Delay, delay, delay, delay, delay……

Delay has been an effect in sound since the dawn of time. Just walk into a cave and yell, then wait, and you’ll in hear your voice repeat itself before it fades away. Fast forward millions of years later and musicians are suddenly asking for this effect to be added to their guitar sound. It started first with the manipulation of reel-to-reel magnetic recording systems, when people would change a loop of tape and adjust read and white heads to create an echo effect. Later still, engineers started find new and different ways to create that sound which became a hot commodity in the 1950s when musicians like Les Paul, Chet Atkins, and Scotty Moore were incorporating the effect into their sound. When devices such as the Echoplex, Binson Echorec, and the Roland Space Echo came to market (all of which were tape-based delays), it became the must-have accessory for many guitar players. Over the years, with the advent of more advanced technology, the world was able to decide between having either analog or digital delay.

Analog Delay

Analog delay is the oldest form of delay in pedals. It still stands the test of time due to its popularity amongst many musicians as well as its unique tonal quality. The science behind it is that the signal goes through a chain of capacitors, most famously “bucket-brigade” chips, which influence the time depending on how far through the signal chain your input goes before going through the pedal’s output. Many people agree that analog delay tends to have a warm tone in its repeats due to its low bit rate, and is used to color up a guitar’s tone and make its sound stand out in a mix, whether live or in the studio. Also, the timing isn’t as precise compared to digital delays, so analog delays tend to just create a really nice soundscape that guitarists love.

Digital Delay

As far as digital delay is concerned, some people mistake its use as an upgrade. Rather, digital delay is used to allow for more options. Digital delay pedals are similar to analog pedals except for the fact that it uses digital signal processing, or DSP, to allow for nearly limitless delay tones and repeats. For instance, some musicians want to have a repeat that sound identical to the tone of the initial attack, rather than decaying and fading with every repeat. Also, timing of repetitions can be as delayed or quick as one desires. Many digital delay pedals have even been tweaked to sound so much like an analog tone that it’s extremely hard for the human ear to tell the difference.

Regardless of whether you go with analog or digital, there are a variety of delay types that offer truly distinctive sonic qualities. Doubling is where you make the delay effect just slightly more delayed than your input which helps thicken your tone, give it more depth, and make it fatter. It’s not used to make a true delay tone, but rather to be as an effect to change the overall tone of your guitar. Slapback is a term used for a delay of a single repeat. It’s a popular tone used in a lot of country and rockabilly songs. If you have a delay pedal with stereo outputs, you can do what’s called “ping-pong” delay where the repeats can bounce back and forth between to speakers creating a 3D experience of tone.

Delay has been used by countless guitarists that have helped create their distinctive tone on some songs we still listen to on repeat to this day. Let’s take a look at some legendary delay pedals, what they do, and the famous musicians and songs that use them.

If you’re looking to dive straight into analog delay, look no further than the MXR Carbon Copy. Between its simplicity and its sound, it’s hard not to dial in the perfect, warm delay tone many musicians have come to find in this pedal. You have three knobs: Regen, for how many delay repeats you desire; Mix, for deciding how much of the effect you want coming out of the pedal; and Delay, for making your delay repeats incredibly fast or as slow as 600ms of time. There’s also an optional MOD button to add more richness to your tone. The reason this pedal sounds so warm is due to the “bucket-brigade” technology that’s built in. If you’re looking for a little something more, MXR offers a premium version of this pedal, the , which gives you an extended delay time (up to 1.2s) and tap tempo capabilities. There’s a good chance one of your favorite guitarists use this pedal, such as Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top, both Joe Perry and Brad Whitford of Aerosmith, Mike McCready of Pearl Jam, and Jeff Beck.

Another analog delay classic, the EHX Deluxe Memory Man, is where you can take your analog delay to new heights with incredibly interesting soundscapes. The original Memory Man was released circa ’76, and although it has gone through multiple iterations (both with design of the pedal and its features), the main features are what allowed this pedal to stand the test of time. After the Memory Man Solid State Echo/Analog Delay Line, the Deluxe Memory Man Solid State Echo/Analog Delay Line, the Memory Man Solid State Echo/Chorus, and the Stereo Memory Man Stereo Echo/Chorus, EHX combined all of their best features into one pedal which we all know and love: the Deluxe Memory Man. It works similar to the Analog Delay, but has some extra features that really make it stand out. For instance, it has a Chorus/Vibrato knob to dial in some really nice modulation to make your delays even dreamier than they were before. The Depth knob will give you the ability to dial your chorus and vibrato wobbles to extreme heights. Also, it includes a Level knob that allows you to crank up your overall sound. Many guitarists from the ’70s to today still use this pedal in their rigs including Mike Einziger of Incubus, Dave Grohl of Foo Fighters, The Edge of U2 (heard on “Sunday Bloody Sunday”), and Eric Johnson.

The Line 6 DL4 is where things get weird, but in the best way possible. It’s made waves in the guitar world since its release in 2000 due to its ability to faithfully replicate vintage analog delay sounds, expound upon current digital delays, and do some wacky things of its own. Right out the gate, you have 16 (yes, you read that correctly) delay types to choose from such as “Reverse Delay” for backwards-sounding tones and “Auto-Volume Echo” to have a volume swell delay rather than it decaying. Unlike the other previous pedals, it always has stereo in and out, and is battery powered by 4 “C” batteries that allow you to play for up to 30 hours. While it’s considered a fantastic delay pedal, the feature that has been used by musicians of all kinds is its onboard looper that artists like David Knudson (Minus The Bear) and Reggie Watts have used to make really interesting loops in their live performances over the years. Other guitarists such as Matthew Bellamy (Muse), John Frusciante (Red Hot Chili Peppers), Omar Rodríguez-López (The Mars Volta), Kenny Wayne Shepherd, and St. Vincent have all used this pedal in their recordings and performances.

Released in 1986, the Boss DD-3 Digital Delay was the answer to the previous DD-2. Since more digital products were coming to market, Boss was able to create a less expensive alternative, which resulted in the DD-3. What made this pedal even more popular was its ability to take the rack-mounted SDE-3000 and fit it into a compact pedal so that guitarists could get the rack’s killer delay effects in a more space-saving, user-friendly package. While there have been many delay pedals before and after it, the DD-3 has been able to stand the test of time due to its simplicity and tone, while still giving guitarists everything they would need to get their desired delay sounds. One of the cooler and more unique features of the DD-3 is the HOLD function, which allows you to repeat your delay forever so you can play your notes, grab a bite to eat, and come back and still hear your delay! It’s been a part of many renowned guitarists’ pedalboards such as Dan Auerbach (Black Keys), Slash (Guns N Roses), Vince Gill, Joe Bonamassa, Dave Navarro (Jane’s Addiction), and Yngwie Malmsteen.

Last but not least, you can’t mention classic delays without mentioning the TC Electronic Flashback 2. Although it’s not an “old” pedal, it’s received a lot of traction as a classic pedal due to its inclusion of the delay effects that have made TC Electronic a household name. This includes the TC 2290, which was made famous by David Gilmour (Pink Floyd) and is considered a classic rackmount delay effect unit. Within this small pedal, there are some groundbreaking concepts that make the Flashback unique compared to other delay pedals on the market. For starters, Audio Tapping allows you to set the delay tempo by strumming your guitar rather than tapping your foot while TC’s exclusive TonePrint capabilities gives you the option to download signature tones from your favorite guitar players. Another feature that sets the Flashback apart from other delays is the Kill-Dry feature, which will remove a dry signal path when using a parallel effects loop! These are just a few of the Flashback 2’s distinctive features. Countless guitarists including Satchel (Steel Panther), Vernon Reid (Living Colour), Misha Mansoor (Periphery), Tony Iommi (Black Sabbath), Brent Hinds & Bill Kelliher (Mastodon), and Steve Morse use this pedal because of its massive power and virtually endless possibilities built into a small chassis. If this pedal sounds like a great choice but you need something that’s a bit simpler and more pedalboard-friendly, you have to check out the TC Electronic Flashback Mini Delay. On the other hand, if you need a delay pedal that’ll give you additional control and features such as an onboard Looper, the TC Electronic Flashback X4 Delay is ideal.

As the years go on, I’m sure we’ll see more and more developments in the delay pedal market, but the 5 delay pedals mentioned previously have stood the test of time due to their innovative designs within the pedal market and their influence by the guitarists who use them.

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Ben Ash
Ben Ash is a member of the Sam Ash Music family, both literally and figuratively. He has worked on the sales floor in both the Huntington and Forest Hills location. As Social Media Coordinator, he was integral with bringing the social media of the company to new heights and relevancy. He was also a Manager of the Northeast region. Currently, he is the Content Marketing Manager for Sam Ash Music. He received a Bachelors Degree in Music Business at Berklee College Of Music in 2012. He’s a proficient guitar player and can also play bass and ukulele. Although he grew up as a fan of classic rock and alternative, he’s now opened his mind to being a fan of many genres of music. He regularly posts his music covers on his YouTube channel and has played multiple venues in Long Island, NYC, Philadelphia and Boston.