Delay: Your Most Versatile Effect

June 10, 2016


Few effects, if any, have the power to transform a guitar’s sound (and the way one plays it), as completely as a good delay. Most pedals color the guitar’s signal to enhance its tone, add a little texture, or even give it a new voice. Delay lets people play with time itself—it copies each note played and repeats it back. Each delay gives players the controls to set the amount of time between repeats, the number of repeats, and their volume relative to the original signal, whether it be an old tape echo, an all-analog bucket brigade device or a digital delay. Depending on the settings, even the most basic delay can be used to create at least half a dozen different, otherwise impossible effects. It is such a versatile tool, the inspired guitarist willing to take the next leap into the creative unknown might find an even more innovative use. I look forward to hearing it, or maybe even discovering it. For now, there is quite a bit that we do know about using a delay.


Setting the Tempo


Before we get started, there are a few practical issues worth noting. Except for some rack mounted effects and a few high-end pedals, most delays do not have any indicator to display the exact delay time; it is a cost-prohibitive feature that would raise the price of an otherwise affordable effect. Delay-loving guitarists find it such an engaging and rewarding sound that they quickly develop a feel for the time control, and many pedals now have a tap tempo feature that lets players set the time with a few rhythmic footswitch taps. Additionally, there is no indicator for feedback, or the number of repeats given. This is a much more fluid and intuitive setting, however, and most players probably find it too unnecessary to make the additional cost worth adding. Finally, delay tends to draw more power than most effects and can drain a new battery before the end of the first set. It is always a good idea to use a power supply to keep a delay running all night.

Now, let’s look at all that we do know about using a delay.


Double Echo


The shortest delay times can create the impression of multiple guitars for a more fortified sound. Adjust the feedback control all the way counterclockwise for a single repeat, the effects level control for unison (the same volume as the unaffected signal) and set the delay time for 20 to 50 milliseconds. Since sound travels, on average, just a little over one foot per millisecond, a repeat time this short will imitate the effect of having another guitar in the same room playing in perfect unison. At these rates, and given the frequencies of most notes on a guitar, a doubling effect and naturally occurring phase and chorus effects emerge. This is a result of the delayed signal beginning within a few vibrations of the original signal, creating interference patterns between a string’s vibration and the delayed effect. Try it, and decide for yourself whether it’s interesting or just freaky. If it’s not to your liking, adjust the delay time up to 50 to 80 milliseconds to lessen the initial phase effect and get a repeat that happens quickly enough to reinforce the sound without resembling an echo.




On the other hand, sometimes that quick echo is just the perfect effect. Slapback echo recreates the organic delay between the record and playback heads on the old tape recorders. It was discovered, loved and used to give that distinctive sound to countless country and rockabilly records. Keep the feedback at minimum for a single repeat, drop your delay’s volume to about half, and set the time for 80–140 milliseconds. You’ll notice a slight separation between the guitar’s sound and the delayed repeat, just enough to give it a warm, intimate bounce.


Simulated Reverb


You can use your delay for reverb. For years, I played through an old, 50-watt Marshall head. The sound was glorious, especially in big rooms, but with no onboard reverb, the sound in our rehearsal space was dry as a bone. To soften up the sound a bit, and give it added dimension, I learned how to use my old Boss DD-3 digital delay as a reverb pedal. I still prefer it over the spring reverb that came standard in the “new” amp I bought more than 20 years ago. To get this effect, set the feedback level for three to five repeats, dial in the effect level to about half, and the delay time between 100 and 200 milliseconds. You can certainly use any delay and at a higher delay time, as much as 500 milliseconds. David Gilmour used his Binson Echorec to this purpose on “Time” and created an iconic sound in the process.


Dotted Eighth


One of my favorite uses for a delay is the creation of complex, interwoven arpeggios using repeats timed a dotted eight note behind the guitar’s signal. Think of the bass figure on Pink Floyd’s “One of These Days,” The Edge’s brilliant guitar on U2’s “Bad” or “Where The Streets Have No Name,” or Van Halen’s “Cathedral.” Obviously, there are as many settings for this effect as there are songs and guitarists who use it. I’ve found that it sounds best for the way I play when I set the level control to unity and the feedback to a repeat or two, or three. Because the repeats have to ring out in time with what you play for the effect to work at all, musically speaking, both the delay time and your timing are critical. Set the delay to the tempo of the song, and stick to that tempo. Let your drummer play to you. If the delay has a tap tempo feature, you can work with a more flexible rhythm section, but you have to be mindful and ready to adjust to those little variations. I have found that this use of my delay pedal is both beneficial and deleterious to my sense of time. Playing two, three, and four note repeating patterns interwoven with dotted eighth note repeats will develop one’s sense of timing to perfection, but it is such an intoxicating effect that it is too easy to lose all track of time.


Space is the New Frontier


One distinctive feature found only in all-analog, bucket brigade delays is self-oscillation, that almost-cacophonous noise you can control for some truly spacy science fiction sound effects. Jimi Hendrix used it on “1983 (A Merman I Should Turn to Be),” and Radiohead used it to great dramatic effect at the end of “Karma Police.” If you have an analog delay, set the feedback control all the way clockwise for “infinite” repeats to create a feedback loop. Cycle the delay control to the longest time possible then the shortest and back again. Cool, isn’t it? I would buy a pedal that did only that and nothing else.
Finally, consider the delay’s place in the signal chain. Because it softens a guitar’s attack by spreading it out over time, a delayed signal will lose clarity as it gets processed through fuzz and overdrive pedals. That said, put the dirt boxes before the delay. I’ve found that delay and reverb sound best when they are the last effects in the signal chain. For the same reason, if the amp has an effects loop, you might find it’s a good idea to make it the permanent home of your delay and your reverb, before your power tubes launch your sound out into the room. Of course, you are free to experiment, let me know how it sounds!

As a bonus, here is a classic Pink Floyd tune to practice. (As with all Riff of the Day videos, it includes the effect settings used to record the clip.)


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