Wah-wah (music)

Last updated

Wah-wah (or wa-wa) is an imitative word (or onomatopoeia) for the sound of altering the resonance of musical notes to extend expressiveness, sounding much like a human voice saying the syllable wah. The wah-wah effect is a spectral glide, a "modification of the vowel quality of a tone" ( Erickson 1975 , p. 72).

Onomatopoeia word whose pronunciation imitates sound of its denotation

Onomatopœia is the process of creating a word that phonetically imitates, resembles, or suggests the sound that it describes. As such words are uncountable nouns, onomatopoeia refers to the property of such words. Common occurrences of words of the onomatopoeia process include animal noises such as "oink", "miaow", "roar" and "chirp". Onomatopoeia can differ between languages: it conforms to some extent to the broader linguistic system; hence the sound of a clock may be expressed as tick tock in English, tic tac in Spanish and Italian, dī dā in Mandarin, katchin katchin in Japanese, or "tik-tik" in Hindi.

A spectral glide is a music-composition concept, consisting of a "modification of the vowel quality of a tone". Since the vowel quality of a tone is determined by the overtones, spectrum, or timbre of that tone, a spectral glide is a move from a spectrum characteristic of one vowel to a spectrum characteristic of another vowel. A spectral glide may be accomplished through a wah-wah, mute, or pedal, or through the modification of one's vocal tract while speaking, singing, or playing an instrument such as the didgeridoo. Lip-vibrated instruments with large mouthpieces such as tuba and trombone allow extensive modification of vowel quality, while woodwinds have a smaller range, with the exception of the flute in air-sound mode. Strings have the smallest range.



The word is derived from the sound of the effect itself; an imitative or onomatopoeia word. The effect's "wa-wa" sound was noted by jazz player Barney Bigard when he heard Tricky Sam Nanton use the effect on his trombone in the early 1920s ( Nadal n.d. ).

Barney Bigard American musician

Albany Leon "Barney" Bigard was an American jazz clarinetist known for his 15-year tenure with Duke Ellington. He also played tenor saxophone.

Tricky Sam Nanton American musician

Joe "Tricky Sam" Nanton was an American trombonist with the Duke Ellington Orchestra.



The wah-wah effect is believed to have originated in the 1920s, with brass instrument players finding they could produce an expressive crying tone by moving a mute, or plunger, in and out of the instrument's bell ( Du Noyer 2003 , 375). In 1921, trumpet player Johnny Dunn's use of this style inspired Tricky Sam Nanton to use the mute with the trombone ( Nadal n.d. ).

Johnny Dunn was an American traditional jazz trumpeter and vaudeville performer, who was born in Memphis, Tennessee. He is probably best known for his work during the 1920s with musicians such as Perry Bradford or Noble Sissle. He has been compared in sound and style to both King Oliver and Louis Armstrong. In 1922, he recorded as a member of Mamie Smith's Jazz Hounds, together with Garvin Bushell, Coleman Hawkins, Everett Robbins, Bubber Miley and Herb Flemming.


By the early 1960s, the sound of the acoustic technique had been emulated with electronic circuitry (Keen 1999; DuNoyer 1993 , 375). For electric guitar the wah-wah pedal was invented.


The method of production varies from one type of instrument to another. On brass instruments, it is usually created by means of a mute, particularly with the harmon (also called a "wa-wa" mute) or plunger mute. Woodwind instruments may use "false fingerings" to produce the effect.

Mute (music) device fitted to a musical instrument to alter the sound produced

A mute is a device fitted to a musical instrument to alter the sound produced: by affecting the timbre, reducing the volume, or most commonly both. The use of a mute is usually indicated in musical notation by the Italian direction con sordino and removed with the direction senza sordino or via sordino.

Any electrified instrument may use an auxiliary signal-processing device, or pedal. Often it is controlled by movement of the player's foot on a rocking pedal connected to a potentiometer. An alternative to players directly controlling the amount of effect is an 'auto-wah'. These devices, usually make harder hit notes more trembly with a more prominent wah wah effect ( Hunter 2008 ). Wah-wah effects are often used for soloing or for creating a "wacka-wacka" funk rhythm on guitar ( Du Noyer 2003 , 375). Although these electronic means are most often on electric guitar, they are also often used on electric piano ( Kernfeld 2002 ).

Signal processing models and analyzes data representations of physical events

Signal processing is a subfield of mathematics, information and electrical engineering that concerns the analysis, synthesis, and modification of signals, which are broadly defined as functions conveying "information about the behavior or attributes of some phenomenon", such as sound, images, and biological measurements. For example, signal processing techniques are used to improve signal transmission fidelity, storage efficiency, and subjective quality, and to emphasize or detect components of interest in a measured signal.

Potentiometer Type of resistor, usually with three terminals

A potentiometer is a three-terminal resistor with a sliding or rotating contact that forms an adjustable voltage divider. If only two terminals are used, one end and the wiper, it acts as a variable resistor or rheostat.


Auto-wah is a type of wah-wah effects pedal typically used with electric guitar, bass guitar, clavinet, and electric piano etc. The distinctive choppy rhythm guitar sound on many funk and disco recordings from the 1970s popularized the effect.


The wah-wah effect is produced by periodically bringing in and out of play treble frequencies while a note is sustained. Therefore, the effect is a type of spectral glide, a "modification of the vowel quality of a tone" ( Erickson 1975 , 72).

The Electronic wah-wah effects are produced by controlling tone filters with a pedal ( Keen 1999 ). An envelope follower circuit is used in the 'auto-wah'.( Hunter 2008 ). Subtractive synthesis can produce a similar effect.

Notable uses

Tricky Sam Nanton's wah-wah on trombone in Duke Ellington's Orchestra became well known as part of the so-called "jungle" effects of the band in the late 1920s ( Nadal n.d. ). This technique has been used in contemporary music. Karlheinz Stockhausen notates the use of the wah-wah mute in his Punkte (1952/1962) in terms of transitions between open to close using open and closed circles connected by a line ( Erickson 1975 , 73). Although the most common method of producing wah-wah on brass instruments is with a mute, some players have used electronic filtering, notably Miles Davis on trumpet ( Kernfeld 2002 ).

See also


Further reading

Related Research Articles

Effects unit electronic or digital device that alters how a musical instrument or other audio source sounds

An effects unit or effectspedal is an electronic or digital device that alters the sound of a musical instrument or other audio source. Common effects include distortion/overdrive, often used with electric guitar in electric blues and rock music; dynamic effects such as volume pedals and compressors, which affect loudness; filters such as wah-wah pedals and graphic equalizers, which modify frequency ranges; modulation effects, such as chorus, flangers and phasers; pitch effects such as pitch shifters; and time effects, such as reverb and delay, which create echoing sounds.

In music, a glissando is a glide from one pitch to another. It is an Italianized musical term derived from the French glisser, "to glide". In some contexts, it is distinguished from the continuous portamento. Some colloquial equivalents are slide, sweep, bend, smear, rip, lip, plop, or falling hail.

Jazz guitar

The term jazz guitar may refer to either a type of guitar or to the variety of guitar playing styles used in the various genres which are commonly termed "jazz". The jazz-type guitar was born as a result of using electric amplification to increase the volume of conventional acoustic guitars.

Wah-wah pedal effects unit that mimics the sound of "wah wah"

A wah-wah pedal is a type of electric guitar effects pedal that alters the tone and frequencies of the guitar signal to create a distinctive sound, mimicking the human voice saying the onomatopoeic name "wah-wah". The pedal sweeps the peak response of a frequency filter up and down in frequency to create the sound, a spectral glide, also known as "the wah effect". The wah-wah effect originated in the 1920s, with trumpet or trombone players finding they could produce an expressive crying tone by moving a mute in and out of the instrument's bell. This was later simulated with electronic circuitry for the electric guitar when the wah-wah pedal was invented. It is controlled by movement of the player's foot on a rocking pedal connected to a potentiometer. Wah-wah effects are used when a guitarist is soloing, or creating a "wacka-wacka" funk-styled rhythm for rhythm guitar playing.

Extended technique

In music, extended technique is unconventional, unorthodox, or non-traditional methods of singing or of playing musical instruments employed to obtain unusual sounds or timbres.

Lead guitar is a musical part for a guitar in which the guitarist plays melody lines, instrumental fill passages, guitar solos, and occasionally, some riffs within a song structure. The lead is the featured guitar, which usually plays single-note-based lines or double-stops. In rock, heavy metal, blues, jazz, punk, fusion, some pop, and other music styles, lead guitar lines are usually supported by a second guitarist who plays rhythm guitar, which consists of accompaniment chords and riffs.

Rhythm section group of musicians within a music ensemble or band who provide the underlying rhythm, harmony and beat for the rest of the band

A rhythm section is a group of musicians within a music ensemble or band who provide the underlying rhythm, harmony and pulse of the accompaniment, providing a rhythmic and harmonic reference and "beat" for the rest of the band.

Keyboard expression is the ability of a keyboard musical instrument to respond to change tone or other qualities of the sound in response to velocity, pressure or other variations in how the performer depresses the keys of the musical keyboard. Expression types include:

Expression pedal

An expression pedal is an important control found on many musical instruments including organs, electronic keyboards and pedal steel guitar. The musician uses the pedal to control different aspects of the sound, commonly volume. Separate expression pedals can often be added to a guitar amplifier or effects unit and used to control many different aspects of the tone.

In music, a chorus effect occurs when individual sounds with approximately the same time, and very similar pitches converge and are perceived as one. While similar sounds coming from multiple sources can occur naturally, as in the case of a choir or string orchestra, it can also be simulated using an electronic effects unit or signal processing device.

Dunlop Cry Baby wah-wah pedal manufactured by Dunlop Manufacturing, Inc

The Dunlop Cry Baby is a popular wah-wah pedal, manufactured by Dunlop Manufacturing, Inc. The name Cry Baby was from the original pedal from which it was copied, the Thomas Organ/Vox Cry Baby wah-wah, first manufactured in 1966. Thomas Organ/Vox failed to register the name as a trademark, leaving it open for Dunlop. More recently, Dunlop manufactured the Vox pedals under licence, although this is no longer the case.

Distortion (music) form of audio signal processing giving "fuzzy" sound

Distortion and overdrive are forms of audio signal processing used to alter the sound of amplified electric musical instruments, usually by increasing their gain, producing a "fuzzy", "growling", or "gritty" tone. Distortion is most commonly used with the electric guitar, but may also be used with other electric instruments such as bass guitar, electric piano, and Hammond organ. Guitarists playing electric blues originally obtained an overdriven sound by turning up their vacuum tube-powered guitar amplifiers to high volumes, which caused the signal to distort. While overdriven tube amps are still used to obtain overdrive in the 2010s, especially in genres like blues and rockabilly, a number of other ways to produce distortion have been developed since the 1960s, such as distortion effect pedals. The growling tone of distorted electric guitar is a key part of many genres, including blues and many rock music genres, notably hard rock, punk rock, hardcore punk, acid rock, and heavy metal music.

Woodwind growling is a musical technique where the instrumentalist vocalizes into the instrument to alter quality of the sound. Growling is used primarily in rock and blues style playing, it is also frequently used in klezmer music; it is popular in the woodwind family of instruments, especially the saxophone. It is commonly used by mainstream artists such as Ben Webster, Illinois Jacquet and Earl Bostic. Outside of these styles and instruments, it is often considered a novelty effect.

Del Casher is an American guitarist and inventor. He invented Wah-wah pedal, the Ecco-Fonic, and the Fender Electronic Echo Chamber. He was the first to introduce the Roland Guitar Synthesizer for the Roland Corporation.

Jazz violin use of the violin or electric violin to improvise solo lines in jazz

Jazz violin is the use of the violin or electric violin to improvise solo lines. Early jazz violinists included Eddie South, who played violin with Jimmy Wade's Dixielanders in Chicago; Stuff Smith; Claude "Fiddler" Williams, who played with Andy Kirk and his Twelve Clouds of Joy. Joe Venuti was best known for his work with guitarist Eddie Lang during the 1920s. Georgie Stoll was a jazz violinist who became an orchestra leader and film music director.

Vintage musical equipment

Vintage musical equipment is older music gear, including instruments, amplifiers and speakers, sound recording equipment and effects pedals, sought after, maintained and used by record producers, audio engineers and musicians who are interested in historical music genres. While any piece of equipment of sufficient age can be considered vintage, in the 2010s the term is typically applied to instruments and gear from the 1970s and earlier. Guitars, amps, pedals, electric keyboards, sound recording equipment from the 1950s to 1970s are particularly sought. Musical equipment from the 1940s and prior eras is often expensive, and sought out mainly by museums or collectors.

The trombone is a musical instrument from the brass instrument family. Trombone's first premiere in jazz was with Dixieland Jazz as a supporting role within the Dixie Group. This role later grew into the spotlight as players such as J.J. Johnson and Jack Teagarden began to experiment more with the instrument, finding that it can fill in roles along with the saxophone and trumpet in Bebop Jazz. The trombone has since grown to be featured in standard big band group setups with 3 to 5 trombones depending on the arrangement. Even today the trombone is still growing in popularity with groups and in music with different techniques being attempted and brought up. The trombone is not easy to play for left handed people, although well known trombone player Slide Hampton was a professional player that used a left-handed grip and style. A person who plays the trombone is called a trombone player or a trombonist.