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Guitar 101: What Is a Delay Pedal? Learn How a Delay Pedal Works for Electric Guitar Effects

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Oct 9, 2019 • 7 min read

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When it comes to electric guitar effects, perhaps the secret weapon of many of today’s players is a delay pedal. In both subtle and pronounced ways, delay sounds are a hidden force behind many amazing guitar performances.

What Is a Delay Pedal?

A delay pedal is a stompbox effect that records and plays back any music fed into it. Usually this playback happens in milliseconds. When playback is rapid, a delay pedal produces a “slapback” effect—an instant, snappy reverberation of what was played. With long extended playback times, delay pedals produce cascading walls of sound—great for creating atmospheric landscapes.



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What Does a Delay Pedal Sounds Like?

Depending on how you dial in the settings of your delay pedal, it can sound like:

  • A reverb effect, creating the illusion of a larger space.
  • A tremolo effect, simulating the rapid-fire volume fluctuations that make tremolos work.
  • A compressor, extending and boosting the sounds of your guitar.
  • An echo effect, producing carbon copies of the notes you play.
  • A reverse tape effect, where your performance plays “backward” (only available on certain delay pedals).
  • A chorus/vibrato effect, creating the illusion of multiple instruments (note: this is only possible on delay pedals that include pitch modulation).

Accordingly, a delay pedal is an extremely versatile effect, depending on the specific parameters of your pedal and how you dial them in.

How Does a Delay Pedal Work?

Delay pedals have a wide array of possible settings, depending on the make and model. Here are a few of the most common parameters:

  • Effect level. This controls how much of the processed delay signal will be coming through your signal chain. Processed signal is often referred to as “wet” and unprocessed signal is typically referred to as “dry.” If you turn your Effect knob all the way up, your signal will be completely wet. This can create trippy effects, but it could easily overwhelm the song structure of whatever tune you’re playing. Therefore it’s wise to keep the Effect knob at a reasonable level.
  • Feedback. Most delay pedals can return their delayed sounds back into the signal chain, to be repeated again and again. Turning up the Feedback knob will allow cascades of delay to pour out of your amplifier. Once again, this parameter is to be used prudently. While a delay tone with no feedback is boring, too much feedback will quickly turn your output into pure chaos—great for ambient sound collages, but fairly useless for playing with other musicians.
  • Delay time. This parameter controls how long the pedal “waits” before replaying your audio performance. Short delay times (around 50 milliseconds) will produce the instant “slapback” effect that’s popular in old-school country music and surf rock. Long delay times (around 800 milliseconds) can almost create a canon effect, where a line of music is repeated on top of itself, a few beats later.
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What Are The Best Delay Pedals?

It’s a bit of a cliché, but the best delay pedal will be the one that covers your sonic needs at a price point you can afford. There is a massive range of options and prices among delay pedals. Here are a few options to help distinguish the difference:

  • Boss DD-7. If there is such thing as a flagship delay pedal, it would surely come from the Boss DD series. Boss issued its first compact delay stompbox in 1981, and in the ensuing years, it’s offered combinations of analog delay, digital delay, pitch shifting, reverb, and looping in these small compact enclosures. The DD-7 Digital Delay was released in 2008 and remains the brand’s flagship compact delay (although for players with a higher budget and more pedalboard real estate, the DD-500 is the brand’s premium offering). Along with multiple modes of digital delay, the DD-7 features an analog delay simulation, a reverse tape loop simulation, a modulation effect for “chorus” tones, and tap tempo—which lets you set the delay time by tapping a beat on the pedal (or an external tap switch).
  • Strymon TimeLine. If the Boss DD-7 is the Chevrolet of delay pedals, and the DD-500 is the Cadillac, then the Strymon TimeLine is the Mercedes-Benz. This delay pedal is neither cheap nor especially compact, but it adds an astounding number of effects to a pristine delay circuit. The company specifically advertises “12 delay machines” built into the unit. Like the DD-7, it can add pitch modulation to your delay tone, but it can also add overdrive thanks to its “Grit” knob. It features nine onboard dials as opposed to 4 for the Boss. This can be either exciting or overwhelming, depending on your desire to tinker.
  • MXR Carbon Copy. On the opposite end of the complexity spectrum, is the MXR Carbon Copy. It only features three parameter knobs: Mix (aka the effect level), Regen (aka the feedback amount), and Delay (aka the time setting). It also features a single push-button to add a modulation effect. None of these parameters can be dialed in as precisely as they can on the Boss and Strymon models, but many rock n’ rollers almost prefer this. It’s also relatively inexpensive and built rock solid. The Carbon Copy is an analog delay, not a digital delay. This produces what many players consider a “warmer” tone but it makes certain functions, like a tap tempo, impossible.


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3 Delay Effects You Can Try

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You can produce a wide array of tones with a delay pedal, but here are some of the most commonly used:

  • Lead Guitar Boost. Countless lead guitarists use delay pedals to extend the sustain of their solos. From Richie Sambora of Bon Jovi to Dave Murray of Iron Maiden to Jennifer Turner of the Natalie Merchant band, it’s in lead lines everywhere. A great lead guitar delay setting is to set your delay time to about 380 milliseconds, your feedback to about 45% and your effect level to about 40%. Try it at the end of an overdriven signal chain, and listen for the pleasing echoes.
  • Slapback Effect. If you don’t want a lot of reverb from your delay, a slapback effect may be ideal. Set your delay time to about 120 milliseconds, your feedback to about 20%, and your overall effect level to about 65%. You should have snappy country tones in no time.
  • Cascading Delay (like The Edge). When a lot of guitarists think of delay, they think of one player: The Edge from U2. If you want to produce his signature tone (like on “Where The Streets Have No Name”), you actually need a dual delay effect. The DD-500 and Strymon TimeLine can do this, along with other high-end pedals. Most compact boxes like the DD-7 and the Carbon Copy cannot. (Of course, you could always just stack two compact delay pedals, one after another. A lot of guitarists do this.) To get a nice Edge delay, try setting your first delay for about 350 milliseconds with about 30% feedback. Set your second delay for 520 seconds with 10% feedback. And if you really want to sound like The Edge, you also need two amplifiers—with delay signals ping-ponging back between the two.

5 Tips On Using the Delay Pedal From Tom Morello

Editors Pick

Guitarist Tom Morello, who co-founded Rage Against The Machine and Audioslave, performs as a solo artist under the name The Nightwatchman. He uses the original Boss digital delay, the DD-2. Here are some of his tips and tricks on the best ways to use the pedal:

  • Try experimenting with any sort of level control. This controls how much of the delay signal is mixed with the normal guitar signal. You can achieve cool effects by leaving the level control all the way up, thereby cutting the normal signal from the sound.
  • Long delay times can sometimes be drowned out in a band mix. When that happens, try boosting your signal with the help of the overdrive pedal set to a lower gain setting (like with the “clean boost” tip above).
  • Set the effect level and repeat levels past halfway, and hit a chord or single note. While it rings, manipulate the delay knob—depending on the effect level and repeat level, you can get a warbling, swirled effect that mimics electronic DJ sounds. Try using the overdrive pedal to enhance.
  • Try the runaway effect. Some analog delay pedals like the MXR Carbon Copy can have a runaway effect by turning the effect level and the repeat knobs all the way up until the signal starts to feedback on itself. Manipulate this sound with the delay time knob.
  • Do you leave your delay pedal on all the time? Try setting the pedal as an accent feature—a medium delay time with effect levels and repeats above halfway, for example. When the time comes in a song or solo for an explosion of delay, press the pedal then kick it off again.
  • Morello is also fond of what he calls the “cello delay”—the approximation of a symphonic cello, or whale sounds on the guitar, by setting the guitar to a longer delay, striking the note with the volume knob turned to zero, and then bringing the volume up while using vibrato on the note—creates something that sounds something like a cello. Some guitarists like to call these “whale calls.”

Learn more guitar playing techniques from Tom Morello’s MasterClass.