Getting the Most Out of Your Delay Pedals!
Updated: Jul 13, 2022
Pedal Electro Harmonix Memory Man Vintage
Delay pedals are some of the most popular guitar pedals around, but as a private music instructor, I often hear students misunderstanding the units, misusing them or not using them to their fullest potential, as well as not taking the time to explore where delay units can take them musically. A delay pedal can not only give your playing a subtle, professional polish and three-dimension like quality, but it can also give you a wide variety of wild sounds such as self-oscillation, thumping, continuous repeats, to semi guitar harmonies. This how to guide will cover the basics of using a delay, including: the role of delay controls, how to balance your delay time with your unaffected signal, where to place your delay in the signal chain, and what delay units I like to use! Although there are countless delay pedals on the market, I’m going to use my vintage Electro Harmonix Memory Man as the tonal reference point.
Delay Pedal Controls:
Three controls are practically the same on every delay on the market, and understanding how to effectively use them will help you use units will far more controls. The main controls are Delay Time (Sometimes displayed as simply Time), Feedback (sometimes displayed as repeats or regeneration), Mix (Sometimes labeled as Mix, Blend, or Level knob).
Time controls the length of time between any two repetitions of your electric guitar’s signal. Most often, delay time is measured in milliseconds, also known as (ms). Most delay pedals don’t have a display that states the exact number of milliseconds being used at the current setting, so typically you move the knob to find the most usable range for your use. For example, my beloved vintage Electro Harmonix Memory Man has roughly 400 milliseconds of delay on tap, with the time knob being able to sweep through the range of delay time. The Feedback control determines the number of repeats that affect your guitar signal. At the lowest setting, the feedback knob produces a single repeat of the original signal. As you turn up the feedback knob you will get increasing numbers of repeats in your playing. Some modern delay units offer unlimited repeats when the repeat knob is turned all the way up.
The Mix control the volume of the delayed repeats against your regular guitar signal. As you turn the mix control up you will get more of the delayed signal injected into your overall sound. This knob is really important to get set right to find the right balance of your guitar tone and the delay tone from the pedal.
Where to Place Your Delay in the Signal Chain:
If you are planning on using a delay pedal alongside your other pedals you really have to know where to place it for the ultimate sound quality. When you use fuzzes, or overdrives, or forms of distortions, it’s important to place your delay pedal after these effects, or else you will end up distorting the delayed repeats. Ultimately, this will make your guitar sound very mushy with indistinct phrasing. While you can experiment to see what works best for you, any type of distortion is typically the strongest impact on your guitar amp because of the inherent gain you are adding to the signal, so it makes sense to have those effects first in the chain. Adding a delay towards the end of your signal will allow you to add repeats to the tonal effects you are adding to your guitar sound.
Another point that I will share even though I don’t use them: regarding using delay with purely a distorted amplifier- you will want to run the delay through your amplifiers effects loop so the delay comes in your signal after the preamp gain. (Similar concept to placing the delay before any dirt pedals). When recording I usually prefer to add the delay in post after I have tracked my guitar parts so I have more control over the delay repeats in my mix.
My Tricks with Delays:
Doubling My Guitar Tone and Shimmering Modulation:
This is one of my personal favorite ways to use a delay pedal. The results are just clutch in just about any style of music. “Doubling” a guitar signal refers to using a delay to essentially thicken up your guitar tone and make it sound fatter. It’s a trick I employ all the time when playing live, or tracking guitars in the studio. To get a doubling effect you’ll want to play with the time knob between 50-100ms, feedback set to minimum repeats (one but some players use two), and the Mix knob set all the way up. Because the time knob of the repeat is so fast, it creates the illusion of another guitar signal being played in unison with the original signal as opposed a true echo. If you lower the delay time between 20-50ms, you can also get some cool chorus-like effects. Although, I tend to not do this because my vintage Memory Man has a chorus switch built in that changes the pedal to a true chorus pedal.
Slapback is what’s referred to as a single, quick echo. This was originally done back in the day via “tape slap”, which is the distance it took the delay tape to travel between the record and play heads on an analog tape machine. You’ll often hear this effect in rockabilly and country music. I always have admired Brad Paisley’s Telecaster tone when he employs slapback with his vintage Way Huge Aqua Puss delay, so as a kid I went out and bought on just for this effect! To achieve a slapback effect with your delay pedal set the Time knob short, about 80ms-140ms, Feedback at zero for only one repeat, and the Level knob starting at 50%. I usually start here and adjust for the song I’m playing.
I use this setting when I’m playing a Tweed Fender amplifier/Marshall Plexi’s without reverb built into the amplifier so I can get some space in my playing. Depending on the delay unit you use the settings might differ, but this is a slight variation on a classic slapback delay. A good starting setting is to set your Time knob somewhere between 100-200ms, Feedback to 5 repeats, and Level at 50%. This adds some real beauty to a Stratocaster or a Telecaster through any amp, and in many ways, I prefer using delay in this way compared to a traditional reverb. Guitar lines feel smoother, and it is very easy to get immersed in your playing.
Higher Delay Times and Understanding Tempo Matching:
As I stated earlier, most delay pedals don’t have a precise read out of delay times of where you are at millisecond wise. At shorter delay times, there is no reason to because you can’t really mess up the guitar sound. However, when you start pushing the delay times (say 200ms+ with a high-Level setting) and try to play along to song, or to a drum machine set to a particular tempo, you really need to fine tune it or else you run into a mess of notes that don’t line up with what you are trying to play. If you don’t set your delay time to the tempo of the song, your repeats will not be in time with what you are trying to play. If your music is delay based you will want to check out the newest delays that display the delay time on the units like the Strymon Timeline ($449 new), TC Electronic ND-1 Nova Delay ($259 new), Providence DLY-4 Chrono Delay ($449 new).
The happy middle ground would be finding a delay that uses what’s called “Tap Tempo”. Tap Tempo is a feature that was designed because although most players don’t know the exact time they need to play in terms of the metronome beats per minute, they likely can tap the time roughly with their foot while they play along. So, designers came up with a way for players to input a rough tempo into a delay pedal where the pedal could digitally adjust the delay time to the player on the fly. I have a tap tempo delay that I use live so I can quickly adjust delay times from song to song and match my delay to the drummer. As for what Tap Tempo Delay to purchase, there are many, but I prefer right now the
Source Audio Nemesis Delay ($299 new). If you don’t own a delay pedal with tap tempo features, you can always use the time-honored formula (Delay Time in ms = 60,000/Beats Per Minute).
If you don’t absolutely know your tempo take a guess starting at 120 and then go higher or lower in 20 beat increments until you get close. You can always adjust the delay time as you go. To get smaller subdivisions of delays the formulas change for eighth notes to 30,000/Beats Per Minute = Delay Time, and for sixteenth notes 15,000/Beats Per Minute = Delay Time.
Dotted Eight Note Rhythmic Repeats: Some of my absolute favorite guitarists like Eddie Van Halen, the Edge from U2, David Gilmour from Pink Floyd took what was thought possible with delay to new heights with songs like “Cathedral”, “Where the Streets Have No Name” and “Another Brick in The Wall” respectively. These players popularized a trick where you set your delay time higher to create the illusion that you are playing more notes, faster than you actually are. To achieve this set your delay to play a dotted-eighth note, which is really three sixteenth notes, after you play the original note and then you as the player play continuous eighth notes. After your delayed note enters the phrase on the last sixteenth note of the 1st beat of your measure, it will fill in the 2nd and 4th sixteenth note of every beat if you continue your eighth note picking. Be sure to keep your notes as short as possible. To make this sound as organic as possible set your delay level as high as possible. A good starting point for settings will be Level all the way up, Feedback at zero, and the Delay Time roughly 2/3rds of the way up. To get the timing right for your track use the delay time formula from above.
Using the Delay to Get Harmonies: This is a really cool trick to get to play pseudo harmonies ala the Allman Brothers Band if you are the only guitarist in your band. This trick really works best with pre-composed pieces of music as opposed to straight improvisation. This is because the harmony line has to match the rhythm of the original thing you have played. Things like the repeating ending lick in “Hotel California” by the Eagles is a great example. This type of music is much easier to harmonize with as opposed to something much more complex. One troubling aspect of using delay to get harmonies, is that is can be very difficult to get the harmony to start simultaneously. Typically, the easiest way to pull this off is play your original line and allow it to delay, and then knowingly stagger the harmony line so it lines up next in your musical phrase.
Using Your Guitar Volume Knob to Create Swells with Delay: I really like to do this when I’m improvising with other musicians. This works with regardless with any long delay setting. I like to strike the guitar hard with the guitar’s volume knob at zero and then varying my speed of raising it up to full volume with my picking hand. It creates a real trippy, swell like effect that to my ear feels reminiscent of Jimmy Page from Led Zeppelin on “Dazed and Confused”. It will take some practice to pick a note, and then move your volume knob with the same hand but I really enjoy the effect.
Using Your Delay to Get Self-Oscillation: One last cool trick you can do with your delay pedal is to force the unit to go into self-oscillation. Self-Oscillation refers to when the delay pedal becomes so over saturated with repeats and regenerating notes, that the delay goes into a feedback loop that gets louder and crazier the longer you let it go on. You can then manipulate the controls on the unit to get really wild sounds by changing the delay time and level etc. To get your delay to self-oscillate, first you must be using a traditional analog delay (digital delay will just continue to repeat as if nothing is happening), set your delay time fairly short with the Feedback knob really high. You’ll hear exactly when the unit starts to self-oscillate because it sounds like a loud howl. It can be really fun creating odd soundscapes with oscillating delays! Again experiment with it by getting the oscillation and then manipulating the knobs on the delay to alter what is happening.