Unless you’re a dedicated solo player like Ed Sheeran, A looper pedal often isn’t top of your GAS shopping list when there’s so much choice in exciting effects out there. After all, you can never have too many drive pedals!
However, a looper can be an invaluable tool to any guitarist, whatever style you play. From making practice time fun, to building up epic live loops on stage, and even in composition; the looper pedal is one of those unsung heroes that you should seriously consider picking up. It may not always make it on your board, but always close at hand in your guitar case, ready for whenever you need it.
Ed Sheeran is certainly one of the most famous looper pedal users, with his custom made Chewie looper. But if Ed’s music isn’t your thing there are plenty of other great players using pedals in their rig; including Radiohead's Ed O'Brien, Paul Gilbert, Bill Kelliher and many more.
This buyers guide will take you through everything you need to know about loopers; from the basics of how they work, to why they’re such a great addition to your pedal collection and what features to look out for when choosing the best looper pedal for you.
What is a looper?
A looper pedal records your guitar as you play a riff, chord sequence or phrase and plays it back to you over and over again in a loop. You can then add to this loop by “overdubbing”; playing a second part over the top which will be recorded and added to the loop next time it circles round.
This seemingly simple function becomes an invaluable tool for any musician; you can make your own jam backing tracks, practice your riffs, or create massively detailed songs or soundscapes for live gigs.
How to use a looper Pedal
To create a loop, all you have to do is tap on the pedal at the beginning of your phrase to start recording and tap it at the end to stop recording. The pedal will then continue playing the loop until you press stop.
Sounds easy right?!
Unfortunately not! As the phrase needs to loop by itself, you have to be quite precise on your timing; not only with your playing but also timing the beginning and end of the loop. otherwise the loop won’t have the natural rhythm and length that you were expecting.
As with most things in music, this takes a lot of co-ordination, timing and practice, so don’t get disheartened if you can’t get it at first. Start with something really simple so that you can get the hang of it and build up so that soon you can get that perfect loop every time.
It also helps at the beginning to set a pulse to help you create the initial loop. Some pedals come with in built metronomes or preset drum beats, but you can always create your own beat by fret muting the tempo you want as the initial loop.
Arranging a loop
Loop orchestration sounds like one of those things reserved for music theorists and academics. However arranging a selection of complimentary overdubs is an important skill to stop your loops from quickly getting bloated and overworked.
It’s the same tips and techniques you’d use when arranging or mixing any song; For each overdub to have impact and purpose on your loop, you need to give each element its own space and identity.
Creating this space in your loop can be achieved in a number of ways. For example, each element of your loop should have it’s own register (or note range) so that they are not competing for space in your mix. Also, not every overdub has to play from the start to the finish of your loop. Try one overdub that plays for the first half and a second overdub for the second half (like call and response).
These kind of techniques add depth and interest to your loops without losing definition and clarity from competing overdubs.
Check out this Demonstration from Boss using the RC-1 Loop Station
Why Should I Buy a Looper Pedal?
A looper pedal is the perfect practice tool for any serious player. Just learning to use one properly will improve your timing, rhythm and coordination. However it also has a number of other benefits.
The fact that you’re recording a loop of yourself gives you a quick and simple way to stand back and really assess your playing. Loop a riff that you’re learning and you can listen back to how your playing and self-critique on how well you have got it mastered and what you need to work on.
Unless you’re a solo act, you’re used to playing most of your performances onstage with other players. But at home, you’re often playing by yourself. If you want to practice that important solo or improvising, people often turn to playing over the original track, or resort to online backing tracks.
However with a looper you can quickly make your own backing tracks. Once your backing riff or chord sequence is set-up you can practice soloing over the top, or practice playing a second part in-sync with yourself Thin Lizzy style!
A looper pedal gives you the opportunity to get creative in your practice time, keeping it fresh and fun as you improve your technique.
Ever stumbled on an awesome riff and need to quickly record it before it gets lost forever. No need to rush to the studio Having a looper pedal on your board offers instant recording power for when inspiration strikes.
Stick that idea or chord progression on a loop and you can start to build up your idea with more layers, filling the spaces with extra harmonies or intricate moments. On most loopers you can then start a new phrase to create a verse/chorus section and on higher end models you can flip between loop A and loop B. Suddenly you’ve got the basis of a song and a fantastic platform to writing and working lyrics into your riffs.
The key to composing with loops is to try and work quickly. A loop played incessantly for too long can get into anyones mind, making you swear you’ll never listen to it ever again. Most loopers have an undo button, so if you mess up or it just doesn’t work, go back a step and try something different.
If you want to use the looper for composition, make sure you look out for the record time and number of loop slots to save your loops for later. If you’ve spent too long in a loop, sometimes you just need to get out and come back to it fresh!
By far, the most used instance for a looper in live performance is for solo acoustic acts and vocalists to bring multiple parts/instruments into their performances.
While that’s a great option, there are also few less well known uses for a looper in your gig bag. One favourite is to help set your sound for the room before a gig. Just record a loop and let it repeat. Then put your guitar down and walk out and see how it sounds. You’re then free tweak the amp and pedal settings as the loop repeats
if you're willing to get really creative, you can use loopers as sample players in your gig, either creating them on the fly or pre-programming sounds to enhance your performance. Bands like Minus the Bear take this sample playing to its limit; using multiple loopers and effects with some outstanding footwork to create amazing rhythmic and melodic effects!
Check out the video below, where you'll hear and see the band's guitarist, Dave Knudson switch between short repeated loops to get a unique tone and feel.
Choosing the Best Looper Pedal for Me
So there’s a huge amount of options out there. To help you out, we’ve broken down and explained the key features so that you can decide what looper is best for you.
Some of the most popular looper pedals (boss loopstation, TC Electronic Ditto) come in a few distinct sizes, and it’s most noticeable feature when you’re first looking at looper pedals.
Other than real estate on your pedal board, the size of the pedal can usually give you a good idea about the number of features at your disposal. Compact single pedals are perfect for the beginner or casual looper, offering all the essential features at an affordable price. As you go up in size to the double and quad pedals, the amount of features and functionality goes up exponentially; but so can the price!
One of the big factors to upgrade to the bigger models is the number of pedals. With a compact single pedal, pretty much all your control is on that pedal; tap and hold to undo, double tap to stop. With one pedal, there’s a chance for things to go wrong; but add a second pedal and controlling your loop becomes much easier. Adding more pedals also gives you the possibility of mulitple distinct loops to create verse/chorus structure and other more advanced performance controls.
The recording time denotes the storage space of the looper in real terms. I.e. the number of minutes you can record a single loop. However, this loop time can account for overdubs and stored loops, so many loopers have longer record times than you’d ever use in a single loop.
The most basic loopers have more than enough storage for an average user creating single loop and unlimited overdubs. More sophisticated looper pedals have space to save multiple loops so that you can store a setlist of backing loops for a gig, or save your compositions as you create them on the looper. Some looper pedals like the TC Electronic Ditto X2 have a USB connection so that you can import or export your loops to your computer or your recording software.
Number of Loops
Some of the more expensive loopers in the range have the ability to record and play 2 synchronised loops in one session. Whilst most users will be happy using one loop at a time, having 2 loops can offer a huge amount of control in live performance and composing.
The 2 loops can be set for use in parallel or in series; so when you have one loop running, hitting play for the second loop will either play synchronously in time with the first loop, like a full track of overdubs, or seamlessly switch between the 2 loops. This means you can switch between 2 distinct sections during a performance or add/remove a second part or instrument with ease.
Some loopers have built in effects to add processing to your loops. ½ speed, pitch shift, stutter and reverse loop based effects can be a really good way of keeping your loop fresh for a long period of time.
Traditional guitar based looper pedals came with a simple mono input jack. However these days, more and more loopers are coming in stereo variants. Obviously if you’ve got a lush stereo reverb or delay, or you’re going straight to the mixer, stereo looping is a must.
However, Stereo loopers can also be used to loop 2 mono sources at once. Eg Vocals and guitar. Some loopers have even more I/O including XLR mic inputs, MIDI Sync, and Controller inputs so that you can add expression pedals and additional on/off footswitches.
Loopers and your signal Chain
You can place the looper in a number of places in your signal chain, depending on how you want it to function in your setup.
The way a looper works means that anything you put before the looper in the chain will be hard set in the loop, however anything after the looper will affect the whole loop. Lets look at a few examples.
Looper pedal at the end of your signal chain
This is by far the simplest and most popular option for most guitarists. In this setup, the looper will capture the exact pedal setup at that moment within the loop and wont react to any changes you then make on your board.
This means that you can record a rhythm loop in a crunch setting and then tap on the boost or distortion pedal for your solo. Your loop will stay at the crunch setting so that your boosted solo really stands out over the top.
In this setting you can also really build up detailed loops, altering the settings for each overdub to create depth and interest.
Looper pedal at the start of your signal chain
This option is maybe more popular in a live environment when you want to transform your loop instantly and create interesting effects. In this setting the looper captures your raw guitar signal before the effects so that the recorded loop is altered every time you change effects.
With this setup you can set up a looped riff to form the basis of a song and switch effects automatically to create a different vibe for the next section of your track. You could potentially have a riff that sounds great with drive; but turn the drive off and wash it in reverb or delay and it could transform that riff to something else. It’s also a great way to set up a riff and mess around with your tone on a particular track to find the exact balance between all your boost and drive pedals.
The main downside with this setup is that when trying to play over your loop the only way you can change your tone is on your guitar itself, which makes it hard for your new lines to cut through the mix.
If you have an always on compressor or EQ setup that forms part of your base sound I’d recommend you still put them right at the start of your signal chain before the looper.
Looper pedal in the Effects loop/after your drives
This option gives the guitarist an interesting mixture of the two above modes. In this setting the drives are recorded onto the loop so that you have the ability to alter the overall drive and tone for solos and building layers, but you have the flexibility to turn your reverb and modulation effects on/off to affect the loop.
You can of course also experiment putting the looper further along in your signal chain, affecting what gets printed onto the looper and what’s post looper depending on the type of track you want to create.
Looper pedal in a Mix bus
If you’re looking to use the looper for more than just your guitar you may need a more complex signal path to make sure your vocals/ other instruments aren’t being effected by your pedal board. Some loopers like the Boss RC-300 offer separate inputs for vocals, keys ect, but you can also pop your looper in a bus on your mixer so that your guitar and vocals can be kept on 2 separate channels.
Dont forget, if you use this setup you might want a stereo looper to preserve the your channels in your mix.
Looper Pedals on Andertons T.V.
Armed with this knowledge, you now have all the info you need to browse through our full list of looper pedals and find the best looper for your needs.
To be honest, all our loopers are fantastic, so you can't really make a bad decision. You just need to decide what you want to loop, how complex you want to make your loops and how many loops do you want to save at once? Once you have an idea in your head, just find the looper with features that fit your needs.