After tremolo, fuzz and reverb, wah-wah is one of the earliest effects, and certainly one of the most expressive. Its interactive nature means everyone uses the wah-wah a little differently. Some players rock the pedal in time with the song. Others use it to outline phrases. Others use it as a tone filter. That sense of individuality is a great metaphor for the guitar itself; all distilled down into a space small enough to fit under your foot. Here are the 10 best wah-wah solos.
10. Living Colour, “Cult of Personality”
Vernon Reid is an extremely able player technically, yet his solos are all about emotion and energy, not technique. “Cult of Personality” is a great example of this. Drawing on Ornette Coleman’s concept of harmolodics (“the use of the physical and the mental of one’s own logic made into an expression of sound to bring about the musical sensation of unison executed by a single person or with a group,” according to Coleman himself), Reid’s solo is fast, dirty, exciting and engaging. And did I mention fast? It sounds like he may drop a note at any time, but he never does. When the solo moves to more spacious phrases in the middle, he squeezes those notes for all they’re worth, punctuating everything with killer wah work.
9. Led Zeppelin, “Whole Lotta Love”
On first listen, this might not seem like a wah-wah at all. Even in the days when effects were in their infancy, Jimmy Page was finding ways to use them that were a little outside the square. On “Whole Lotta Love,” Page used his wah-wah pedal as a tone control, left all the way at the top of the pedal’s travel for a piercing treble. The guitar practically slices through the speakers, and throws the audience one last sonic curveball after the freak-out middle section before returning to the much more straightforward final verse.
8. David Bowie, “Cracked Actor”
Bowie’s one-time guitarist Mick Ronson is one of the greats, and you can both hear and see his influence on Randy Rhoads. Ronson’s work on Bowie’s The Man Who Sold the World album practically wrote the book on grunge 20 years before grunge happened. His “Cracked Actor” solo is a great example of his screaming, vocal wah style, and it’s also notable for the way it snakes in and out of the harmonica. It can be hard to tell where one ends and the other begins – ample evidence of Ronson’s skills as an arranger. He was also a fan of leaving the pedal in a stationary position, like Page on “Whole Lotta Love.”
7. Van Halen, “Poundcake”
Eddie Van Halen is not the first player who comes to mind when you think of wah-wah, but it was all over 1991’s For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge and the subsequent tour and live album, Live: Right Here, Right Now. Like everything else about Van Halen’s playing, there’s something a little unorthodox about his wah work. At times it almost sounds like he's using the pedal backwards, and at other times EVH seems to hover over just a small section of the pedal’s travel. Although his sound on “Poundcake” is drenched in delay and pitch shifting, and augmented by an electric drill placed over the pickups, the clever use of wah is what really makes this solo.
6. Stevie Ray Vaughan, “Voodoo Child (Slight Return)”
It’s probably impossible to beat Jimi Hendrix’s original (another fine example of wah work) but Stevie Ray probably got a close as anyone is likely to get. His cover of “Voodoo Child” is ferocious, energetic and powerful, compared to Jimi’s more mystical take on the song. It’s Stevie’s Darth Maul to Jimi’s Yoda. One of the coolest moments is at 4:18, when Stevie Ray starts a greasy bend without the wah engaged, then kicks it in for the remainder of the note (and leaves it on for almost the rest of the song). Stevie Ray’s version works so well because he really makes the song his own; while at the same time never forgetting that it’s really Jimi’s and that he’d better take care of it.
5. Frank Zappa, “Inca Roads”
Technically this isn't a wah-wah pedal – it’s an envelope filter. Sometimes envelope filters can sound quite wah-like, and other times they can be more synthy. Zappa was a big fan of using the envelope filter as an auto wah, and his solo on “Inca Roads” from One Size Fits All isa fine example. It also represents an early recorded example of two-handed tapping, three years before Eddie Van Halen (although Steve Hackett and Billy Gibbons were also known to be tapping before then). Zappa’s “Inca Roads” solo made a huge impression on a young Steve Vai, and you can hear echoes of Frank’s stunningly original “Inca Roads” licks and melodies in Vai’s playing to this day.
4. Steve Vai, “Bad Horsie”
Vai’s no stranger to his own wild wah licks, and “Bad Horsie” is full of them. Set against a monster groove and tuned down to Drop C, “Bad Horsie” almost sounds obscene. If a guitar ever went off the rails and became a stripper, “Bad Horsie” is what it’d dance to. The song is a good example of a couple of different wah styles. For much of the song, Vai uses the pedal to shape individual notes. But for one huge tapping extravaganza starting at 4:33, he uses it almost like a phaser, very slowly drifting through the pedal’s upper range to create a shifting, swirling, cascading effect.
3. Guns N’ Roses, “Sweet Child o’ Mine”
“Sweet Child o’ Mine” was already destined to be a classic on the strength of the opening riff alone, but the solos – and there are lots of them – kick it up to an even higher level. Slash kicks in the wah at 4:07 for a furious solo, then during the “where do we go now?” breakdown he reigns it in, but you can hear him chomping at the bit, waiting for the gates to open at 5:12 for some of those classic mournful, sustained notes that only Slash can do. It’s really impossible to imagine the song without the solo, a fact Slash is well aware of, as you may have witnessed first-hand on his recent tour – he plays it note for note, and wah for wah.
2. Cream, “White Room”
The edgy, fuzzy tone Eric Clapton summons from his axe on “White Room” is punctuated by almost out-of-control wah work that sounds deliciously stream-of-consciousness. At times, Clapton uses the wah almost like a tremolo, a technique heard a few years later under the feet of Jimmy Page on “Dazed and Confused.” At other times, Clapton uses the wah to stretch notes out, and at yet others he taps his foot in time with Ginger Baker’s drums.
1. Metallica, “Enter Sandman”
The solo that launched a thousand wah-wahs in the early ’90s, Kirk Hammett’s solo in “Enter Sandman” is a stylistic tour de force, taking in bluesy bends, sliding octaves, alternate picked arpeggios, whammy bar tricks, and some of his biggest, baddest (in a good way) wah work ever. It’s made even cooler by the bluesy little wah-wah licks that occur before and during the second verse, which preface the solo while at the same time not quite giving away what’s about to happen come solo time.