So what if the first instrument to say “wah” was a trumpet? Ever since the folks at Vox mated an organ volume pedal with a potentiometer in 1966, guitars have been speaking the same lingo?and with a lot more conviction than Charlie Brown’s teacher.
Here are a dirty dozen classic and destined-to-be classic examples of six-strings (and more) plus one great pedal coming together to say “wah.”
• “Theme from Shaft” (1971), Artist: Isaac Hayes; Guitarist: Charlie Pitt. If Isaac Hayes wasn’t Black Moses, Charlie Pitt’s pot-licking wah-wah riffs would have been the stars of this Stax Records fireworks show. But as absolutely recognizable as Pitt’s pedal licks are, Hayes was?and is?a genius, and the voice that provides the greatest set-up line in Blaxploitation history: “Who’s the black private dick/that’s a sex machine to all the chicks.” Can you dig it?
• “Voodoo Chile (Slight Return)” (1968), Artist: Jimi Hendrix. Following Isaac’s funky psychedelic haze comes this runner-up for most recognizable wah intro ever. Those soaring bends, the elastic footwork … brilliant! Jimi was the undisputed King of Wah. Doubt it? Then check the flipped-out wah-fest “Rainy Day, Dream Away,” the percussive, muted funk of “Little Miss Lover,” and the distinctive blend of echo, wah, and slide on “All Along the Watchtower” for additional evidence—and be awed.
• “Tell Me Something Good” (1974), Artist: Chaka Khan; Guitarist: Al Ciner. Singer Chaka Khan’s duet partner on this pop hit was Al Ciner’s wah-wah pedal, with some help from a yammering talk box. The playing’s so funky, so greasy, so delicious you can eat it with a fork, although you might stab yourself ’cause it’s such a natural booty shaker.
• “Sweet Child o’ Mine” (1987), Artist: Guns N’ Roses; Guitarist: Slash. It took almost a year for this GN’R song to reach the top o’ the charts in 1988, but just weeks after Appetite for Destruction’s July ’87 release every kid with a thing for rockin’ had to snag a wah-wah pedal to tag Slash’s blistering, manic solo. Still one of the most insane blasts of wah ever.
• “Dazed and Confused” (1969), Artist: Led Zeppelin, Guitarist: Jimmy Page. Consider this one an eraser. All Jimmy Page and his wah had to do was roar like a refugee from Jurassic Park, and maybe throw in a little violin bowed guitar, and the original 1967 folkie version of this tune recorded by its writer Jake Holmes disappeared from history.
• “I Ain’t Superstitious” (1968), Artist: The Jeff Beck Group; Artist: Jeff Beck. Jeff Beck’s got a menagerie in his pedal. With slick flicks of the strings and his wobbling wah-wah he conjures the black cats and the dogs?although they sound more like hellhounds?Rod Stewart sings about in this Chester Burnett chestnut. But there are also banshees leaping from Beck’s amps. And is that a werewolf howling at the end?
• “In the Presence of the Lord” (1969), Artist: Blind Faith; Guitarist: Eric Clapton. The years 1968 and 1969 were banner for the wah-wah, with Beck, Hendrix, Page, and Eric Clapton all digging into the pedal for amazing solos. Clapton ranks second only to Hendrix for historic wah riffage. Two of Clapton’s most iconic performances, Cream’s “Tale of Brave Ulysses” and “White Room,” set high marks in ’67 and ’68, but the demonic solo in Blind Faith’s angelic “In the Presence of the Lord” remains Clapton’s definitive wah-wah blitzkrieg. It comes from nowhere, breaking the gentle mood with the unannounced intensity of a striking cobra, and then slithers off, leaving listeners stung.
• “Papa was a Rollin’ Stone” (1972), Artist: The Temptations; Guitarist: Melvin Ragin. The Temptations were taking a crack at the psychedelic shack in the early ’70s, and the epic production of this tune was part of the black-lighted picture. This classic also features a classic guitarist, the great Motown session man Melvin “Wah-Wah Watson” Ragin. From the early ’70s at Motown through the disco era Ragin was the king of funky wah-wah?a man who supposedly earned so much bling with his strings he had a separate guitar stand for his gold chains. Legend has it that if he didn’t hang them up before the tape rolled, their jingling would get all over the tracks.
• “Theme from Burnt Weeny Sandwich” (1970) Artist: Frank Zappa. Not just burnt, but absolutely blowtorched by Frank Zappa’s searing wah-wah. Zappa was a bona fide wah head, so the pedal shows up fairly often in his solos. He employed the wah not only for its intended speech-like purpose, but to attenuate his tone by setting it in one position and blazing away. For Zappa, that was like throwing a sprinkling of gunpowder on an open flame.
• “Gets Me Through” (2001), Artist: Ozzy Osbourne; Guitarist: Zakk Wylde. Ozzy Osbourne might claim to not be the Anti-Christ or the Iron Man in this song, but guitarist Zakk Wylde comes off as a hell-fired crossbreed of both in the solo from the opening track on Ozzy’s Down to Earth. And halfway through his showcase Wylde kicks in his wah-wah pedal like a daredevil poker player upping a million-dollar bet?with fearless and inimitable nonchalance.
• “Say What!” (1985), Artist: Stevie Ray Vaughan. Stevie Ray Vaughan’s love of the two big Jimmys [or Jimis] in his life?his brother and Hendrix?comes screaming out of the wah drenched lines of this sassy, conversational instrumental. Soul to soul, indeed.
• “Good Times (3 Stroke)” (2003), Artist: Robert Randolph. As Vaughan once held the torch for Hendrix, Robert Randolph now lets his love of SRV come screaming through his steel guitar and wah-wah pedal combo, and never louder or clearer than on this ripping party fueler.