Guide To Guitar Delay Effects Part 1

Delay effects can range from a simple echo doubling the original signal to complex, multilayered repeats that create symphonic soundscapes. Without a doubt it is the most versatile effect available to the guitarist.

Early guitarists who used delay include Chet Atkins, Scotty Moore and Les Paul. The early day effects were based on tape loops, where if a loop of tape was repeatedly recorded, played back and the input signal removed, a delayed signal was made of the original. In the early recordings of Elvis (featuring Scotty Moore on guitar) and Buddy Holly the use of slapjack delay can be heard, courtesy of these tape loops. 

The use of tape to create delay had a particular tonal effect, often referred to as ‘vintage’ now. The tape delay was subject to distortion as the signal degraded…and is a sound now very much loved and modelled in the latest technology in units such as the BOSS DD 500 and the Strymon Timeline. The repeats were inconsistent, the subtle changes in speed of the tape loop produced a chorusing effect, and the tape loops could be ‘saturated’ which added an overdriven tone to the signal. But the technology was big and bulky and prone to breakdown.

As technology advanced chips were developed that would allow the signal to be delayed and an echo effect created. This is what we now refer to as ‘bucket brigade delay’ (BBD) and the warm delay repeats in a reliable pedal format made these units (such as the Memory Man and BOSS DM-2) a hit with guitarists. The chips could not produce very long delay times, certainly nothing near the modern digital day units, but remain popular with modern players using pedals such as the Carbon Copy delay from MXR.

In the early 1980s digital technology had advanced to the stage of companies such as BOSS producing the compact DD-2 digital delay in pedal form. The digital delay technology allows for the reproduction of the delayed signal to remain ‘truer’ to the original (some players found some of the early delay pedals to be quite harsh when compared to their earlier counterparts) with much longer delay times. Rack units also became popular during this time, with greater processing power allowing for better sound reproduction and greater delay times. 

Modern technology has seen the rise of modelling in software, pedal and rack form. These units model the classic delays of the past, but with far greater flexibility and processing power than their predecessors. The individual elements of older delay units (tape speed, modulation, analog chips, etc) are present and can be altered to recreate vintage tones or create something entirely new. 

Modern units allow for improved control parameters, routing options, effects and flexibility. One example of the sort of flexibility is the ability to have two different delay types running in parallel or serial mode in the BOSS DD 500. This can allow for all sorts of possibilities in terms of both the effect achieved and the tone produced. Such units also allow for the guitarist to select from many different delay types and create multiple delay patches that can easily be stored and recalled as needed. 

Of course, some players see this as overkill and just want one or two delay options. For them there are many great options from the likes of MXR, BOSS, and Way Huge, providing great analog and digital delay options for the player wanting a simpler setup.

Common to all delay effects are 3 parameters, Time, Feedback, and Level.  These may be labelled as something else by various manufacturers, but the function is still the same. 

Time
This parameter controls the length of time repeats of the signal. This is generally measured in milliseconds (ms). 

Feedback
This can also be called ‘repeat’ or ‘regeneration’. This parameter sets the number of repeats, from a single repeat to (with some effects pedals or units at least) infinite repeats when set to full. 

Level
The level sets the volume of the repeats. When set to zero the repeats won’t be heard, and (depending on the unit) when set to maximum the repeats will either be as loud as the original signal or even exceed it.

Signal Chain Placement
A delay effect will normally go towards the end of the signal chain so that all preceding effects will be repeated, but feel free to experiment. For example, Pete Thorn has a video where he places the delay before the distortion. So while there are some general guidelines, music is art so you do what you want!

Modern units such as the DD 500 or Timeline offer much more than the three controls mentioned; we’ll touch on some of those as we work through different delay types and settings in future posts.

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