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I'm no guitarist and this might be an 'obvious' question to those who know - but there's a backing-guitar effect often heard in many funky/disco songs which I can only describe as a sort of "wakka-wakka" sound!

It's probably easier to hear than describe, so I've included a couple of clips (Bee Gees, other artists are available) to demonstrate below.

Is this effect classed as a "wah-wah" sound, a combination of techniques, or something different altogether?

Example #1 (Nights on Broadway): Guitar enters at approx 23 secs:

Example #2 (Night Fever): Effect heard clearly from 1:25:

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Note that, in addition to the probably correct assertion that it is a Wah pedal, a very popular funk effect is the envelope follower aka Autowah. This effect is essentially the wah with some sort of volume (voltage?) trigger where the louder/harder you play, the more pronounced the effect can be. Adjustable by knobs of course. – horatio May 10 '12 at 21:03
    
In addition to the wah pedal it does sound like one of the brothers Gibb is using percussive strumming with the wah pedals. Wah pedal do work well with a bit of percussive strumming. – Neil Meyer May 7 at 12:11
up vote 5 down vote accepted

Yes I concur, in both examples the rhythm guitar is using a wah wah pedal.

Let's explore this a little further. The early versions of the wah wah pedal used a filter to make variations in the peak response frequency of the guitar input depending on where the pedal was positioned. Rocking the pedal back and forth opens and closes this filter response. Now a days you can find many effect pedals with an automated version of the wah effect by driving the filter with an adjustable variable speed oscillator.

There is considerable technique in using a wah wah pedal and some brands are favored over others. Good technique is more than merely rocking the pedal back and forth, it has to do with timing and where the musician places the upper and lower bound of the pedal excursion that creates the right effect for the song. This effect pedal is likely one of the most expressive of all the effects because it allows for human touch while playing albeit it is usually a foot. You should also take a look at Peter Frampton's talk box which is a close relative to the wha wha effect.

As sited in this wiki article "Chet Atkins had used a similar, self-designed device on his late 1950's recordings of "Hot Toddy" and Slinkey."

source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wah-wah_pedal

However, the most notable examples came late in the 1960's with Cream's "White Room", Jimi Hendrix's "Voodoo Child (Slight Return)".

If one searches long enough you might find some non main stream electronic music wizard doing something similar before Atkins with using manually controlled filters and any of a variety of audio sources.

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Yes it's a Wah-wah pedal. Pretty standard funky line. I love it!

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Nile Rodgers, of Chic fame, is largely responsible for the disco guitar style, that he adapted from the funk and ryhtm&blues styles that he learned playing with the Apollo theatre house band, Parliament Funkadelic, etc. This can be heard for example in Chic's eponymous first album from 1977:

However the more typical disco guitar sound (pardon the pun :-), with intensive usage of the wah, seems not to have been a Rodger's invention, as he first uses it (as far as I know) in the 1978 album C'est Chic, after 1977's Saturday Night Fever.

So Alan Kendall, the Bee Gees guitarist, seems to have been the creator of this sound, or at least the first to use it in a widely successful disco sound recording. Kendall's guitar (and composition) work in Saturday NF is so important in the overall result that is fully credited with creative rights.

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