Delay pedals are one of the greatest things a guitarist can own, next to a looper pedal, in my humble opinion. I’ve owned a BOSS DD-6 Digital Delay for years and they’re a lot of fun to use. There are many types of delays as well.
If you’re new to guitar playing, or maybe just guitar effects, you’re in for a treat because a delay pedal is a great thing to get into, for a couple of reasons. In fact, I can think of 10 solid reasons why anyone would want a delay pedal, but does a person really need one?
No guitarist necessarily needs a delay pedal, however, they are fantastic for creating ambient sounds, spicing up rhythm sections, and also for the reverse playback feature. They are especially important if you plan on covering popular songs because many songs have some form of delay.
In this article, I’ve collected ten reasons or ways that you can use a delay pedal to either speed up your workflow or improve your sound and creativity. But the truth is there are many other ways to use a delay pedal. Without further ado, let’s dive a little deeper into this topic.
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10 Ways Of Using A Delay Pedal (for Guitarists)
1) Time-Based Subdivisions Can Do A Lot of the Work
Delay pedals can be set up to do any number of things, but probably their most popular feature or the thing they’re most known for is the ability to repeat notes at a particular speed.
A digital delay, especially, can repeat the exact same note, in the same way, over and over again. This is a useful tool because you can set it up to repeat a note after you’ve played it as many times as you’d like, essentially freeing up your picking hand.
With that in mind, different delay pedals have other ways of getting to note sub-division you’d like to use, ie, 1/4 notes, 1/8th notes, 1/16th notes, etc. The most common one is the dotted 1/8th note, but as I said, you can set a delay pedal up in many ways.
My pedal uses milliseconds though, so to figure out what delay time you’d like, you can check out the guitar gear finder’s delay calculator. This tool allows you to type in the BPM of your song and then the milliseconds so you can figure out what note division.
2) You Can Use It To Add Rhythm to Boring Melodies
Piggybacking off of the first point I’ve made here, because of the use of different time dub divisions, you can do a lot to your riffs and progressions rhythmically.
You can make the notes repeat fast, slow, or somewhere in-between, essentially adding flair and groove where it’s needed. I’ve utilized the effect this way in my song “Blue” which I’ve posted on Soundcloud.
In the song, I’ve added a flanger and a slow delay to the guitar after the introduction which fills the space that would’ve been too empty had I not used delay. The end result is that I finished with something more groovy and on-time with the pulse of the song.
3) You Can Use Dotted 1/8th Notes to Improve Your Sound
As I said earlier, the most commonly used delay pedal setting is the dotted eighth note trick. It’s famously used in the song “F.C.P.R.E.M.I.X” from Fall of Troy, and the song “Time 2” by Ewan Dobson.
U2’s The Edge and many other players have used it as well. Rather than explain how to use the dotted eighth note trick with a delay pedal, I feel that Paul Davids does a better job in the video shown above.
4) Delay Can Act As A Thickener or a Widener
Probably one of my favorite parts of using delay is that it tends to widen or thicken a guitar part, effectively making it less thin and a lot less dry. I often use a bit of delay on my clean tones just to fill out the sonic space a bit, because I’m just a solo guitar player.
As a matter of fact, people use delay on vocal chains a lot as well for the very same reason. To achieve this effect, I’d recommend a faster delay time, a quieter mix, and just a bit of feedback.
I find this has the effect of thickening up the sound because of all the repeating notes, but it isn’t done in a way that’s overbearing or just simply too much. This brings me to my next point, which is also kind of a by-product of thickening or widening the sound.
5) You Can Also Use Delay To Cut Through The Mix
As an extension of #4, the delay effect can give you a tone that cuts through a mix much better, at least if used in a way that’s not overbearing. As I said a moment ago, the delay is often used on vocals and this is one reason why.
Another reason has to do with the way that it causes the sound to thicken/widen, taking up more space in the mix and therefore cutting through it a little more, so the sound is ultimately more audible.
The interesting thing about the delay is how a small amount of delay on your tone often won’t cut through the mix at all. It’ll simply get washed out by the other sounds. This is one reason why you have to check it in the mix after you’ve recorded your part.
6) Reverse Delay Can Add An Interesting Rhythmic Element
Another really cool feature on many delay pedals nowadays is the reverse delay effect. I love this effect and use it quite often because of how cool it is. In simple terms, it just repeats exactly what you’ve played in reverse.
I find this is a great way to make something that’s banal, uninspiring, and plain, a lot more interesting and fresh. As a result of this, it also tends to be a great way to push yourself out of a creative block.
7) Delay With Modulation Can Imitate A Chorus Pedal
The interesting thing about many time-based effects is they can often be used to imitate or replicate each other. Delay, for example, with maxed-out time control, a reduced repeat function, and an increased modulation parameter will sound a lot like a chorus.
And a chorus can sometimes sound like a delay, although, not as much as the other way around. A chorus really is just a super fast delay. It’s a copy of the same note played over and over again, but very fast, and very close to the original note in timing.
8) Delay Is Great for Guitar Solos, Leads, and Rhythm Playing
While this may not be the most common thought when people think of a delay pedal, I always think of the ending of Pantera’s “This Love.”
The main solo and outro solo both use a fair amount of delay, and I would have to say this is my favorite use of the effect, perhaps of all time. Many players have made great use of the delay pedal though, including David Gilmour, just to name one big one.
In many cases, I would say that the delay effect can often make or break the sound because, without it, the lead or the melody just wouldn’t be the same at all.
9) Can Be Used For Awesome Chord Swells
Another super cool way of using a delay pedal is with chord or volume swells. In case you don’t know, this is when you strike a chord on your guitar and then turn up the volume on your guitar to slowly increase the volume of the notes as the chord plays.
This is a great thing to do with really beautiful, airy, or ambient-sounding guitar chords like what I’ve shown in this guide.
I was doing this in front of someone one time and they told me that it sounded like I was playing the organ. While I’m not sure that’s the best way of describing it, it’s still really cool. I think maybe a soundscape synth is a more apt comparison.
You can really get creative when you start adding effects including delay on volume swells. They’re also great to use with a Looper Pedal as well, so keep that in mind.
10) Delay Can Also Act As A Faux-Harmonizer
And finally, this is a tip that I discovered for delay pedals long after I first started using one. Because the notes repeat when you’re using a delay pedal, you can harmonize with yourself by playing a note directly over the top of the other that has just been repeated (check out my guide on harmonization).
This isn’t a trick I use, but I know some people are privy to using a delay in this way. If I want to create real harmonies, I’ll often use the BOSS RC-5 Loop Station instead (how to use it here). But either way, the option is there.
How Many Types of Delay Are There?
Analog delay is a catch-all term that describes any delay pedal or delay effect that isn’t digital. This means the sound is reproduced and repeated using mechanical or analog means, rather than processed and digitized as 1s and 0s as is the case with digital.
With that in mind, there are different ways of reproducing an audio signal to create delay. And it’s not always with a tape machine, for example, which we’ll talk about now in the next section.
According to Sweetwater, a tape delay is a style of delay that emulates the classic tape machine delay, whereby an engineer would route a signal to a separate tape recorder for playback.
The delay between the original signal and the time it took to get there is how engineers got the classic sound. These days, we can imitate this iconic sound with pedals, plugins, and other software.
A digital delay is when the audio signal is processed and replicated through digital signal processing (DSP), which, in effect, turns the analog information into 1s and 0s. In simple terms, the digital delay most closely resembles how a computer works rather than a tape machine.
The nice thing about the digital delay pedal has to do with how digital technology works. Essentially, a digital delay pedal can repeat a sound in any combination as many times as needed, and with the same strength, character, timbre, modulation, etc.
Why Is A Delay Pedal Important?
At this point, you should have a pretty good idea of why a delay pedal is a great thing to own. They can do so many different things. The primary reason why a delay pedal is so important is that it can be used for creative, mixing, and practicing purposes.
It can fill out sonic space, but it can also seemingly fix mistakes. It can reduce the amount of work you have to do, but it can also break you out of a creative block.
In my opinion, it’s the 3rd most important pedal to own next to an EQ pedal which sits at #2, and a Looper pedal at #1. You’ll know why I love Looper pedals so much if you’ve read my guide on them.
What Is the Point of Delay?
The point of delay is to replicate an audio signal in any way that you choose and for almost any purpose. The purpose can be to fill out a mix, mask a mistake, make rhythmic alterations, act as a practice tool, or break you out of a creative block.
Is An Echo Pedal and Tape Echo The Same As Delay?
The way I look at it, echo pedals, tape echos, and delay are practically the same thing because they wind up sounding pretty similar when you’re said and done. At least in terms of how I’m using them, but with that said, this doesn’t mean they’re necessarily the same.
To put it simply, a tape echo is a sub-set and a function of delay, but it doesn’t necessarily have to produce an echo. The main difference between the two is that delay is a time-shifted copy of the original signal, whereas an echo is meant to simulate the type of echo you’d hear in nature.
Important Things to Note About Delay Guitar Pedals
1) Many Terms Are Used Interchangeably
When you’re dealing with very abstract terminology, it’s not uncommon for words to be used interchangeably, even though they’re not technically the same which is something I pointed out in my guide on gain vs drive.
2) You Can Use Delay In Any Number of Ways
From this article, you should be getting that delay can be used in a multitude of ways, not just as an echo pedal. Experiment with a good pedal and see what you can do with it.
2) BOSS RC-5 Loop Station (on Amazon)
3) MXR Carbon Copy Analog Delay (on zZounds)