great option for the more experienced players looking for even more control over their sound.
These are the Best Wah Pedals Out There
When looking for the wah effect, it's usually to emulate the greats that have all used the same pedals to produce the same sound. Thankfully, choosing a pedal this is an easy decision since nearly all of the best wah pedals are based largely on the original Cry Baby or it's clone or choosing an option with extra features.
We make this easy by sharing with you above the top of the line options from today's market. Just remember, the best wah pedal is the one you like and will use, versus letting it collect dust in your gig bag.