Wah-wah (music)

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".[1]


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.[2]



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.[3] In 1921, trumpet player Johnny Dunn's use of this style inspired Tricky Sam Nanton to use the mute with the trombone.[2]


By the early 1960s, the sound of the acoustic technique had been emulated with electronic circuitry (Keen 1999;.Du Noyer 2003, 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.

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.[4] Wah-wah effects are often used for soloing or for creating a "wacka-wacka" funk rhythm on guitar.[3] Although these electronic means are most often on electric guitar, they are also often used on electric piano.[5]


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".[1]

The Electronic wah-wah effects are produced by controlling tone filters with a pedal.[6] An envelope follower circuit is used in the 'auto-wah'.(Hunter 2004) Subtractive synthesis can produce a similar effect.

Notable usesEdit

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.[2] 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.[7] 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.[5]

See alsoEdit



  • Du Noyer, Paul (2003). The Billboard illustrated encyclopedia of music. New York: Billboard Books. ISBN 9780823078691. OCLC 54817654.
  • Erickson, Robert (1975). Sound structure in music. Berkeley: University of California Press. ISBN 9780520023765. OCLC 1364674.
  • Hunter, Dave (2004). Guitar effects pedals : the practical handbook. San Francisco, CA, US: Backbeat. ISBN 9780879308063. OCLC 56460005.
  • Keen, R. G. (1999). "The Technology of Wah Pedals". New Page 1. Retrieved 2021-02-13.
  • Kernfeld, Barry (2002). "Wa-wa [wah-wah]". The new Grove dictionary of jazz. New York: Grove. ISBN 1561592846. OCLC 46956628.
  • Nadal, James (2013-10-24). "Tricky Sam Nanton music @ All About Jazz". All About Jazz Musicians. Retrieved 2021-02-13.

Further readingEdit

External linksEdit