Tips for Using Wah from James Byrd

There is a Zen of the WAH.  Never once in my life did I ever "try to learn" something actually regarding it as a device.  The other factors though, which probably have determined what my left foot does when I play (that's the foot I use because I am left handed, but I PLAY guitar right handed) are these:

#1. I want to PUKE every time I've heard Eric Clapton step on a wah-wah “to the beat".  Knowing what sucks is actually damned important to not sucking.  Listen to Kirk Hammet.  Good God, I don't know what to do first: Break his fingers, clean the wax out of his ears, or stick that damned WAH pedal up is rich deaf ass.  By the way, I have been told I am slightly opinionated about these things.  I can live with it if Kirk can.

#2.  For ten years, I played with a Wah pedal with the pedal portion removed from the base.  I would find the tonal “sweet spot" by hand on the little gear on the pot, and when I wanted that certain mid-range tone during a solo, I'd just step on the switch, (which was now exposed).  But in 1993, when so-called" shred" of the Shrapnel variety was in vogue to the point of every kid on the block playing endless -and soulless- 32nd note excursions with nary a phrase in ear-shot, I decided it was time to do the least fashionable thing I could possibly think of to separate myself from the other dozen or so Yngwie wanna-bees that Varney was releasing every 90 days.  So I bought an original Cry Baby pedal, made an album (Octoglomerate)  and played slow a damned good bit of the time.

As I said, I didn't "learn" anything directly related to the wah-wah as a device, to use it as I do.  I used to wear them out pretty quickly because I put a lot of weight on it, but since my spine injury, all my playing these days is seated in a classical position, so my wah pedal has lasted well.  I think it (the pressure) was a reflection of some kind of inner musical desire to "force" juice into the note.  That how I feel about the pedal; It’s a note “juice squeezer”.

The very first day I ever used it, I sounded like I do with it today.  The only "trick" about playing with a wah pedal,  is to realise that it is NOT a rhythmic device, and to truly use your ears while you play. When thinking about it,  I use the pedal to "jibe" with which string, what fret, and which pickup I'm using.  The idea is to give the note it's most powerful or compelling  "center" of resonance and to “milk” the note within it.  Using the pedal without the pedal all those years, didn't allow the finer points of "adjustment" of having the pedal attached, but I think it helped me recognize the device as a tone control, rather than an “effect”.  And that's 90 percent of the way I use the pedal; as a tone control, adjusted slightly, but continuously to what I'm doing.  The adjustments with the foot are small.  Other than that, there are a FEW times when I will actually make it actually go "wah", but almost never "on the beat".  For example, I may use it to sweep across the frequencies while playing groups of 32nd or 16th note sextuplets quickly. I may make a note go "WAH” at the end of a phrase to make a point which stands out a bit and cuts.  I also use it in combination with vibrato, both hand, arm (classical lengthwise), and with the tremolo arm. When done with good but independent control, the result is very spacey and almost makes you dizzy to listen to it.   But the amount of pedal movement is quite small.  I never go all the way back with the pedal, or all the way forward.  I'd say the range I use is about a quarter of the sweep at most, and within that range, the motion is small, or a gradual sweep through many notes going up.  I do not use the wah with the bridge pickup.  It’s just too thin and screechy for my taste. In fact, my use of the bridge pickup is for virtually 100% of the crunchy rhythms I play.  I play about 75% of my single note solos on the neck pickup.  I never understood how the neck pickup got labeled “rhythm” on Gibson guitars.  Maybe that’s how some old country guy used them?  If I do use the bridge pickup for single note playing, I use it only up to about the tenth fret, or on the wound strings, especially when palm muting A-La DiMiola.  If you watch me play, I flip the pickup switch between the neck and bridge while my left hand momentarily goes legato while I make transitions between those two pickups.  I never use the middle pickup for solos.  I just have got time to screw with it. On my guitars, it's also screwed down flat with the pick guard because  it's in the way of where I pick a lot of the time.  I only use the middle pickup in combination with other pickups for clean tones. Sorry,  I digress.  The point is, the neck pickup is the best match for the wah when playing a single coil equipped guitar.

My best advice for incorporating the Wah-wah into your playing well, is to use your ears.  And make your ears aware of and educated to the finer points of genuine musicality.  What do I mean by "musicality"?   Thank you for asking!  Listen to a great vocalist. Now, what I'm about to tell you may result in uncontrollable fits of laughter from most metal heads, but I'm going to give you some examples who have some qualities you can and should recognize and learn to apply to everything you play and do, and that includes the WAH.  Celine Dion,  Frank Sinatra.  What are those qualities?

Celine:  Vibrato, microphone technique, and dynamics.  Notice that a truly properly trained vocalist APPLIES their vibrato at certain points.  It's not something present all the time, nor should it ever be, either in a vocal, or guitar solo.  Vibrato is applied for dramatic effect AFTER correct pitch has been hit, and held for an "appropriate" length of time.  It should never be used within scales played in strict metronomic time.  If you listen to Celine, she will hit a long powerful note, and JUST when you think she might run up against the wall -so top speak-, she applies a relatively slow, very even vibrato and you go "WOW!!!".  That is the point of the WAH: To create "musical power" by maintaining what I call the 51% rule of music:  To maintain listener interest in anything, there has to be a degree of unpredictability.  If the listen already knows where something is going more than half the time, you're not drawing them in.

Frank Sinatra: PHRASING.  You know what the difference between a quantized machine executing a series of "notes", and a skilled musician is?  Timing.  While it's critical to have a solid, on the beat internal metronome in your head, if that's ALL you've got, you'll bore a listener to death.  Learning to intentionally "pull" and "push" time is what defines phrasing.  This also creates tension.  Eric Clapton's go-awful WAH stomping with the kick-drum is god awful because it's like Chinese water torture; you always know exactly when the next drip is coming and you dread each one more than the last. 

Next, SPEECH.  Imagine how long you would want to listen to someone speak in a monotone at an unvaried meter.  Not long.  Now consider the great public speakers of our time: Martin Luther King,  J.F.K.  Today, Barack Obama.  What do they have?  First, it's a gift.  But it would never manifest itself as such, were it not for a high level of self-awareness.   A good speaker uses everything at their disposal to maintain interest.  That means tension, release of tension, and that they are in control of the crescendos.   No matter what the words (notes) actually are, they're pretty much worthless unless delivered in a compelling manner.  Proper use of the wah can help you become more compelling. 

The WAH pedal is a powerful tool to ADD to an understanding and expression of musicality.  There's no actual physical "technique" involved in using it.  If you have a foot, well, there it is. You have to use your ears. That is where the result derives from.   I ALWAYS recommend that the best possible way to become a better musician is to record yourself and listen back.  If you hear something that bothers you, go back and go to work to get rid of it.  Eventually, you'll have gotten to know your own playing, both good points, and points that are not so good, you'll be better able to hear them while you are playing, and the problems with be corrected and/or avoided while you're playing.  There will always be bad points, no matter who you are.  You should spend the rest of your life trying to rid yourself of every last one of them.   Do that, and you'll always improve as a player.

Finally, here are a few guys I consider to truly understand and use the WAH well:

Stevie Ray Vaughn.
Michael Schenker.
Uli Roth.

I'm sure there are others.  But all of them hold one thing in common: They obviously are listening to what they are doing while they are doing it, and they all understand that real music and real technique have nothing to do with how fast one can tap out "Eruption", but that it's about creating tension, release, and being in control of the peaks and valleys of their performance.  Uli Roth obviously knows all his modes and how to play arpeggios.  Jimi Hendrix had virtually no real musical knowledge other than major and minor pentatonic with the 7th degree added.  But both can run a note right through your heart and nearly make you cry. 

If you get a WAH, use it to make to caress and shape the notes.  Sorry to seem esoteric and offer so many words on the subject, but given that you were insightful enough to actually inquire, and clearly recognise some players who do this well, your question warranted the best answer I could give you.  If you don't have "Son of Man" yet by the way, I used more WAH on that album than anything else I've done.

That's about it.  Feel free to share my reply to you here with any of your guitar-playing pals who you think might be interested in my answer to your question.