Guitar Effects: Everything You Should Know About Delay

This lesson will help you understand how to properly and effectively implement delay pedals as tools in hand to make you a better, more melodic and more rhythmic guitar player.

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Guitar Effects: Everything You Should Know About Delay
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While I would consider myself an enthusiastic fan of hard rock and the distorted guitar playing thereof, my favorite effect (and it’s not close) has always been the delay pedal.

Despite being really into the rock scene of the late '90s and 2000s (I was born in 1986), think Tool, Rage, Smashing Pumpkins and A Perfect Circle, I would never have chosen any of the multiple distortion pedals I owned (too many to count) over delay.

In my opinion, a good delay pedal is too versatile and dynamic to be replaced by any other effect.

Thus, my intent for this article is two-fold:

First:

I want to explain the delay effect, what it is, what it does and what it's used for.

Second:

I want to help you understand how to properly and effectively implement delay pedals as tools in hand to make you a better, more melodic and more rhythmic guitar player.

There’s plenty here for guitar pedal rookies and seasoned veterans alike. Anyone who uses, or wants to use a delay pedal can learn a few best practices from someone who has gone to great lengths to "figure out" the delay effect.

Let's start by introducing some of the science involved.

What is a delay pedal?

From a technical standpoint, the delay effect is one of the simplest.

In its most basic form, a delay circuit (analog or digital) records the input of your guitar, stores it in some kind of medium, then plays it back after a given period of time. In other words, it repeats and echoes what you play.

Here's what one such circuit might look like:


Delay line block diagram. | Image via Wikimedia Commons

Your guitar's signal goes into two places.

  1. Bypass circuit
  2. Delay circuit or "delay line"

Both sounds are then sent to the output of the pedal.

The delayed element or "echo" can be repeated either once or multiple times (n times) as it can be passed back through the recording and storage medium (the "feedback line" in the above diagram). This creates a decaying delay sound, which gives the sensation that the echo is trailing off.

While this has always been the theory and science behind the delay effect, its physical implementation has taken primarily three different forms over the years.

That history is as follows:

  • Tape echo systems: 1940s and 50s
  • Analog effects units: 1970s
  • Digital effects pedals: 1984

Since the 1980s we've also developed plugins, which can be built to mimic either digital or analog delay sounds, the two of which are (in many cases) quite distinct from each other.

We'll talk more about the distinctions between analog and digital delay later on.

The MXR Carbon Copy analog delay pedal. | Flickr Commons Image via Roadside Guitars

What you can control

Delay pedals, regardless of era, will allow you to control three basic variables:

  1. Length or time (an amount of time usually given in milliseconds that the delay is recorded and played back)
  2. Number of repeats or echoes and how quickly they decay
  3. Mix or “blend” between the dry signal and the delayed sounds

These controls are nearly universal to all delay pedals, though many varieties will add one or more of the following additional controls:

  1. Intensity
  2. Feedback
  3. Modulation

While modulation is usually a type of chorus or vibrato effect added to the delay, like we see in the EHX Memory Man, intensity and feedback can mean different things on different pedals. For example, a feedback knob might refer to a reverb, increase in presence or the number of times an echo is fed back into the loop via a feedback line, which we saw in our original diagram. All this depends, of course, on the design of the pedal in question and the verbiage used to label knobs.

Intensity could sometimes refer to the mix or the EQ of the echoes created by the delay circuit.

Typically, a delay pedal control scheme looks something like this:

These are sample settings from the MXR Carbon Copy Analog delay

You've got three knobs titled REGEN, MIX, and DELAY, as well as a modulation button.

As expected, MIX controls the blend of the wet and dry signal. But what about the other two? Using terms like "REGEN" and "DELAY" is a bit cryptic, but here's what they do:

  • REGEN: Controls the decay or repeats of the echo
  • DELAY: Controls how much time the circuit records the input signal

As I mentioned, different manufacturers use different terms but the functionality is almost always the same.

Here's another analog delay pedal with a similar control scheme:

Flickr Commons Image Courtesy of Terekhova

Once again we see the three primary controls, delay time, mix and decay (labeled REGEN) with some additional modulation options via the smaller knobs on top of the pedal.

Now that we've seen what we can control on a delay pedal, let's look a little deeper into the differences between analog and digital delay circuits.

Digital vs. analog delay pedals

Understanding the difference between these two types of delay pedal is important when assessing value. Because, in most cases, analog delay pedals are viewed as a more vintage and "genuine" form of the effect.

For example, almost all boutique delay pedals are built with an analog circuit. Moreover, they're usually more expensive and more heavily sought after. And in a more speculative sense, many guitarists find them to simply sound better and are often assumed to have a more pure tone that's consistent with (or at least closer to) the original design of the early tape delay boxes.

They're also more expensive to produce because of the parts that need to be used to build the circuits.

But digital delay pedals have gotten better in recent years, and there are plenty of them that are hard to tell from their analog counterparts. The Line 6 DL4 Delay Modeler, which has tape echo models built in, and the Boss DD-20 Giga Delay are two good examples. Digital delay pedals also tend to have more control than their analog siblings, because a digital signal is simply easier to manipulate.

Here are the raw technical differences for each type of delay:

  • Digital Delay Pedals: Use digital signal processors (DSPs) or analog-to-digital converters to record a guitar’s input and then play it back as an echo.
  • Analog Delay Pedals: As the original method of creating delay or "tape echo" effects, these pedals utilize bucket brigade circuitry to store a signal and move it through a line of capacitors before outputting the signal as an echo of the original input. In a bucket-brigade device, the analog signal is received from the guitar and runs through a sequence of capacitors, C0 to Cn. Its name is based on the imagery of several people passing along a bucket of water.

Which one is "better?"

The output of an analog delay is distinct and is said to have a more natural sound that isn't easily confused with digitized echoes. A digital delay pedal will sound more sterile and might also lack the warmth and "sweetness" that analog delays are known for.

As I mentioned, analog delay pedals are viewed by many guitar players as the more authentic-sounding of the two options. However, it's also true that DSPs are cheaper to produce meaning you'll often have more features and "modes" for a lower price tag.

Which one? | Flickr Commons Image via ThomasThomas

It might be helpful to think of the difference between the two, in the same way you would think of a solid state and tube amplifier.

Analog delays are the tube amps of the pedal world.

As for which one is "better" it's all a matter of context and what you prefer. Typically I'd recommend analog delay pedals to people who care less about features and more about tonal purity. For those who want more features and control over their delay, digital pedals are often a better solution for them.

For example, tap tempo, multiple delay modes, and more controls are far more likely to show up in delay pedals run by a DSP than an analog stompbox. In almost all digital vs. analog delay pedal comparisons, that's the trade-off you'll need to assess.

Boss DD-6 Digital Delay Pedal | Flickr Image via RainbowCave

The quality gaps will also vary between specific delay pedal comparisons and brands.

When you're shopping, you might want to seek a good compromise between the authentic tone of analog circuitry and the customization options that are afforded to us by delay pedals controlled by DSPs.

This is partly why I like the EHX Memory Boy so much. It combines many of the benefits typically found in both digital and analog delay pedals.

Where should a delay pedal go in a signal chain?

One of my favorite graphics for explaining any kind of pedal placement are the ones developed by Strymon that I've included below.

They cover both a straight guitar-to-amp chain, as well as what effects you might want to put into a send/return loop (effects loop).

Before digging into the graphics, we should note that a delay pedal is a type of ambient effect, which means it's almost always going to be considered a "best practice" to keep it at or near the end of our signal chain. Let's start with the non-effects loop example:

Setting up a signal chain without an effects loop. | Image via Strymon (View Larger Image)

The typical order goes compression - distortion - modulation - ambience. Since delay is an ambient effect, it gets pushed to the back of the line right in front of reverb.

Let's look at the same arrangement with an effects loop:

Setting up a signal chain with an effects loop. | Image via Strymon (View Larger Image)

In this example, we have a send/return loop that includes the delay and reverb pedals, while the rest of the chain goes straight into the preamp.

This means that the delay effect is bypassing the preamp section of the amplifier and going straight to the power amp instead. If you don't have an effects loop, it's not a deal-breaker, but something to consider if you want to adhere to a strict set of best practices when it comes to placing your delay pedal.

Otherwise, the only rule is that there are no rules.

Examples of delay pedals in professional rigs

Now that we've seen what a delay pedal is and how we can use it, let's look at what some of the pros have done over the years when including delay pedals in their rigs.

It's a popular choice, so there are plenty of examples to choose from.

Rig diagrams are all courtesy of Guitar.com.

The Edge "David Evans" of U2: 1983 Rig

The Edge's amp and pedalboard setup from 1983. | Image via Guitar.com (View Larger Image)

We can see from the pedalboard diagram that Evans used two EHX Deluxe Memory Man pedals, which were (and still are) completely analog. I've also heard that he used them in conjunction with some type of rotary speaker effect, though I was never able to confirm exactly how.

He's also got a compressor at the beginning of his pedal chain, though one of the routes on the first amp switcher bypasses it.

Jonny Greenwood of Radiohead: 1997 Rig

Jonny Greenwood's pedalboard from 1997. | Image via Guitar.com (View Larger Image)

Radiohead's guitarist Jonny Greenwood had one of the more involved and complex setups that you would have found around that time. Moreover, he had multiple delay sources. Primarily he used a Roland Space Echo and Boss RV-3 Digital Reverb/Delay.

If you look closely, you can see that the RV-3 is the last pedal in the chain before routing to the Space Echo which is then routed straight into a VOX amplifier.

Dave Navarro of Jane's Addiction: 2012 Rig

Dave Navarro's guitar rig from 2012. | Image via Guitar.com (View Larger Image)

They're a little hard to see in the graphic, but Dave Navarro actually runs three Boss DD-3 digital delay pedals (numbered 2, 5 and 11) into two different amplifiers, a Marshall JCM 900 and a Fender Twin Reverb.

Multiple delay pedals are popular among the pros, mostly because it allows them to send different settings and different types of delay effects into multiple amplifiers. If and when you can afford it, the signal splitting benefits are fairly significant.

Since delay is such a versatile and useful effect, you'll have a hard time finding a professional board that omits it.

If you want to check out the delay pedal in more professional rigs, go to the Guitar.com rig diagrams section or Premier Guitar's Rig Rundowns.

Popular delay pedals

While there are a ton of fantastic boutique delay pedal options, and more being manufactured all the time, the "go-to" delay stompboxes have remained consistent over the past couple decades and are produced largely by the following companies:

  • Boss US (now owned by Roland)
  • MXR (owned by Jim Dunlop)
  • Electro-Harmonix
  • Line 6
  • TC Electronic

Between these five companies, there's a handful of about 10 delay pedals that seem to regularly be at the top of the popularity charts, having become long-term go-to solutions for both amateur and professional guitar players alike.

They include the following, in no particular order:

Again, I should reiterate that this is not to rank what already popular or to discount other options. There are a ton of fantastic delay pedals out there, and many of them are well-worth the money and effort to add to your rig.

However, if you want to know what happens when "the man on the street" buys a delay pedal, it's usually going to be one of what's in the above list.

If you want to check out some unique options, the following boutique companies make awesome delay and echo stompboxes:

In most cases, their pedals are going to run on analog circuits and will be wired for true bypass, which means you won't lose any of your rig's natural tone when the pedal is turned off. Pedal's without true bypass can sometimes degrade or thin out your signal when they're disengaged. Boutique delay pedals are almost always going to be better at avoiding this.

However, it also means these pedals are usually more expensive. In particular, the Echolution 2 Ultra Pro retails for over $400.

At the same time, they often come with a litany of features (the Echolution includes a number of different filter, modulation and pitch shifting options). This "stacking" of bonus functionality is a hallmark of the popular boutique brands and seems to be particularly noticeable in many of their delay pedal offerings.

Wrapping up and your questions

After over 20 years of playing guitar, I'm still of the opinion that the delay effect is the most useful to both the electric and even the acoustic guitar player. Particularly when it comes to rhythmic and melodic picking patterns, there is no other effect that can do more for you than delay.

For me, it has been well-worth the effort to learn and invest in pedals and gear that allow me to take advantage of these sounds.

If you have questions about delay pedals or something I've written here, leave it in the comments section below, or get in touch with me directly.

Bobby Kittleberger is Guitar Chalk's founder and a contributing editor at Guitar World. You can hit him up on Twitter or shoot him an email to get in touch.

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5 comments sorted by best / new / date

    Immortal`Guitar
    Great in-depth article. I loved how you started from scratch and even included the order to which a pedal should be placed. Oh and Jonny Greenwood's a beast.  
    robertwilliam9
    He is a beast - and so is his pedalboard(s). At least the one he used in the '90s anyways. 
    timoel
    Good article, thanks!  One thing that could have been mentioned is the Echorec (Catalinbread remade the original Binson). A multi-head delay whereby you can choose from different sequences of 4 delay steps to make rhythms otherwise not possible. It's a digital pedal that sounds analog and has many extra options too like modulation, tone, gain and a preamp. An intriguing device for a delay-buff and a Pink Floyd fan