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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:

  • 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 '16 at 12:11
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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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    +1 One thing I would add, regarding the specific "wakka-wakka" sound as heard on "Night Fever" (the other one has been taken down, so I can't comment on that) is that it is achieved by muting the strings with the left hand and strumming the rhythm, whilst rocking the wah. Additional expression can be added by occasionaly easing the muting, going for a note or chord. A similar approach can be heard on the intro to "Voodoo Child (Slight Return)" (just before the main lick). – user321 Oct 3 '16 at 20:31
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Yes it's a Wah-wah pedal. Pretty standard funky line. I love it!

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This effect used to puzzle me a great deal when I heard it as a child, because I couldn't imagine how it was made.

In addition to what's already been said: I don't think an autowah can be used to create that specific wakka-wakka scratching effect. I've tried it, it sounds indeed vaguely similar but not the real funky thing that blows your socks off.

I think that's because an autowah is triggered by the envelope voltage: it will be on the "AH" side of the "OO-AH" vowel scale when the output of the guitar is strongest, which is more typically when you play an open chord, rather than quickly strumming (wholly or partially) dampened strings.

It's exactly the noise component added by dampening the strings that sound most like voice phonemes when filtered because of their noisier / richer range of frequencies. This not only gives you the "OO" and the "AAH" phonemes but a whole range of plosive sounds like "K", "B" etcetera - hence the label "wakka guitar" that's sometimes used. When I first heard it I thought of it as "that kookabakka sound" :)

I've also experimented with vocoders, and there it is similarly important to have a signal that is rich enough in noise and / or harmonics in order for the vocoder filter to have something to sink its teeth into, so to speak. For instance, a pure sine tone cannot be filtered to sound like a vowel at all. It will only vary in volume when used with a vocoder or wah pedal because its spectrum contains one line only.

That's why I think that playing the funky wah-wakka-wah guitar is a very specific skill. It's not so much a matter of having the right stomp box but of mastering the skill of playing really good rhythm guitar, using dampening and working the wah-pedal together in the right way. It can then produce really curious effects.

I still think that the theme from "Shaft" is the golden standard of wah-wakka-wah guitar playing. Made in 1971, it is quite a bit earlier than "Le Freak" from Chic.

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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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