But the question is: what makes a great wah? Well if you’ve always been curious as to what you should look for in a wah pedal, you’ve come to the right place! This article will give you a basic breakdown on how a wah pedal functions, as well as showing off some great recommendations!
- A Quick Aside
- How Does A Wah Pedal Work?
- What Should I Look For In A Wah?
- Optical vs. Mechanical
- How Did We Choose The Winners
- Top 5 Wah Pedals
- Honorable Mentions
A Quick Aside
Just to clarify, the article did focus exclusively on physically manipulated wah pedals as opposed to auto-wahs. While the two effects sound similar, they’re both different enough to warrant articles of their own.
Also, this article isn’t going to cover volume pedals. However, for those of you interested in that effect refer once again to the “What Should I Look For In A Wah” section as a lot of the advice there will be helpful to you when purchasing a volume pedal.
If you’d like to see an article on auto-wahs or volume pedals, let us know and we’ll be happy to oblige!
So, How Does A Wah Pedal Work?
At its core, a wah pedal is essentially a filter that emphasizes certain frequencies while cutting others. This is actually a similar principle to what you’d find in an ordinary tone control on a pedal or electric guitar.
The trademark “wah” sound of the pedal is achieved by quickly and dramatically changing the frequency response. Interestingly enough, the “wah-wah” effect was actually pioneered by trumpet and trombone players by quickly moving a rubber mute in and out of the “bell” (the end the sound comes out of).
Though the effect is most commonly used in “funkier” songs, wah pedals actually have a lot of utility for a wide variety of different genres.
For instance, the wah can also be used as an EQ. Leaving the foot pedal in a certain position can give your guitar a really nasally and sharp tone that’s great for cutting through the mix, and leaving it in the opposite position can give your guitar a smoother and more understated sound that’s great for rhythm work.
What Should I Look For In A Wah?
Speaking from our own experience, there are really only two things that you need to consider when buying a wah.
Your first consideration should be the reliability of the pedal. Mechanically, wah pedals generally work by shifting the position of a potentiometer with your foot. And if your potentiometer (or pot for short) gets rusted/dirty and stops working, you’re either going to have to replace it or buy a whole new pedal.
The second thing you should consider is the “sweet spot” of the pedal. The “sweet spot” in a wah pedal is the variety of sound that you can get between the two harsh extremes of very bassy/muddy and very trebly/harsh.
Generally, a good wah is going to run you in the neighborhood of $100. That’s not to say that cheaper models won’t give you that signature wah sound, but odds are they won’t hold up as well as their more expensive brethren.
Optical vs. Mechanical
So when a wah pedal uses the term “optical controlled”, it means that the effect is controlled without the aid of a mechanical process such as potentiometers and switches.
Optical control in a wah is generally marketed as being “no wear and tear” devices, meaning that you don’t have to worry about the effect ever suffering from the kinds of issues that would plague something like a Dunlop Cry Baby Wah.
Now this is just our opinion, but you shouldn’t be too quick to believe that just because a piece of gear uses new tech it’s going to be a higher quality piece of equipment. Case in point: 2015 Gibson electric guitars.
While better tech in any object has the potential to result in a better experience for the user, it also has the potential to make it harder for the user to repair said object.
We know we sound a bit cynical, but we really don’t have a problem with optical controlled wahs. Personally, we prefer having the option to easily change out a mechanical part as opposed to sending a piece of equipment to a manufacturer for repair. However, an optically controlled wah could definitely be a better option for the musician who may not have the tools or knowledge to service their own equipment.
How Did We Choose The Winners
Every wah pedal on this list was chosen based on the buzz around the forums and music publications that we find to be the most knowledgeable/respectable, as well as some of the experiences that we've had as musicians.
And like every article in this series, it’s important to clarify what “best” means in the context of this piece. These articles are meant to give everyone a chance to find gear that will work well for them, so there are going to be budget minded models as well as more expensive ones.
We know from experience that you can’t always justify buying the most expensive gear around. When your choice is between groceries/bills or a new wah pedal, nine times out of ten you’re going to choose groceries!
Just try to remember, the best choice for you isn’t always going to be the best option for your fellow musicians.
Top 5 Wah Pedals
So without much further ado, here are the best wah pedals as decided by Equipboard.com.
Dunlop 535Q Cry Baby Multi-Wah
True Bypass: Yes
Power: 9V battery, or Dunlop ECB003 AC Adapter (not included)
You can't read a review of the Dunlop 535Q Cry Baby Multi-Wah pedal without seeing the word versatile in the same sentence (there, and now we did it too). We suspect the fact that it's the most frequently recommended wah pedal is largely due to its tremendous tonal versatility. If you're looking for a great wah pedal but don't quite know exactly how you're going to use it, and/or you tend to play many different styles from blues to rock to reggae, we would strongly recommend this one. Read the rest of the review to find out why.
So, what do we mean by versatile? The knobs, switches, and settings you get with the Dunlop 535Q let you set the pedal up to play a wide range of different styles, making the 535Q one of the most customizable wahs out there. Other wah pedals simply don't have all of this fine-grained control. In other words, while other wahs are great pedals in their own right, they tend to be "one-trick ponies."
At first glance, the knobs and switches can be a little intimidating, so let's clear up what everything does. First, this wah has a built-in boost, which simply makes your signal louder when it's engaged. If you tap the red switch on the right side of the pedal with your foot, you'll engage (or disengage) the boost, which using a little volume knob on the left side of the pedal lets you set exactly how much boost you want (up to 15dB). Users love how easy the boost switch is to tap, all it takes is a flick of the toe.
The other small knob next to the boost amount knob is the Q control, which lets you set the width of the wah range. You'll use this in tandem with the large silver knob found on the right side of the pedal. It's a 6 position selector, which lets you determine where the center of the wah range will be within the Q you set. So, to hear the full extent of the range of the Dunlop 535Q, set the frequency range selector to position 1 with the Q knob all the way closed, and to hear the other end set the frequency range selector to position 6 with the Q all the way open. Every increment in between tends to be a smaller change. Perhaps this excerpt from a user review will help you better understand the Q:
When the Q is flat, you can use the wah for more of a subtle tone change, or if you want more funk, make the Q sharper
Having all these options doesn't necessarily mean you have to use them. Perhaps with this pedal it might be best to find the sound you want, and leave the settings there. However, if you tend to play various styles of music, you might need the controls the 535Q provides. To sum up the range this wah pedal has, we liked how this reviewer put it:
...most of the other Wahs are probably better for their particular sound but I need versatility. When playing funk I want some wucka wucka, but when I'm jamming with a DJ I want to be able to dial in some less intense sweeps, that ripple through the chords. I also like to be able to do the Hendrix thing on lead for a blues/rock gig. I find I can do all of those and more with this pedal.
Another plus of the Dunlop 535Q Cry Baby is that it's built like a tank. To Dunlop's credit, most of their wah pedals are built in this way. It truly feels like a car could run over it, and it would still be functional. This is truly a workhorse of a pedal, and it's no wonder it's found on pedalboards of pro guitarists everywhere, including Eric Clapton, Buckethead, and Adam Jones of Tool.
Like any pedal, the Dunlop 535Q Cry Baby has its downsides. Some users wish it had a little more sweep. For others, the versatility was actually a detractor, claiming that you have to spend a significant amount time figuring out which tone you prefer out of it. We think that's more a personal preference, and if you know exactly the wah sound you want, perhaps a more focused or single-purpose wah pedal is more for you.
Bottom Line: For someone looking for a wah pedal that can do it all, it's hard to recommend anything other than the Dunlop 535Q Cry Baby Wah. Dunlop has several signature series wah pedals, including Dimebag and Jerry Cantrell models. With a little tweaking, you can more or less replicate the settings of those pedals. In fact, the manual for it even comes with diagrams showing you how to set it to achieve different artists' signature wah sounds! To top it all off, the 535Q is True Hardwire Bypass, meaning that when the pedal is off, your tone remains completely unaffected. It really doesn't get better than this, and considering it costs less than Dunlop's artist signature wahs, we award the 535Q Best of the Best.
If you want to add a little style and flash to your pedal setup, you can get the Dunlop 535Q in a very cool looking chrome finish. It'll cost you a tad bit more, but we think it looks pretty awesome, and is definitely worth checking out.
Dunlop MC404 CAE Dual Inductor Wah
True Bypass: Yes
Power: 9V battery, or Dunlop ECB003 AC Adapter (not included)
The MXR MC404 CAE Wah was designed in a collaboration between the Cry Baby design team and Bob Bradshaw of Custom Audio Electronics. The name of the game here is all about the dual inductors. The what? Allow us to explain. The inductor is an electronic component inside the pedal that influences the character and voice of the wah... and this thing has two of them (yellow and red). They're called Fasel inductors, and are highly prized. In fact, legend has it the Fasel inductor was the key to the sound of the original Cry Baby wah.
Switching between the yellow and red inductors using the switch on the side of the pedal really does change the tone significantly. Some describe it as "having two wahs in one." The yellow inductor emphasizes more of the high frequencies, and gives it more of a pronounced "quack," perfect for funk. It also seems to result in a wider range in the sweep. The red inductor on the other hand emphasizes lows and mids, and is a little bit muddier, fuller, and warmer. A switch on the other side activates a boost, which some guitarists will find handy. The LED lights on the MC404 are handy for indicating what settings you currently have selected. The experience of pushing these switches is very pleasant, as all it takes is a swift tap of the foot on either side of the pedal to activate or deactivate them.
Like all Dunlop wahs, the build quality is extremely solid. Both when holding the pedal and smashing on it with your foot, you get the feeling that Dunlop built this one to last. No issues here. This is the wah pedal of choice of Mike McCready (of Pear Jam fame) and Soundgarden's Kim Thayil. Scott Ian of Anthrax has this to say about it:
Dunlop over the years has sent me so many different wahs… the CAE Wah, when it first came out and they sent me one, it just sounded as good as any old wah I've ever had. It just sounds great. It's got a huge amount of throw. I feel like it really digs in when you step on that thing. You really dig in with it. And just the tone of it is great. And it's got a boost as well which kicks in so it's nice for the solo. I just have that boost turned on. But it's all about the tone. It's just based on it, it just sounds great.
Bottom Line: It's amazing that no one really had anything negative to say about the MC404 CAE Wah. It's not quite as versatile as the Dunlop 535Q Cry Baby Multi-Wah, but what you get here is the selection between two very different tones, powered by some very high-end, highly sought after internal components. You also have the same boost capability that the 535Q has, and True Hardwire Bypass so your signal won't suffer when the pedal is off. In terms of price, we've observed that the MC404 runs around $30 more than the 535Q, which we chalk up the more high-end internal components. To adjust the gain and the Q, this pedal features a couple of internal pots, requiring you to tinker with the internals if you want to make any tweaks (this can be a negative if you don't feel like getting your hands dirty). If the more boutique feel of the MC404 appeals to you, you like the two distinct tones provided by the dual inductors, and aren't afraid to mess with the internal pots to customize your wah tone, then we say this is the wah pedal you should get.
Morley VAI-2 Steve Vai Bad Horsie 2 Contour Wah
True Bypass: Yes, buffered
Power: 9V battery, or Morley 9V Adapter (not included)
Outside of the Dunlop wah pedals, the Morley VAI-2 Steve Vai Bad Horsie 2 Contour Wah was the highest rated and recommended one we found. In fact, a frequent topic of discussion in forums is the comparison between the Morley Bad Horsie 2 vs. the Dunlop 535Q Cry Baby Wah. It's difficult to pick a winner, since a lot depends on what you consider to be your preferred wah tone. Let's get into the features, and some of the pros and cons we uncovered in our research.
To turn on a Dunlop Cry Baby, you push the pedal down until you click the switch, leaving the wah on until you repeat this motion. The Morley Bad Horsie features a switchless design, which means it turns on simply by pressing down on the pedal. The pedal's spring action automatically returns it to the start position when you take your foot off of it, and it turns off automatically. Generally, reviewers of the pedal saw this as a pretty awesome feature, although some lament that you can't use the wah as a tone control by leaving it "parked" in a certain position (like you could on a Dunlop Cry Baby).
In terms of customization and versatility, the Bad Horsie 2 can be used in two modes, selectable by a switch atop the pedal - the normal Vai Bad Horsie mode, and Contour mode. In contour mode, you have 2 knobs available to adjust the contour and intensity (essentially the range and level of the effect). Having these two modes is almost akin to the dual inductor modes found on the Dunlop MC404.
The build quality is on par with Jim Dunlop's wah pedals. You won't have to worry about this unit's durability, as it's as rock solid as it gets. One thing we noted is how nice the spring tension of the actual pedal feels. It's a slightly longer throw than what the Cry Baby offers (meaning, a longer distance between the up and down position of the pedal), which might take a little getting used to.
It sounds great, and definitely a little bit different than the classic Cry Baby wah. The Morley Bad Horsie 2 takes on a more digital, more modern sound. Some reviewers even call it more mellow, which matches up better with a distorted tone. We tend to agree with this review:
The Bad Horsie 2's more laid back, neutral sound actually is, I think, what makes it such a standout for higher gain tones since its "personality" is less likely to take over your distorted tones. Crybaby's can be too in-your-face and overbearing with distortion and fuzz. The Bad Horsie 2 blends extremely well with dirt.
Bottom Line: Rather than a true hardwire bypass, the Bad Horsie has buffered bypass (which means your signal still goes through the pedal's circuitry when it's turned off, but it then boosts - or compensates for - any part of the signal that may have degraded). We're happy to say we did not notice any "tone suck" in our signal chain with this wah. And of course if you're a Steve Vai fan, this pedal was made in collaboration with him, so that alone is a great reason to get your hands on one. The Dunlop 535Q still wins out in terms of fine control over your tone, but if you're looking for something a little different and more modern, and the switchless design appeals to you, you would do very well adding the Morley VAI-2 Steve Vai Bad Horsie 2 Contour Wah to your gear arsenal.
Dunlop GCB95 The Original Cry Baby Wah
True Bypass: No
Power: 9V battery, or Dunlop ECB003 AC Adapter (not included)
We were hesitant to include a third Dunlop pedal into our Top 5 Wah Pedals. We had a very hard time choosing between the Vox V847 Wah and the Dunlop The Original Cry Baby, but in the Dunlop GCB95 edged out the competition. This pedal is here for two main reasons: 1) it's the classic wah, and 2) it's extremely affordable!
The Dunlop Original Cry Baby has the traditional sound that most people probably want when they think of a wah pedal. If that's what you're after, and you don't feel like paying an exorbitant price for fancier wah pedals, this is the one you want. This is the go-to pedal for that 60s Jimi Hendrix sound.
Versatility? Not here. You don't get the knobs, switches, and adjustments to the voicing that the other wah pedals on this list offer. This is about as one-trick pony as it gets. However, it does its one job well, so it's ok! One thing to note is that because of its iconic status, people have modified this pedal dozens of ways. We won't go into it here, but if you know what you're doing (or know someone who does), you can indeed adjust the voicing of this wah to your liking. Also, no problems when it comes to build quality. All of the Dunlop units are nice and heavy and rock solid.
Because the Dunlop GCB95 Original Cry Baby has no adjustability, we noticed reviewers had various biases about its tone and functionality. Some reviewers want it to have a wider range, and some think the range is too wide. We generally think it comes down to personal taste, and agree with this reviewer's sentiment:
some people like this sweep range as is, and once you get used to the pedal you'll get a feel for where your preferred range is and your foot will "learn" where to go.
Bottom Line: Like a Big Muff Pi or Boss DS-1, the Original Cry Baby by Dunlop is a classic pedal. The price is very attractive, coming in at significantly less than the other wah pedals on this list. You sacrifice some things compared to the fancier wahs. Notably, this is not a true bypass pedal, and without modding it or getting into the internals, there is no adjustability. It's a bit noisy, and can suck some of your tone. If you're looking for your first wah pedal, use wah sparingly and just want one in your collection, or your budget permits you from going to the more adjustable higher end wahs (the Dunlop 535Q Cry Baby Multi-Wah comes to mind), you truly can't go wrong with this one. If your budget is tight and you need a wah, we strongly recommend you at least save up for The Original Cry Baby - believe us, it's worth it. It's a classic for good reason, and wins our Best Bang for the Buck.
Fulltone Clyde Deluxe Wah
True Bypass: Yes
Power: 9V battery, or adapter (not included)
An upgraded version of the Fulltone Clyde Standard, the Fulltone Clyde Deluxe is a fantastic three-in-one wah pedal which comes highly recommended, and is a great alternative to the offerings from Morley and Dunlop. Read on to find out why this is the wah pedal of choice for Radiohead's Ed O'Brien as well as Carl Broemel of My Morning Jacket.
You turn it on the same way as the Dunlop wahs, by pressing the pedal down until you "click" it on. Once on, a nice bright LED on the side lights up, which is a helpful indicator especially if you're performing live on stage in a dark club. The primary knob lets you select between three main types of wah. This is the central feature of this pedal, and one we had lots of fun playing with. The three wah settings are:
- Jimi: The Jimi setting is based on a 60s Vox Clyde McCoy. Selecting this setting is the same default wah sound of the Fulltone Clyde Standard. Of the three types, this one felt like the most typical wah sound.
- Shaft: The Shaft setting is generally brighter, a little more shrill, and would be better suited for funk. To us this is the most mild of the three wah settings.
- Wacked: Wacked is based on the Colorsound Wah-Wah. It's similar to the Jimi setting, except when you have the pedal in the heel-down position, you get a lower, more bassy growl. It's a deeper tone with more bass response. It seems as if the lower range goes further. It's subtle, but noticeable.
Here is a great tips that stood out to us from a user of the Clyde Deluxe:
One thing I really like doing with this pedal while recording is set it to the Wacked setting, switch on the wah and there are quite a number of useful spots for getting a really bitey sound and just leaving it in that position for the take - much more dramatic than adjusting the tone controls on the amp, but totally usable.
And another one:
I found that I got the most out of the pedal if I hooked it up after my distortion pedal (more harmonics)
Near the 3-way mode switch is an input level knob which you can use to really drive the wah (boost the level with the Wacked setting for a mean wah sound). Aside from those controls, inside the pedal you'll find an internal resonance control, which lets you change the gain and bass response. This way, you can fine tune the wah, as an example to make it sound best with whatever pickups your guitar has.
The Fulltone Clyde Deluxe certainly isn't cheap, but what makes it very worth the money is that from the inside out, it just feels more polished than the other wahs in our buyer's guide. The build quality is super solid. When handling the pedal you feel like this is a superior piece of gear, it looks very polished and feels great. The rocking pedal action and resistance is very pleasing at the standard factory setting. When you plug it in and switch it on, it doesn't take long to hear how incredible it sounds. It has true bypass when turned off, and when engaged the level of noise it introduces to the signal is very low.
Bottom Line: If we could only buy ONE wah pedal and we had a $200USD budget, it would be a difficult choice between the Dunlop 535Q, Morley Bad Horsie, and this Fulltone Clyde Deluxe. If we needed the most versatility and were after the classic wah sound, the Dunlop 535Q is the best option. For a more modern Steve Vai-inspired wah sound and ease of use of the switchless design, the Morley Bad Horsie is the winner. For the Mercedez-Benz of wah pedals, with options to sound like a 60s Vox wah all the way to the crazy sounds of the Wacked setting, the Fulltone Clyde Deluxe is the one to get.
Just to prove to you that we did our homework, these are the other wah pedals that didn't quite make the cut for the top 5, however still received mentions and recommendations.
Do you need a wah that you can tweak to your personal preferences? If so, the Ibanez WD7 ToneLok Weeping Demon Wah Pedal might be right up your alley. The pedal includes a design which not only allows you to change the tension of the footboard but the response of both the low and high-ends frequencies of the pedal as well.
A great mid-range wah pedal, the BBE WAH Class A Vintage 1967 has some pretty impressive features for its price point. The pedal not only boasts true-bypass switching and an easy access 9v battery compartment, it also has the "Harmony" control which allows players to customize its sweepable range.
Tired of wahs that let you down when you need them most? If so, the Electro-Harmonix Crying Tone might be the wah for you. Super responsive and expressive, the Crying Tone allows players to instantaneously switch from bypass mode to great wah tones.
How do you feel about wah pedals? If you have any thoughts, personal experiences, or anecdotes that you’d like to share, feel free to tell us all about it in the comments section below.