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What Does a Delay Pedal Do and How Does It Work?

BOSS DD-500 Digital Delay - how delay pedal works
BOSS DD-500 Digital Delay - how delay pedal works

If you’re a guitarist, you’ve likely heard of a delay pedal but do you wonder how it works? Even if you are unsure what a delay pedal is or what it can do for your sound, you’ve probably heard one before.

Delay pedals are a time-based guitar effect. The effect repeats the signal from the guitar in a series of echoes based on the settings set on the pedal. These pedals can produce delays that are short in time and somewhat resembling a bit of a reverb (also known as “slapback delay”) to a long cascading effect that repeats into infinity. 

Some delay pedals even offer the ability to reverse the input to create unique sounding reversed guitar lines. These pedals can also be utilized by tweaking knobs in real-time to warp the echo or even oscillate the pedal and make some weird and exciting sounds.

In this article, we will cover:

  • The history of the delay pedal
  • How a delay pedal works
  • Ideal delay pedal locations in a signal chain
  • Great examples of delay pedal usage

By the end of this article, you will have an excellent grasp of the basics of what this fantastic guitar effect does and how you can make it work for your playing.

The History and Evolution of the Delay Pedal

Before modern digital technology, many guitar effects were built of analog components, and the delay as we know it today is no exception. While modern technology has allowed portability and affordability of this effect, there are differences in why someone may want an analog or a digital delay.

To achieve a delay effect before the 1970s, guitarists would route their signal into a device (such as the Echoplex). Magnetic tape inside the device would record the signal, allowing the recorded signal to be played back at the desired time rate set on the device. Some devices (such as the Binson Echorec) used a magnetic platter disk to achieve the same delay as magnetic tape.

The delay pedal first became an all-electronic effect in the 1970s, opening the door to accessibility and portability not seen by the cumbersome magnetic tape machines in the past. A new device, called a bucket brigade (developed by F. Sangster and K. Teer in 1969), allowed for time-based delay using capacitors to store and release a signal at a clock-based rate. 

The advent of smaller computer chips has evolved much in today’s society, with the delay pedal no exception. Eventually, as technology progressed, digital technology replaced the bucket brigade style of delay. The digital chip of today’s digital delays takes the raw analog guitar signal and applies the effect digitally to produce the delay with extreme precision. 

Today’s market of guitar pedals features delay pedals of both the analog and digital varieties. Many digital pedals can simulate analog tape delays very well, offering the best of both worlds. 

The Delay Pedal in Your Signal Chain 

If you have a delay pedal (or are thinking of acquiring one), and you’re not sure where it should go in your signal chain, fear not! While experimentation can be your friend, a little thought into the function of the delay will help guide you. 

As delay pedals function to duplicate the sound of the input coming into the unit, placing the delay pedal towards the end of your signal chain is a good rule of thumb. Having the delay placed after filter and distortion effects will create repeats of the distorted signal. In most cases, placing the distortion effects after the delay resulting in distorting the repeats is less desirable.

Are there instances where you might not want a delay pedal at the end of your chain? Absolutely! If you have a loop pedal, you may not like the delay pedal at the end of your chain. Otherwise, all of your loops coming through the delay (with the pedal on) will have the same delay, which isn’t likely desirable. 

The Settings of the Delay and What They Do

Like most guitar pedals, the delay pedal has a variety of settings that will allow you to utilize the pedal according to your needs. While some delay pedals offer more settings, there generally tend to be at least three settings on a delay pedal.

  • The Effect knob is what determines how much delay is in your signal. Turning the knob all the way up will make your signal 100% wet. Likewise, turning the knob all the way down will make your signal dry, having no delay effect whatsoever. It is best to experiment to determine where to set the Effect knob accordingly, as having it 100% one way or the other may not be compatible with the song structure you are working with.
  • The Feedback knob determines how many times your guitar signal is fed back into the pedal circuits to be repeated. Having the Feedback knob turned low will ensure that your echoes end in a shorter period, whereas having the Feedback knob turned all the way up will make your signal echo indefinitely. As with the Effect knob, some experimentation is needed here to determine where exactly to set the function for its desired utility.
  • The Delay Time knob determines the rate at which your delay pedal releases the echo of your input. Having the Delay Time turned down will make the pedal release the echoes in short spurts. Similarly, having the knob turned up will release the echoes with a more noticeable time gap in between the echoes. On average, delay pedals offer time rates of 50 milliseconds up to 2600 milliseconds, though some pedals may offer more than this. 

Quite often, a delay pedal will offer a tap-tempo function to ensure that the rate of your echoes matches the desired tempo. Some pedals will also offer preset delay settings that take on the character of tape delays and the ability to save settings into a bank for easy recall. Each of these settings tends to work in tandem with each other, so experimentation with this pedal is critical (and it can be fun, too). 

Ways to Utilize a Delay Pedal in Your Playing 

One of the most beautiful things about the delay pedal (aside from how it sounds) is the innumerable ways it can be utilized with guitar playing. A delay can add a unique flavor to a guitar’s sound, sometimes to the point of being the basis for entire songs or, dare we say, some guitarists’ careers. 

One of the most common ways to utilize the delay is for a slapback delay. By setting the delay with a short delay time, a small amount of feedback, and the effect knob about halfway, the delay creates a unique sounding effect nearly reminiscent of a reverb. This type of sound can be a very tasteful and functional tone that can find its place in music without taking over the sonic palette of a song/band. 

Delay pedals can also provide that extra oomph (in addition to an overdrive/distortion) to make your guitar leads sound soaring and heavenly. It can also give more sustain to your leads, helping your notes ring out. Having all the knobs set at about 50% with a medium delay time will help you achieve this function, though you are encouraged to experiment and adjust according to what satisfies your ears the best.

A cascading delay is also another famous delay pedal effect. This essentially uses two delay pedals next to each other in a signal chain, though a higher-end dual delay pedal can usually create this effect on its own. One pedal is set with about medium delay time, and the feedback is set in the ballpark of 30%. This pedal then feeds into the next delay pedal, usually set with a slightly shorter delay time and about 20% less feedback than the previous pedal. 

As mentioned, experimenting with this pedal can create insanely weird sounds. Turning the feedback knob up can cause the pedal to oscillate, which can then be modulated and warped in pitch using the delay time knob. Oscilated delays can produce bizarre-sounding rhythmic loops. Your neighbors or family may think a UFO has landed on their house, so be prepared! Of course, these are just three examples you can use.

Examples of a Delay Pedal Being Used

One of the most famous guitarists known for using a delay pedal is The Edge, from the band U2. He frequently uses the cascading delay effect, which has become a staple in the band’s sound. An example of the utilization of this effect can be heard in the song “Where The Streets Have No Name.”

David Gilmour of Pink Floyd has been an avid user of delay pedals, helping his guitar solos achieve that soaring god-like tone that he has come to be known for. In the song “Run Like Hell,” the delay pedal can be heard immediately in the intro, taking Gilmour’s slight guitar inflections and carrying them off into a trail of echoes. 

Speaking of echoes, the Pink Floyd song “Echoes” is also a wonderful example of Gilmour’s usage of the delay pedal. The delay pedal in this song takes Gilmour’s playing into ethereal realms, adding an airy quality to his leads (as opposed to “Run Like Hell,” which features a more tremolo-like delay effect). 

Tom Morello is a guitarist who is famous for his expertise in utilizing effects pedals in unique ways. Nearly every song that Tom Morello plays features a different sound using a combination of pedals and settings derived from what has to be a painstaking amount of experimenting. The song “Cochise” by Audioslave is an excellent example of using a delay pedal. 

A well-known track from the New Wave era of music in the 1980s that features a delay pedal is “I Ran (So Far Away)” by A Flock of Seagulls. The delay pedal is so integral to the guitar part of this song that it is almost unfathomable to think about what it would sound like without delay.

Live Delay

Let’s look at Phish’s performance of “Carini” to see how delay can be used in a live performance. This performance was recorded on July 30, 2021, at Oak Mountain Amphitheater, in Pelham, Alabama. Phish is a band well-known for mastering improvising and playing off one another. After the 16:15 timestamp, you will hear guitarist Trey Anastasio utilize his delay pedal to drive his guitar part and help carry this particular jam in a certain direction. You can see Anastasio using a tap-tempo a couple of minutes before that specific timestamp.


The delay effect has undoubtedly come a long way from its origin, evolving with the help of technological advances. What used to be an effect only used in the studio has now found its way into a stomp box. The delay pedal has found its place in music, creating iconic tones and pushing the envelope of what can be done. 

While a few primary control knobs can control it, the delay pedal can give you some fantastic sounds ranging from the classic slapback delay to an airy, soaring delay that adds sustain to your leads, to a long cascading delay type. It can also just be weird, which is part of the fun of using a delay.

So, do you need a delay pedal? You can only answer that question. However, acquiring one will likely find a deserving place in your signal chain. It is almost guaranteed that you will have fun experimenting with all the different possibilities that the delay pedal can produce.

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Categorized as Pedals