5 Ways To Use Delay Pedals

Delay is one of the most versatile and interesting effects in a guitarist's arsenal, with countless applications. Read 5 ways to use delay pedals here.

James Hurman

James Hurman

Delay is an effect used by countless artists on innumerable records. In fact it’s unlikely that you’ll find any professional guitarist without a delay on their pedalboard. Dating back as early as the 1940s, delay was the first guitar effect. It was born out of Rockabilly and became an integral part of the sound of emerging Rock ‘n’ Roll in the 1950s. It was used extensively by Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly amongst others. Since then, guitarists have been using delays to create new sounds, styles and genres.

Types of delay

Before we get started, lets break down the 3 main types of delay. Each one has its own character and will work best used in certain ways. These 3 types are: Tape, Analogue and Digital.

Tape Delay

The delay effect was originally created by recording onto tape, and feeding the playback head back into the amp, giving the sound an echo. However, using a real tape delay is expensive and impractical, but lots of modern delay pedals have excellent tape delay emulations, that give you that distinctive tape sound.

By the nature of feeding the sound back through the tape, each subsequent repeat will degrade in fidelity, so the repeats will lose bass and treble, causing the repeats to soften over time. Also as tape machines age, they become slightly inconsistent in their playback, causing “flutter”, where the tape slightly speeds up and slows down and shifts in pitch, producing a very subtle modulation, which adds texture to your tone. A tape delay could be described as a “character delay” – something that will add a bit of flavour to your tone.

Tape Style Delay Pedals

Analogue Delay

Invented in the ‘70s as a more practical alternative to a tape unit, the first analogue delays used a circuit “bucket brigade” chip to create the repeats. The name refers to the firefighting technique, by which a water bucket would be passed down a line from person to person. Similarly, the bucket brigade chip features a series of capacitors that pass the signal down the chain at a delayed rate. And just as a bucket passed from firefighter to firefighter will spill water along the way, the repeats degrade, particularly the treble, leaving a warm, dark sounding delay.

For this reason, analogue delays are perfect for subtle applications as their dark sound will sit underneath your main sound, so you won’t be competing with your own delays as you play. Because of its specific tonal characteristic, analogue delay can also be a “character delay”.

Analogue Style Delay Pedals

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Digital Delay

By the ‘80s, every guitarist was after a crystal clean sounding digital delay. While tape and analogue delays degrade over time, digital delays will perfectly replicate your original signal indefinitely, leaving it sounding clearer and brighter, and allowing for longer delay times. This is perfect for someone who is not looking to add any tonal characteristic to their sound, or players who want to play to their delay for rhythmic sounds.

Digital Style Delay Pedals

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5 ways to use delay pedals

Now that we have established the main types of delay, here are 5 ways they can be used.

1. Slapback Echo

The slapback echo was the first effect that delay was used for. It’s one of the defining sounds of Rock ‘n’ Roll and Country. It is a subtle effect that creates a sense of space and adds a touch of extra thickness to your guitar sound. The quintessential slapback sound uses a tape delay, although an analogue or digital delay will work perfectly fine. Set the level (or “mix” depending on your controls) to a little below unity volume, and set a very short time, so that the repeat is almost indistinguishable from the original note, and set the repeats (or “decay”) all the way down so it only repeats once. Because of the extra boost in thickness, this can work well as a little something extra for solos.

2. Delay as a reverb

If you don’t have reverb in your rig, delay can be a versatile alternative. A digital delay sound will be ideal for a lush, clean reverb sound. For this you’ll want to set the level fairly low, so that it doesn’t overpower your original signal, set the delay time to minimum and run the repeats to taste for a longer or shorter reverb trail. This will give you a spring or hall reverb type of effect

3. Quarter note delay

Adding a quarter note delay is a great way to subtly fill out the space between notes when you play. This is especially effective when paired with reverb. Think of it like a cushion that sits underneath the mix, softening everything out. An analogue delay is perfect for this effect because its dark repeats won’t be competing with your original signal. A tape style will also work for similar reasons. Because of the clarity and fidelity of a digital delay, the repeats could clash with what you’re trying to play over the top of it, so be especially careful to keep the level low. To set this delay, try setting the level about a quarter of the way up or slightly more (but not too high otherwise your sound will become mushy). Set the time for quarter note repeats, which on many pedals will be somewhere around halfway up, but use your ear to find the right tempo – a delay with tap tempo will be very helpful here. The repeats is down to personal preference but I generally like to set it to about a quarter of the way up, to get 2 faint repeats.

4. Delay as a chorus

Many analogue delays such as the MXR Carbon Copy or Electro-Harmonix Memory Man, or digital multi delays such as the TC Electronic Flashback or Strymon Timeline will have modulation built into the pedal. Using the modulation with the delay, you can simulate a chorus effect. To do this, engage the modulation on the pedal, set the level a little below unity volume, the delay time neatly all the way down, and the repeats to taste to control the depth of the chorus – try starting at halfway and adjust from there.

5. Dotted eighth note delay

A dotted 8th delay creates a lush, bouncing rhythmic effect, which is great for adding loads of texture to simple melodies, hooks and chords. The dotted 8th delay is most famously used by U2’s The Edge, on tracks like “Where the Streets have no name”. Some delay pedals will be able to preset subdivisions, so you can simply set it to a dotted 8th and tap in your tempo. However, if your delay does not have this function, you can set it manually. With tap tempo you can simply tap in 4 times over the space of 3 beats to set the correct tempo. If your delay doesn’t have tap tempo, try setting the time to line up with the beat and then slowly increase the speed of the delays until you hear that iconic galloping pattern. A crystal clean digital delay is perfect for this sound, to maximise the rhythmic effect. Keep the repeats moderate to keep some definition between the delays. Try setting the repeats at a third of the way up and adjust to taste from there.

Check out Rabea using a dotted 8th delay on Sound Like U2

Conclusion

Delay is such an inspirational tool for guitarist, that can be used to create anything from the subtlest of effects to ethereal soundscapes. But to first time users it can be a little overwhelming – hopefully the 5 examples we’ve given you here will inspire you to find new sounds to enhance your playing!

If you enjoyed this read, check out more of our learn articles!

For more on effects pedals, read The Best Guitar Effects Pedals For Synths

Check out our list of the Best Guitar Pedals of 2021 here.

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James Hurman
James Hurman

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