Exploring the different types of delays, parameters and uses of this popular guitar effect.
Unlike reverb, which adds ambience to the notes of your guitar, delay or echo effects basically repeat what is played. Think of delay as being like someone yelling “hello” into a canyon and hearing their voice rebound in one or more repeats. Reverb is more like singing in the shower, where the hard surfaces help make your voice sound full and resonant, but with no repeats.
Types of Guitar Delays
Although there are many different types of delays that can affect your original guitar signal, the biggest difference among them is in the quality of the repeats they produce. Digital delay can give you exact repeats of what you play and create a very clean, modern sound. Analog delays, while still fairly clean, will have a lower-quality repeat. Effects that use tube- or tape-echo technology have even lower fidelity and produce repeats that degrade or disintegrate as they repeat and fade. These echo effects will often affect the guitar signal feeding the pedal as well.
Common Parameters for Setting Delay
The mix setting on a delay pedal determine how loud the repeats are relative to the dry guitar signal. Time control dictates how fast or slow the repeats will be. The repeat knob gives you control over how many repeats you get for each note played. Some delay pedals also offer a modulation control which adds chorus to the repeats. Another common feature is a tone knob or EQ section that allows you to adjust the tone of the repeats.
Putting Delay to Work for You
Many guitarists use delay similarly to reverb, keeping delay on all the time to prevent their guitars from sounding too dry. Often, guitarists use the effects loop in their amp for this application. This is essential if you’re using the gain channel on your amp, because delay typically sounds better post-gain.
The optimal signal path looks like this: Guitar > Amp >FX send > Delay > FX return > Output. A good place to start for with always-on delay is a pretty low mix of delay to dry signal, say 300-400ms of digital delay and around five repeats. Steve Vai and Joe Satriani are two guitarists who both use delay nearly all of the time.
This style of delay was very popular in ‘50s rock and roll and is still used in rockabilly and some country guitar sounds. Slapback delay is similar to the always-on delay in that it is usually stays on. But instead of many slower repeats, slapback delay typically has only one quick repeat, hence the name “slapback.” Scotty Moore and Brian Setzer both use slapback as part of their signature sounds.
At Musician’s Friend Private Reserve, I use the BOSS DD-7 for digital delay and the MXR Carbon Copy for analog delay sounds.
U2’s The Edge is a master of time-based delay. He builds guitar parts by playing off the repeats of the delay. This application matches the repeats of the delay to the tempo of a song. Matching the delay time to the song tempo can be achieved using a tap-tempo delay or using a MIDI-synced delay or tempo-synced plug-in. Common rhythms for the repeat are quarter notes or dotted eighth notes.
This application of delay can be time-based, but often is not. The spacey sound of ambient delay works very nicely with tape echo sounds and are characterized by slower repeats set fairly high in the mix with a lot of repeats. Bands like Radiohead and Minus The Bear can help get this sound in your head.
There are so many ways to use delay that you might consider having multiple delay pedals in your rig, each dialed in for a different application. There are some very worthy and affordable delays like the BOSS DD-3 and DD-7, MXR Carbon Copy and the Line 6 DL4 available from Musician’s Friend that can add excitement and drama to your guitar sound without a huge investment.
Until next time, keep playing!
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Brian Baggett is Video Presenter for Musician’s Friend Private Reserve Guitars. He curates the Private Reserve guitar collection on video, visits guitar factories and works closely with luthiers and signature artists to gain insight into the greatest guitars being built today. He is also a professional guitarist playing several nights a week in the legendary Kansas City jazz scene. A former jazz guitar professor, Brian continues to teach and has a book and DVD titled "Keys To Unlocking the Fretboard".
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