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I'm pretty new to electric guitar (but an experienced acoustic player). It seems delay is used virtually everywhere both in clean setups and distorted rigs, but when I try to combine delay with something like an Orange amp sound, it tends to go really ugly to my ear - similar to if I just strum 6-string chords through such a setup.

What am I doing wrong? How should I combine delay and non-clean setups effectively? I'm looking for an answer to cover things like pedal order, delay length, and playing style since I guess they all have a big impact.

Just one example: The intro to Rope by Foo Fighters has substantial delay and distortion but still sounds very clean and crisp.

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When your effects are adding to the sound, you need to balance that by subtracting something in your playing.

So for example, when heavy distortion is adding loads of new frequencies, playing two-note chords is the difference between a nice crunchy rock chord, and a mushy fuzz.

With delay, you need to leave room in your playing, for the delayed sounds. It's quite comon to hear monophonic solos with heavy delays. Long sustained notes leave room for the delay to be heard.

In your example, they're playing staccato chords. They're muting before the first echo comes in, and the echoes fade away before they play another stab. Each echo has its own space in which to be heard.

  • I see what you're saying but if you're not playing anything so the echo is not conflicting with other notes, why not just play the echo 'manually'? In my example I don't know that would work but playing single notes you could sure just double-pick each string? – Mr. Boy Dec 9 '14 at 13:50
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    By double-picking You'd never get it to sound quite like a delay, fading away each echo. I'm not saying you should always leave silence for the delayed sound - just a space where it fits. Listen to 80s U2 for how he makes complex parts from simple fingering + delay. – slim Dec 9 '14 at 14:08
  • @Mr.Boy There are also delays that add modulation (e.g. chorus) or other effects (e.g. reverse), ping-pong stereo delays, dynamic delays that get louder as you play less, etc. - you can't simulate all of those by playing alone! – jonrsharpe Dec 9 '14 at 14:24
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    You should know the difference between analog and digital delay. In my experience digital delay is cleaner reflecting the exact sound and analog will add modulation. You can control the modulation to get wild sounds on the delayed note. If you are looking for exact duplication, use digital delay. – r lo Dec 9 '14 at 14:28
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My answer to your question is to use delay through effects loop to cut down on the unwanted sounds. I have had the same problem and found out that the effects loop will work if you use the amps distortion. If you use pedals for distortion, use the delay after the distortion pedal.

I also noticed many guitar parts don't use delay as much as I thought. Reverb is used on many parts for space and not delay.

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    Can you go into a bit more detail for noobs like me what precisely "use delay through effects loop". Interesting idea to put the pedal after other things though. I actually use a modelled amp so could I put my delay after the amp? – Mr. Boy Dec 9 '14 at 14:35
  • This is partly a matter of the tone you want. Imagining a simple digital delay that just gets quieter each time, before the preamp you will get less distorted repeats (as the repeats drive the preamp less hard than the original signal) but more crosstalk between the repeats and whatever's currently being played, after the preamp (in the effects loop) you will get the same amount of distortion, just quieter. – jonrsharpe Dec 9 '14 at 14:37
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    If you're using a modeled amp, put the delay after the amp. You want to repeat the distorted signal, and not distort the repeated signal. The first will sound cleaner, the latter more "chaotic" for lack of a better word. – nwinkler Dec 9 '14 at 15:40
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EDIT: Learn what kind of FX loop your amp has. If it is parallel consider the advice below.

If your amp has a parallel FX loop, I would recommend using the delay pedal in there. An amp basically works like this, please excuse the crudeness:

GUITAR -----> PREAMP SPLIT 1 ----------------- (wah/distortion/etc)-----------------> POWERAMP JOINS

PREAMP SPLIT 2 --> FXSEND --> (Delay/Chorus/Phaser/Flanger etc) --> FXRETURN --> POWERAMP

Lots of guitar players prefer to have their delay/chorus/etc unaffected by the pedals they run in the front of their amp (volume/compression/wah/distortion/etc). Routing a guitar rig in this manner allows the pedals in the FX loop to sound more clear and not be obfuscated by the pedals in front of the amp (a separation of concerns, if you will).

A simple example: you wouldn't want to distort delayed signal (guitar--delay--distortion); you want the distorted signal to be delayed (guitar--distortion--delay). A parallel FX loop does just that!

You should see two input jacks on the back of your amp labeled (FX SEND and FX RETURN). If you wanted to use a Delay in this, you would need an extra pair of cables, but you would route it like so:

FXSEND --(instrument cable)--> Delay/Chorus/Etc --(instrument cable)--> FXRETURN

Since a delay pedal doesn't have a litany of knobs, I'd recommend tinkering around until you find that "neat" sound. Knowing how to use a pedal on the fly can help a ton during a gig! (Plus, like you have stated..it is fun!)

This is a great article to pad your understanding: http://www.jamplay.com/articles/5-guides/182-signal-chain-a-look-at-effects-routing-part-1

  • "you wouldn't want your delay pedal to work on distorted signal" - if that were the case, you'd put it before the input, not in the loop. "have their delay/chorus/etc unaffected by the pedals they run in the front of their amp" - then they should put them before those pedals - the loop is after those pedals, so will certainly be affected by them. – jonrsharpe Dec 9 '14 at 15:47
  • I should clarify I was talking about a parallel FX loop, not a serial FX loop. In the case of a serial FX loop, all of your points would be correct. In the case of a parallel FX loop, the FX loop is simply the guitar signal from the preamp isolated from the pedals in front of the amp (hence parallel). The signal in your FX loop is manipulated by the pedals in the chain and summed with the signal in front of the amp. In this case, you get a "wet" tone with delay summed with "dry" tone with the pedals in front. – piofusco Dec 9 '14 at 16:12
  • I didn't say the parallel signal wasn't post-preamp. – piofusco Dec 9 '14 at 16:16
  • (Apologies, I initially misread your comment.) "the guitar signal from the preamp isolated from the pedals in front of the amp" - no, that's incorrect, there's no way for the amp to isolate those pedals. The parallel part refers to being parallel to a second, direct preamp-power amp connection allowing you to blend (or bypass) the pedals in the loop. Series or parallel, the tone at the loop includes the preamp and all (active) pedals before the amp input. – jonrsharpe Dec 9 '14 at 16:17
  • Isolated was poor word choice. I stand corrected and learned something. Thank you. The pedals in front of the amp are never isolated from FX loop. I have edited my post to note this correction - I believe it is still helpful to the OP. – piofusco Dec 9 '14 at 16:40
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99% of the time you will want:

Guitar -> Distortion -> Delay -> Amplifier

(This could be a distortion pedal and delay pedal into a clean amp)

Or

Guitar -> Preamp -> Delay -> Power Amplifier

(This could be an amp with an fx loop, with the preamp providing the distortion and the delay pedal or rack into the fx loop)

Here's why having a delay before the distortion is usually not what you want:

  1. Distortion acts like compression. If you pluck a note hard with distortion on, you will get a highly saturated distorted sound at a certain volume. If you pluck that same note a little softer you will typically get a note at the same volume, but less saturated. The volume does not drop off until you begin to pluck so lightly that no distortion effect is present. When you use a delay you typically want the echoes to be quite a bit less volume than the original note and to trail off over time. Distortion applied after the delay will give you echoes at the same volume but with decreasing saturation. So you'll have no tonal consistency between echoes, AND you're main line of playing will be drowned out by the echoes.
  2. If you play two notes, e.g. an A and a C on separate guitars that each have distortion (e.g. if you are playing with a friend) it will sound a lot different from playing those notes at the same time on one guitar with a distorted sound. Two notes mixed together and distorted together sound different from two notes individually distorted and then mixed afterwards. If you are using a delay before a distortion you are essentially creating the same circumstances but with many notes mixed together and then distorted together. It's a recipe for a pretty chaotic sound. If you have the delay after the distortion phase, you are essentially distorting each note separately and mixing them later in your signal chain, this sounds a lot clearer.

Having said that you can do some cool stuff by putting delay first. Try using a fairly short delay, say 50-100 milliseconds, set it to repeat only once and then run that into a distortion pedal or preamp. This will give you a fairly smooth sound if you play a note and hold it, but if you bend that note it will really start to scream until you hold the note steady again.

Other effects that you will usually want to run after your distortion stage:

  • Reverb
  • Chorus
  • Intelligent harmonizers
  • Volume pedal

Effects that you will usually want to run before your distortion stage:

  • Wah
  • Voice Box
  • Whammy pedal
  • Phaser
  • Flanger

The only real rule is what sounds best to you.

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