Ultimate Guide To
Guitar Delays

The humble delay pedal is one of the most famous and easy to recognize guitar sounds in the world.

It’s one of those pedals that a guitarist should never be without and can be incredibly versatile – often forming the backbone of a riff or adding ambience to more delicate parts.

It can fatten your guitar sound and create ethereal effects or take you straight back to the 50s with vintage slapback sounds.

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Written by

Jed Van Wyngaardt

Introduction

What does this all mean? This article will explore the vast – and often confusing – world of delay pedals and delay pedal jargon. You'll be able to tell your mates what the ‘decay’ in a Tape Echo unit means. Not only is it an effect worth learning about, but diving in head first will give you an insight into one of the most widely used effects, and perhaps spark some ideas as to how you can use delay in your everyday guitar playing. Every player should understand how to get the most out of a delay pedal - whether you’re a beginner, intermediate or pro player.

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What is Delay anyway?

The clue is in the name. Strictly speaking, it’s just the same note played back to you a short while after it’s initially played. And repeat, repeat, repeat.

But within that small time frame, there are so many factors that can affect how the delay behaves and additionally, what it does to your overall guitar sound.

We’ll go into more detail on this below but on a typical delay pedal you can control the:

  • Time – The length of time between the first note played and the first repeat that you hear.
  • Feedback – The amount of repeats you’d like to hear. If the feedback knob is turned down, you might only get one repeat. If it’s turned all the way up, you’re probably entering the realms of self-oscillation.
  • Level – The overall level of the repeats. Full will mean the repeat is the same volume as your first note. And having it low can create a subtle fattening sound

Reverse delay is slightly more complicated but simply means the delay repeats are reversed before being played back to you which creates and ethereal, otherworldly tone – similar to playing a vinyl record backwards. The Reverse delay tone was famously used by Jimi Hendrix on a number of famous tracks including Voodoo Child and Are You Experienced.

A note on Tap Tempo

Some delay pedals have also got what’s known as a Tap Tempo which has nothing to do with Tap Dancing. Instead it allows you to tap a footswitch in time with the song you’re playing so that each repeat is within the same rhythm and timing as the song.

If you don’t use a Tap Tempo you can end up with the repeats sounding out of time within in the song. However, a tap tempo does take up space on a delay pedal which is why some pedals may not have it. This means you might not be able to get the delay 100% in time, but with a bit of patience you’ll be able to get it close.

Having a Tap Tempo means that you can use the same effect on multiple songs when playing live because you can simply tap in the tempo of a new song every time you need to.

What are the different types of Delay?

Tape Echo

Let’s start at the very beginning. When I say beginning, I mean the 1950s when a certain Les Paul actually innovated the idea of using a tape machine to record a portion of your guitar signal and then playing it back. Creating an echo. Hence the term Tape Echo.

Now Tape Echo machines were notoriously unreliable because there are so many physical moving parts that often create inconsistencies in the sound and can sometimes break down. But these inconsistencies create that vintage tone. Along with the fact that because Tape will detoriate and warp, you can get weird, warbly tones. Modern pedals generally don’t have an Actually Tape machine but instead emulate that sound. Apart from the T Rex Replicator which has a small Tape cartridge on-board.

Analogue Delay

The first analogue delay stompbox was made by Boss in 1981 which featured the now revered bucket brigade chip (Or BBD). It was the first chip that enabled the user to gain access to a delay sound without any actual moving parts.

BBD is a term often bandied about by manufacturers when talking about their analogue delays without many people knowing what they’re actually talking about. However, it’s quite a simple process to understand.

A Bucket Brigade Delay Chip sends the analogue signal through a series of capacitors, one step per clock cycle. And if you imagine a line of people passing water to each other by pouring from one bucket to another, then you can imagine how much water is lost. This is the same with a BBD chip and your guitar signal.

This also limits the analogue in terms of how long the repeats can go on for and also the maximum length of time between delay repeats can be limited too.

However, the repeats on an analogue delay tend to get darker with each repeat creating a warm, dark sounding delay. This is why they’re so popular because even when playing over the delay repeats you can still hear the clarity of your guitar signal.

Digital Delay

Digital Delay stompboxes were also pioneered by Boss when they released the DD-2 in 1984. These are the most complicated delay pedals to design because they use an analogue-to-digital converter which then goes through a number of digital signal processors that record the sample into a storage buffer and play it back depending on how you’ve set the parameters (like time, feedback, level).

The chip used in a Digital Delay is called a DSP (Digital Signal Processor) chip.

Thanks to this powerful technology a digital delay is able to extend the total time between repeats to be much longer than an analogue delay chip.

Due to the nature of a digital delay, the repeats are exactly the same as the initial note which means you get a precise replication of what you just played. It’s clean and won’t degrade like a tape echo or analogue delay would.

Modern Digital Multi-Delays

It’s worth touching on the modern multi-delays that are dominating the guitar effects world these days. Models like the Strymon Timeline, Eventide Timefactor and H9 and Boss DD-500 have enabled users to stack delays in a single pedal with incredible control over every delay sound that comes out of the pedal.

Modern digital multi-delays have got emulations of all of the famous delay sounds on-board with more control than those originals would ever have. Like the ability to control the exact amount of Tape warble on a Tape Echo delay from the Strymon Timeline.

Digital multi-delays are incredibly powerful and will often allow you control over every parameter you can imagine. Some are even USB enabled so that you can plug the delay into your computer and use software to tweak until you find the exact delay sound that you want. The TC Electronic Flashback can do this as well as the Eventide H9.

These delays also tend to have a plethora of experimental options on them for the creative guitarist to get stuck into. You can use them to create a bed of sound to play over for beautiful soundscapes. These ambient tones are often achieved by the digital delay incorporating octave and other modulation sounds into the delay repeats which is what creates such an ethereal tone. It won’t affect your actual guitar signal, but just the repeats.

How do I use a delay pedal?

The delay effect enables you to be incredibly creative with how you use it. You can achieve so many different sounds and often they’ll be reminiscent of an era. Especially when you consider the fact that Slapback delay pretty much defined the 1950s as it was used on surf guitar sounds and rock n’ roll vocals alike. Cue Elvis Presley.

Where does Delay go in a Pedalboard Signal Chain?

As with most things music and guitar, experimentation is often required to achieve the tone you want in your head. But there are a few rules of thumb to help you achieve your goals faster.

Generally speaking Delay should go after any distortion, drive or boost and before any reverbs. This will allow your delays to have the reverb effect applied to the repeats creating a bit of space and making the delay sound bigger and wetter in the mix.

The general signal chain looks a little like this:

Guitar -> tuner -> wah/filters-> compressor -> fuzz -> overdrive/distortion -> pitch-shifting -> modulation -> delay -> reverb -> Amp

Running your guitar this way will ensure you have a clean and pristine effected signal. But if you want to experiment and find your own sound you need to alter the way you do things.

Running delay before overdrive can offer some very interesting sounds and generally isn’t done this way because it can make your guitar sound boomy and muddy. However, if you keep that mix knob low you’ll ensure that the delay doesn’t overtake your signal and you can get some gritty, interesting tones. Players like Troy Van Leeuwen of Queens Of The Stoneage and Simon Neil from Biffy Clyro are prime examples of players who have experimented with their boards and carved their own sonic niche.

What’s the difference between analogue and digital delay?

Analogue

  • BBD Chip can colour the tone of the delay repeats.
  • Delay sound degrades and gets less clear with each repeat.
  • Shorter maximum time between delay repeats
  • Analogue signal – a pure guitar signal and warmer and darker sounding than a typical digital delay.

Digital

  • The DSP Chip is clean and transparent sounding. It won’t colour your tone - unless the delay has the option to colour your sound – like a powerful modern multi-delay.
  • Delay repeats are clean and replicate the exact same guitar signal – unless you have a powerful multi-delay which has the option to emulate a different ‘type’ of delay.
  • Longer maximum time between repeats. Powerful units like the DD-500 can offer up to 10 seconds between repeats.
  • Signal is converted to digital before converted back to analogue which means your tone goes through a bit of a blender before coming out on the other end. However, what is replicated is exactly the same as what went in.

Delay in the Effects Loop

This is the cleanest way to run your delay signal if you have an amp with an effects loop and especially if you use your amp to get your drive and distortion sounds. If you’ve never put your delays, reverbs and modulations into your effects loop, I’ll let you do that now and have your mind blown…

Back? It's an absolute game-changer because suddenly your guitar retains clarity and grit while still having the effect applied to the signal meaning you can be heard in the mix and have an overall fatter tone.

The effects loop can seem like a confusing place so let me explain how it works and why it’ll improve your tone. As explained above, your delays, verbs and mods should generally come after your overdrive.

But how are you meant to do this when the overdrive is coming from that gorgeous new tube amp that you bought? Well, it’s quite simple really. The effects loop allows you to put effects into your chain after the preamp which is the part of your amp section that’ll create the warm overdrive tones and before the poweramp which is that part of the amp that powers the speakers.

So, by using the effects loop for your delay, you’ll be ensuring that your signal is in the ‘correct’ order and this is what gives you an improved tone and more clarity through the delays. This is especially good for ambient and shimmer delays…

Which delay should I get?

Delay Pedal For Ambient Sounds

To achieve ambient guitar sounds you’ll generally want to combine a simple delay with a complex reverb pedal or find a delay that has built-in reverb. The key here is the fact that the reverb or the delay isn’t simply a clean repeat but rather has other effects applied to it in order to create a bed of otherworldly sounds.

In theory, any delay that has additional effects can allow you to create more ambient textures. A simple digital delay might not do the trick, but delay that has modulation applied to it will make the sound seem bigger than it seems. You’ll also want to keep the mix knob quite high in order to achieve these sounds.

Delay Pedal For Rhythmic Sounds

If you’d like to use your pedal for rhythmic sounds then you’re going to need a delay with a tap tempo to ensure that you stay in time with your drummer and in time with the song. You’ll also want the ability to alter the rhythm of the repeats in order to create different effects rather than the simple quarter-note return of 1,2,3,4.

You’ll probably be looking at a Digital Delay in order to achieve this because the DSP chip can give you that complex response. And this is how you’ll get dotted 8ths (The Edge from U2 made this sound famous on ‘Where the streets have no name’.

Delay Pedal For Slapback Sounds

The slapback delay is the sound of the 50s with rock n’ rollers like Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry making use of the effect. Now, it’s easy to get those slapback tones with pretty much any delay pedal.

For a slapback sound you need to set the delay time to be quite short so that the repeat hits back fairly quickly. You then need to set the delay level quite high so that the repeat is almost at the same level as your dry signal. You also want to keep the feedback low to ensure the repeats don’t keep coming.

Delay Pedal For Vintage Sounds

‘Vintage’ delay sounds are easily achieved with either a tape echo or a good analogue delay. Both of these delays will degrade after each repeat which is what creates that warm ‘vintage’ tone. This sounds lush in a band mix and really fills up the frequency range making it sound bigger than what it is. This is why guitarists love the analogue delay and tape echo sounds so much.

Delay Pedal For Guitar Solos

The majority of guitar solos you’ve heard on record will have a dab of delay applied and for good reason. You can apply the delay in a way that gives your signal the appearance of being doubled. And doubling is exactly what is says on the tin. By doubling you’re essentially creating the same signal in such close proximity that it appears like 2 guitarists are palying the same thing at once – and it sounds massive.

Doubling is a famous studio effect where the guitarist will record the same part twice and the engineer will pan this left and right so that both of the listeners ears are hit with a wall of sound. Doubling for a guitar solo, with a delay pedal is slightly different.

You’re using the delay in a similar way to the slapback effect. Short delay time and very little feedback to avoid repeats overrunning into each other. But by dialling the mix down a bit you get something of a ‘ghost’ tone that just sounds incredible with lead lines. It can also give the illusion of the guitarist playing faster than he really is. Speed isn’t everything, but sometimes the song will call for some fast runs here and there. Use delay to fatten these up.

Any type of delay will work, but most guitarists prefer analogue or tape echo for this kind of playing because the repeats will be dark and degraded meaning each new note you play will cut over the din of the delay. It’ll be a flurry of sound and you’ll be controlling every second of it.

Delay Pedal For Abstract Sounds

You can use delay to get incredibly experimental and become something of a sonic landscaper. How this is done is a little bit easier said than done, but with the right delay pedal you can achieve these results.

I’d recommend a powerful multi-delay like the Strymon Timeline and experiment with the parameters of the analogue and tape sounds until you find a satisfying warble to creating that pad of white noise or sound.

This is a great way to create interludes between songs when playing live or for intros and verse where you want sound to support the song without being too obtrusive. Add in octave and modulation pedals to take it to another level.

Combine this with a big sounding reverb to really allow your guitar tone to take flight.

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The Delay Pedal Jargon Buster

Time

The time knob will refer to how quickly the repeat will be played back to you.

Feedback

The feedback will determine how many repeats will be played back.

Level

The level control will determine how loud each repeat is in relation to your dry signal. Sometimes referred to as Mix.

Dotted 8ths

Dotted 8ths are the rhythm that your delay will be played back to you. A bit of music theory knowledge is required here but the dot takes half the value of the note. In the case of the dotted quaver (eighth note) this means the dot takes a quarter of a beat. Adding this to the original value of the note (half a beat) we get three quarters of a beat.

Vintage Delay

Generally, warm analogue delay sounds are referred to as Vintage Delay.

Tape Echo

Tape Echo units literally had tape running through them and played back a short snippet of your guitar sound. The tape would degrade quickly and often warble. But this is part of its charm.

Slapback

The quick, Elvis Presley type delay sound.

Ambient

Ambient sounds are generally achieved with delay and reverb to create pad style sonic landscapes and which other melodies can be built – like vocals or other guitar lines etc.

Modulated Delay

Modulated delay is when only the repeats have modulation applied to them. So the delays can sound chorus-y or have flanger etc. applied for a wider delay sound.

Tap Tempo

Tap Tempo allows you to tap in the exact tempo you’d like your delay to achieve with a footswitch.

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