Know by various names, guitar loop pedals or loopers are those pedals that let you record parts of a song and then play it back. If you ever wondered what a loop pedal is (also known as loopers) and how they work, this post will help get you up to speed.
Loop pedals are essential for almost all guitarists, whether soloing or playing with a band, and they’re also a powerful practice tool.
Loopers allow players to layer guitar parts on top of one another, but there is much more to them than just that. When used with additional pedals and effects, loopers can also enhance the sound of a guitar.
Many easy-to-use looper pedals allow for editing and remixing of the layers. This is helpful in post-production to fix mistakes and create new layers on the fly without breaking the flow. With guitars, vocals, synthesizers, samples, or other instruments, they can create rich soundscapes.
Looper Pedal History
Les Paul – Multitrack Looping
In 1953, Les Paul and his wife, Mary Ford, demonstrated a fascinating new machine on Alistair Cook’s TV program ‘Omnibus.’ They recorded guitar and vocal tracks, replaying them and adding harmonies to those layers. This was one of the first instances of multi-track machines, allowing one to play multiple guitar melodies and vocal harmonies almost instantaneously. Many consider their performance as an early example of live looping.
Known for his work with the band King Crimson, Robert Fripp, in 1972, popularized the ‘Frippertronics’: a tape looping method. He met Brian Eno, and this resulted in the album ‘No Pussyfooting’ the following year. During the recording sessions for this album, they routed the recording head of a ReVox tape to the playback head of a second one. This was then connected back to the first tape. Playing and recording over this constantly lead to short delay loops. What they did was essentially create loops that could either be bypassed or looped. Fripp played his guitar parts over these, allowing them to either add to the loop or play over what was now a backing track. No Pussyfooting thus spearheaded the birth and the growth of ambient music and was seminal in the development of live looping as we know it today.
First Roland Loopers
By the early 1980s, companies like Roland introduced digital delays such as the SDE 3000 in 1981 and the PCM-42 in 1982, making it possible to take over the tape function. But these early machines had their limitations. Although it was possible to change the lengths of the loops, it was challenging to match a rhythm to longer loops because they were not very intuitive.
Paradis LOOP Delay
The Paradis LOOP Delay, the first dedicated loop machine, was manufactured in 1992 and later revamped as the Echoplex Digital Pro in 1994. But unfortunately, it did not have many takers at the time since live looping performances as we know them today did not exist.
It was at the onset of the new millennium that looper pedals slowly started to gain popularity as brands such as Digitech and Roland introduced models that were efficient and yet at the same time affordable for musicians to be able to use at home or in their live performances.
How Does a Loop Pedal Work?
Most Loop Pedals will use standard ¼ inch TRS jacks to use with an instrument cable. Some models will also have XLR inputs for connecting microphones.
The audio will record in WAV format and get stored on the device. Some loop pedals have an external memory card that you can plug into a computer to edit further. While some loop pedals have limited memory, others will let you store samples in large numbers.
Parts of a Looper
There are many different kinds of loop pedals in the market, and they all vary when it comes to features and price. It essentially all boils down to what you are looking for.
The simple ones will have a footswitch programmed for many different functions such as record, overdub, playback, undo, redo, etc., and also a volume knob to adjust the level.
More complex ones will have built-in grooves, expandable storage, stereo outputs and inputs, and even USB connectivity.
Where To Place Loopers In Your Signal Chain
Since the looper is a recording device and not an effects pedal you should place it at the very end of the chain or in the effects loop of your amp. But putting loop pedals before your reverb or delay can also yield unusual and exciting sounds. It is essential that there is no noise in your chain, or else the looper will capture and play that back too.
Live Loop Example
For his performance at the Glastonbury Festival in 2017, Ed Sheeran did the unthinkable. He got on stage as one of the headlining acts with not much more than his guitar and his looper pedal. But this was enough to still sound larger than life for an audience that grand. Even though his one-man-band artistry may not be for you, there is no denying that a looper is a great tool to have at your disposal.
Lets break down the performance into simple terms. He starts by recording a groove pattern into his looper using the guitar’s body. As the groove plays, he records two vocal harmonies and then a guitar strum. The looper lets him play around with these layers as he takes the time to sing and play other parts and interact with the audience. He switches the different loops on and off and can thus create an entire performance that feels organic and interactive.
This is how a looper or a loop pedal works.
Notable Artists Who Use A Loop Pedal
Artists continue to push boundaries and explore the possibilities of what can be done with just a looper.
KT Tunstall was one of the first artists to put her looper to good use in the live performances of her song ‘Black Horse And The Cherry Tree.’ Her loopers of choice have been the Boss RC-30 and the Akai E2 Headrush.
Kurt Vile uses his looper also as a sampler, and he generally uses a Line6 DL-4 or the Boss RC-30.
Tim Reynolds, the guitar player for Dave Matthews Band, is known for using his Boss DD-5 and the Line6 DLF4, not just for his work with the band but also for his solo act.
What Kind of Music Is a Loop Pedal Good For?
While a looper is an excellent tool for solo performers such as singer-songwriters, it can also be used to layer sounds and make innovative new textures in a song even when other musicians are playing with you. Since its uses are not restricted to any genre, many musicians use them in many different ways. Live loop performances have now become a genre, with artists like Tash Sultana forging their unique sound and style through the use of a loop station. Additionally, not just guitars but many vocalists/singers also use one to fatten their voice by adding harmonies or simply creating unique new melodies in real-time during live performances. A looper gives a solo performer the ability to sound nearly as big as a band without involving other people.
Do You Need a Looper?
Now that you have a fair idea of what a loop pedal is and how they work, the next big question to ask yourself is if you need one.
A looper is for you if you plan to use it to rehearse. This is an excellent tool for practice if you enjoy playing by yourself at home but also need something more vibrant than a metronome to keep time. On the flip side, this is a hard pedal to manage if you do not have time to understand how it works and rehearse with it before you get comfortable enough to use it live. Unlike effect pedals, not knowing how to control it or not being precise with your playing can land you in hot water.
Live Performance Looping
Since many of them come with multibank, in a live performance, you can switch seamlessly between verse and chorus parts. This will not only enhance your live performance, but if you add an expression pedal to the mix, it will make you sound professional.
While a looper is no substitute for a band, it is an excellent tool to have if you enjoy creating complex and intricate grooves and melodies and play or sing all the parts in unison.
Often, songwriters and guitar players like to have a tool at their disposal that will record their ideas when they are noodling around during practice. Having yourself plugged into a recording setup every time you play is not the most practical. So a looper is a great thing to have if you have a melody or a song idea that you want to quickly record and eventually get back to when you are sitting down and revisiting the piece.
If you do get a loop pedal, remember what it was invented for in the first place. Do not be afraid to unleash your creativity, so do not limit yourself. The best thing about a looper is that you can always undo and re-record if you do not like what you hear!
Loopers have come a long way since their invention, and as they get more and more complex and multi-faceted, it is essential to choose one that best fits your needs. The great thing about having one is that you can lose yourself entirely for hours playing and perfecting your craft. So whether you are thinking about getting something that will help you layer your guitar parts or a songwriting tool that will help you with rhythm as well, a looper is always a fun pedal to have in one’s pedalboard.