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What is the Cocked Wah Sound?

Recently, I’ve been listening to David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust and Hunky Dory. I’m a big fan of the tones Mick Ronson got during this period. His tone was dangerous and you weren’t quite sure if it was going to fall apart. It never did, of course, because he had complete control. There’s beauty and honesty in its raggedness.

His solo on “Moonage Daydream” had a huge influence on me and there’s a component to his sound I couldn’t figure out. For a while, I attributed the special sauce to dual-miked Marshalls with some phasing, but that wasn’t it.

I found out that Mick used a Tonebender MK1. People know the Tonebender from Jimmy Page’s tone. He used the Tonebender MKII with Led Zeppelin. The MKI is obviously the earlier version and it has less gain and a slightly rawer tone. Think Jeff Beck’s Truth.

Beacon of Light?

Even with the MKI, a Marshall, and a Les Paul, it’s still not 100% Ronson tone.

One of the tricks Mick used was setting a fixed position on a Wah. Some call this a “Cocked Wah” — here come the parental groups. The idea is to sweep until you find the “sweet spot” and park it there.

You can easily hear this tone on Bowie’s “Queen Bitch” and the solo on “Moonage Daydream”.

Basically, it’s just boosting selected midrange frequencies. British amps like Marshall and Vox already have a rich midrange tone. The parked wah on top puts it into midrange utopia.

Shhhhh

This tends to be one of those tricks only guitar players know. As an engineer, it’s good to have the cocked wah method in your back pocket.

Sometimes, it can really make a rhythm or lead pop. I use it when I’m playing a focused area of the guitar neck and set the wah specifically for that region.

It can add sustain to your sound without a ton of gain. There are times when adding gain (distortion) doesn’t lead us to the path of tonal glory. Adding a parked wah gives you sustain and doesn’t oversaturate your tone.

Park Your Ass Right Here

Using a wah for this technique can be frustrating. You turn on the wah and rock it to find the frequency. From there you hope the pedal doesn’t slip or get bumped.

Fortunately, a traditional wah isn’t our only option. Fulltone makes a pedal called the Wahfull. It’s designed to do the cocked wah sound. It’s quite good at it too.

The Wahfull lets us make some finer adjustments as well. Not only can we choose the taper of the wah we want to park, but it allows us to adjust for different pickup outputs. Interesting!

I didn’t throw out my old wah. I kept that for when I need to do a traditional wah freakout (1x per week recommended). But, to get the cocked wah tone, the Wahfull is far superior.

Electro Harmonix also makes a pedal called the Cock Fight. It does a similar thing, but I’ve never been a fan of the sound of Electro Harmonix pedals. Plus, I feel the build quality is unreliable. The Fulltone is built like a tank.

Down with ITB

If pedals aren’t an option, you could use the wah effect inside Amplitube. Since you’re not going to be rocking it like a traditional wah, it will be easy to move the wah position until you find the “sweet spot”.

If you’re a tone purist, I would say the Fulltone Wahfull is the way to go, but any of those three options will get you in the same state.

Signal Chain

I like to put a wah or parked wah first in my signal chain. I prefer it before any gain staging. I like the way the boost effects the various gain pedals or preamp. It sounds quite different from placing it after any gain staging. It’s good to think about this if you have intentions on reamping too.

Running a pre-recorded gain tone out to a parked wah is going to have a different result. I’m not going to say better or worse. You decide. It’s music, be creative. I just know I prefer mine first in the chain. And if you want to preserve any sort of cohesiveness within the universe, you will too. But hey, if you want to mess with the fragile fabric of our existence, go ahead.

Jedi Masters

I mentioned Mick Ronson earlier, but a lot of other guitarists have used this sound. You can get into the Frank Zappa spectrum with a parked wah. Jimmy Page and Brian May have also used this effect.

Cheese and Whine

Depending on what pedals and amps you pair with the parked wah, the results will differ. The midrange of Blackface Fender Amps is scooped by nature. Adding a cocked wah to an amp with scooped mids will be a more subtle than a Vox AC30. This could be a great move if you’re trying to introduce more mids into a Blackface Fender. You can make it sound a little more “British”.

Well, there you go. I hope I said cocked wah enough to make your grandma uncomfortable. Don’t recommend this article to her. Unless your grandma owns a Les Paul Custom and plays through a Marshall Major on 10. In which case, I recommend making more visits to grandma… and do invite me.

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Mark Marshall

Mark Marshall

Mark Marshall is a producer, songwriter, session musician and instructor based in NYC. More at guitaristmarkmarshall.com


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