From Academic Kids

Wah-wah is an imitative word for the sound of bending or altering musical notes to improve expressiveness, sounding much like a human voice saying the syllable wah for each note.


Wah-wah in trumpet and trombone playing

Although perhaps best known from the electric guitar's wah-wah pedal, the sound is much older, having been significantly developed by trumpet and trombone players using mutes in the early days of jazz.

Joe "King" Oliver recorded "Wawawa" in the 20s. Bubber Miley, Cootie Williams, trumpeters, and Tricky Sam Nanton, trombonist, of the Duke Ellington Orchestra pioneered in using plunger mutes ("plumber's helper") to create wah-wah sounds. The effect was used in the 30s on "Sugar Blues" by commercial Dixieland trumpter Clyde McCoy, who built a long career around the sound. "The Fat Man", the first hit by Fats Domino features vocal wah-wah. Another New Orleans singer, Chuck Carbo frequently performs vocal wah-wah.

Wah-wah in guitar playing

The electronic version, which sweeps the peak response of a filter up and down in frequency to create the sound, was first heard in 1945 on a pedal steel guitar created by Leo Fender and in the early 60s on Vox amplifiers (under the name Wah-Wah) and Thomas electronic organs (as the Crybaby). None of these innovators patented the effect. The variation in the peak response frequency of the filter resembles the change in formant frequency in the human vocal tract when saying the word "wah", making the wah-wah pedal a crude form of speech synthesizer.

The first recorded use of a wah-wah was by Chet Atkins, who used a wah-wah that he had built himself on the 1961 recording "Boo Boo Stick Beat".

Jimi Hendrix did much to popularize the wah-wah in the late 60s using his own modified effects pedal, as heard on his "Machine Gun" and the Electric Ladyland album (the track "Voodoo Chile (Slight Return)" in particular). There is still a commercial wah-wah pedal named after him.

Eric Clapton first played wah-wah with Cream on "Tales of Brave Ulysses" on the Disraeli Gears album and used it for both background riffs and an extended solo on "White Room". Clapton often used the Clyde McCoy wah-wah from Vox.

George Harrison recorded his own song "Wah-Wah" on his solo album, All Things Must Pass, on which Clapton also appeared. He had previously used a wah-wah pedal with The Beatles, such as in the chorus of "Across the Universe".

Frank Zappa was another master in using wah-wah, notably in his solos on Roxy & Elsewhere and studio albums such as Overnite Sensation.

On many albums recorded in 1970s, wahwah pedal can be occasionally heard used with other instruments such as trumpet, saxophone, electric piano and bass guitar. Especially many jazz fusion records of that time feature wind instruments or keyboards played through wah-wah pedal.

Melvin "Wah-Wah Watson" Ragin played wah-wah on some notable singles by The Temptations in the early 70s, as well as with Martha Reeves and the Pointer Sisters. Hendrix proclaimed blues guitarist Earl Hooker the "master of the wah-wah".

Modern experimental guitarists Steve Vai and Joe Satriani are popular users of the Wah-Wah effect. Steve Vai even officially endorses the Morley brand wah-wah.

Other notable guitarists using wah-wah include Steve Hillage, Larry Coryell, Anson Funderburgh, Eddie Hazel, Gary Rossington and Carlos Santana. A great many guitarists use it from time to time. Among the most popular pedals are those from Vox and the Jim Dunlop Cry Baby.

Wah-wah in electronic music

In electronic music, wah-wah effects are easy to produce by applying a modulation envelope to the voltage-controlled filter in an analog synthesizer. Digital synthesizers can also simulate this effect.

Wah-wah effects can also be achieved by using a vocoder to modulate an instrument sound, and speaking "wah-wah" into the modulation control input of the vocoder. The vocoder then impresses the formants of the spoken sound into the musical sound.

See also: vibrato, fuzz


You made me such a big star
Being there at the right time
Cheaper than a dime
Wah-wah, you've given me your wah-wah, wah-wah
--George Harrison, "Wah-Wah"

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