Essential Wah Wah Techniques
I can still remember the very first time I became aware of the Wah Wah pedal. It was on an audiocassette my dad had: a compilation album called Songs Of A Psychedelic Age. It was a two-tape set which featured a whole bunch of psych classics like "Strange Brew" by Cream, "Purple Haze" by Jimi Hendrix and "White Rabbit" by Jefferson Airplane. But for me, as a ten-year-old budding guitar nerd, the real cream (pardon the pun) of the crop was the final track: a Vox Wah Wah ad featuring The Electric Prunes, they of "I Had Too Much To Dream Last Night" fame. It was cheesy and silly, but super-cool too, even in those pre-kitsch days. The Prunes demonstrated how the Wah Wah could make the guitar sound like a sitar while a slick radio-voiced gentleman described the pedal as "The now sound - it's what's happening!" How could you not fall in love with that? I used to listen to that track over and over. I didn't even know what a sitar was, but I knew I wanted to sound like one.
It was quite a few years before I finally got a Wah Wah pedal of my own, and I quickly figured out how to use it. It seemed to be the most effective when I rocked my foot on the pedal in sync with the tempo of the song. That's perhaps the most obvious and oft-recorded way of using a Wah Wah, but of course it's not the only way, and over the years I started to discern a lot of different ways people were using their Wahs. So here are a few, some of which may be obvious, and some maybe not so much.
The 'Follow The Note' Technique
Here's one that you'll often hear employed by guys like Joe Satriani and Alice In Chains' Jerry Cantrell. It's where you break the boundaries of the tempo and instead use the Wah Wah as a phrasing tool, sweeping it across the duration of a note or a block of notes. It's a brilliant way to add emphasis to a section, but it's even better for giving your solos and melodies a more human, vocal feel.
The 'Filter Sweep' Technique
You know that effect you hear on pop or dance tracks where there's a breakdown and it sounds like the listener has stepped out of the club? That's a filter sweep, and it's closely related to how a Wah Wah works. You can get actual filter effects on multi-effect units that will mimic this sound much more accurately, but there's something undeniably funky about using a Wah Wah instead. All you do is veeeeeeeeery sloooooooowly depress or raise the pedal across the duration of a four or eight bar phrase. Either extreme of the pedal's travel will give you an unusual, unnatural effect as you approach it, and it's a great way of building tension before kicking into a new section of the song where you'll be either turning the Wah Wah off, or going for broke with one of these other Wah techniques.
The 'Whole Lotta Love' Screech
Once upon a time, fuzz was not particularly widespread, and overdrive and distortion as we know them were not yet invented. Players who needed a bit of extra something but didn't want the raspiness of a fuzz pedal turned to the treble booster. The name is slightly misleading - think of it as a tone shaping boost that works with the amplifier to create a bigger, more cutting tone, rather than something that simply boosts treble. Jimmy Page used treble boosters, but he also used a Wah Wah to achieve a similar but more exaggerated effect. You'll hear this 'Wah-as-treble-boost' technique at various points in Led Zeppelin's catalog, but perhaps the most inspiring, ear-catching and downright awesome example is on his mini-solo in "Whole Lotta Love." And it's the easiest Wah Wah technique imaginable: you simply turn the pedal on and leave it all the way at the 'toe down' position.
The 'Wah As Filter' Technique
This one is popular with Michael Schenker fans, but you can hear it in many other places too. Check out Kirk Hammett's intro solo to "Fade To Black," for instance (played on his Gibson Flying V). And it's very simple to do: find a 'sweet spot' somewhere along the pedal's travel where the tone comes alive, and just leave the pedal in that position. That sweet spot can vary depending on the key of the song you're playing, the particular frequencies of your Wah Wah pedal and the frequencies of the rest of your rig, but when you find it, you'll know. It's almost like the cover of Dark Side Of The Moon: the guitar tone enters the prism as a pure white beam of light, but then it's broken up into a whole rainbow of harmonics by the Wah Wah.
The 'Backwards Wah' Technique
This is probably the least-appreciated and most rarely-heard Wah Wah technique. While the typical way is to sweep the pedal from low to high frequencies, you can get a lot of mileage out of doing it the other way. It's a little tricky to do because you're working in a counter-intuitive way, but it's well worth it. Maybe practice it while sitting down to start with though, in case you lose your balance and topple over. Not that I've …done that or anything… Ahem.
Feel free to share your Wah Wah tips with us! What are you using? Who are your Wah influences?