Guitar Delay: How To Use It

Wondering how to use guitar delay? It's a relatively simple effect but has many different applications and sounds. Delay can either be used subtly to add space and depth, or more obviously for in-your-face doubling, ping-pong or trippy ambient soundscapes.

Of course, the traditional way of using guitar delay effects is to use a delay pedal, however if you're "in the box" then a good quality plugin will work too (we love Lemon by Acustica Audio for its huge range of super-high quality hardware delay emulations).

Below you'll find five ways to use guitar delay effects. It's definitely worth experimenting with these if your latest song is lacking some "je ne sais quoi".

Slapback Delay 

Slapback was the first delay effect and is still effective today, especially for country, rockabilly and early rock 'n' roll. Typically a very short delay time is set of around 100-150ms. The mix should be set to around 80%. Instant Hank Marvin!

Doubling Delay

Doubling delay mimics double-tracking, a recording technique that thickens instrument and vocal lines by utilising two takes, often panned left and right for guitar tracks.

Set a slightly longer delay time (try up to 200-250ms) and play with the mix set at 90-100% to achieve a thicker sound. You may find a shorter delay time works better for faster tempos.

Ping-pong Delay

Ping-pong is a stereo effect that requires a delay pedal with stereo outputs and two amps/cabinets (or a stereo amp such as the Orange Rocker 32 Combo). Alternatively, many delay plugins can achieve a ping-pong delay effect.

Ping-pong sounds amazingly wide and three-dimensional as the delay pans from one speaker to the other then back again at a chosen rate. Although it's expensive and cumbersome to use live, it's much easier to use in the studio running direct into your DAW.

Tape-style Delay 

Pick a BBD-based delay (or digital equivalent) and dial in several repeats. You should find that each repeat degrades more than the previous one, giving that lovely organic, tape-style feel. Some pedals also have controls for experimenting with wow and flutter, which were originally unwanted side effects caused by the tape stretching and moving around.

Again, there are delay plugins which can replicate tape, and Lemon really comes into its own for this application.

Long, spacey delays 

Digital delays are great for long, multiple repeats - think U2's The Edge, for example. Try setting your delay to dotted-eighths of around 350-450ms with one or two repeats and set the mix to around 80% for classic Edge delay!

    Guitar delay: A history

    Even before Elvis, Scotty Moore and Bill Black popularised the 'slapback'delay in the early- to mid-1950s, the effect held an increasingly important place in the musical landscape.

    Tape Delay

    Magnetic tape had been around since the 1920s, and it was soon discovered that by adjusting the distance between playback and recording heads of the tape machine, the engineer could manipulate the length of delay created.

     Les Paul, whose name later appeared on Gibson's flagship guitars, was a studio pioneer, experimenting with slapback delay and multi-track recording using these early reel to reel machines.

     The introduction in the early 1950s of more portable devices - the first being the Echosonic Combo - allowed the delay effect to be used outside of the studio for the first time, opening the gateway to its popularisation with musicians.

     During the 1950s, tape delay became a signature part of early rockabilly and rock 'n' roll - thanks in part to its use by Elvis and his band - and by the end of the decade units were appearing with multiple, moveable playback heads and tape speed controls.

    BBD Delay

    The 1970s saw the introduction of the Bucket-Brigade Device (BBD), a hybrid digital/analogue chip that was able to achieve delay times of up to around 300ms. A key characteristic of these early chips was a steep high frequency roll-off to eliminate clock noise, as well as degrading signal as it passed down the various stages within the chip.

     The benefit of these chips was that they could be packaged into small foot-switchable pedals, required far less maintenance than tape, and were also far more affordable.

     Digital Delay

    The 1980s led to the rising popularity of digital delays, offering super-clean repeats and longer delay times.

     Today, digital technology has matured thanks to vastly improved processors and memory, and while players can enjoy high fidelity digital delays and even digital emulations of tape or BBD delays, there is still a huge market for real BBD delays.