- What Does a Delay Pedal Do?
- What to Look for in a Delay Pedal
- How Did We Choose the Winners?
- 5 Best Delay Pedals
- Honorable Mentions
Want to stir up a lively discussion and hear about a hundred opinions? Ask a group of guitar players what the best delay pedal is! Want to stir the pot some more? Ask them which is better, analog or digital delay... ;-)
Jokes aside, we’re here to help you figure out what the best guitar delay pedals are. If you’re thinking, “there is no such thing as the best pedal…” you are correct. Variety is the spice of a musician’s life, and there are dozens of great pedal options no matter what type of pedal you’re looking for. We aim to provide you with five “you can’t go wrong with ‘em” delay pedal choices for different types of guitar players with varying budgets. Before going into our top 5 recommendations, we’ll go over some delay pedal basics, and tell you how we did our research to come up with our list.
So, What Does a Delay Pedal Do?
We’re confident in saying a delay pedal should be one of the first two or three pedals in your arsenal. The only pedal we probably recommend buying before a delay is a tuner pedal. You could make the argument between a delay and a distortion pedal, although we like this quote we found from a member of reddit:
“A great and versatile delay can make almost every soundscape you wish to explore.”
Though the means of achieving the effect can get a bit complicated at times, the actual function of a delay pedal is pretty simple. Essentially, all the pedal really does is play back the notes that you’ve played. A good example of this effect would be something like guitar riff in the opening of Sublime’s April 26, 1992 or the majority of the lead guitar work of U2’s guitarist The Edge.
However, this effect also has a few other interesting uses. For example, when set to more subtle settings delay can work wonders in filling out your lead tone for solos. This technique is actually commonly used in almost every genre, though it seems to be most common in country.
Also, a delay pedal opens up a lot of interesting uses when used as a way to enhance rhythm guitar work. For example, when using Jimi Hendrix-esque barre chords (F-Major shape with the thumb wrapped around the neck to hit the bass note on the 6th string) you can have a sound almost similar to a bass player and rhythm guitar player working in close conjunction. That technique offers up a lot of flexibility in what your rhythm section can accomplish, as it gives the bass guitarist more room to emphasize certain intervals in the song.
What to Look for in a Delay Pedal
While the things that apply to shopping for other pedals apply here as well (build quality, size, features, cost), perhaps the biggest consideration is akin to one of the greatest debates in audio of all time; analog vs digital.
Analog vs Digital Delay: As you probably guessed, this has to do with the circuitry that’s causing the delay to happen.
Digital Delay is controlled by a computer chip, i.e. pure logic, 1’s and 0’s. It’s a more perfect delay, since it’s algorithmic. Digital adds no coloration to the sound. Whether this is a good or bad thing depends on the guitarist; sometimes we want a pure unadulterated sound, and sometimes we want some dirt and artifacts. Objectively, the benefits of digital delays are much longer delay times, and more versatility, i.e. the delays can be processed with other effects like reverse echo, stereo delay, tap tempo, looping, etc.
Analog Delays have more character, but are less perfect. If you think of the delay time as a clock, every repeat of the sound reuses the previous repeat, thus potentially introducing coloration and imperfections. Also, delay times are going to be shorter. Some guitar players seek this out, claiming analog delays have, “natural dark and murky warmth to them that really thickens up your signal.” Depending what signal you are feeding into your delay pedal, you might want to avoid analog. For instance, if you’re feeding it a big/thick or distorted sound, the harmonics will have to be reproduced on every repeat, and this can cause some unpleasant results.
It comes down to personal taste, and your existing rig. If you have a relatively clean signal and don’t need an immensely long delay, analog might be preferable since it will add some character and warmth. If on the other hand you want long delays, or are feeding a very dirty signal into your delay pedal, you might opt for a digital delay that won’t introduce any unwanted surprises with every repeat. Still not satisfied? We go into more depth on this topic in this article and video.
Versatility: An analog delay pedal tends to be simpler, i.e. it just serves as a delay pedal. Digital delay pedals have the advantage of offering more features - looping, reverse, tap tempo to name a few. This is exactly why you’ll often see guitarists recommend that you have both types of delay pedals on your pedalboard; analog for quality and warmth, and digital for the versatility and bells & whistles.
Build Quality and Size: How important delay is to your style and sound will dictate if you need to pay close attention to build quality and size of the pedal. As with any pedal you shop for, if you’re going to be playing live and stomping on it night after night you’ll want to make sure it can take a good beating and remain functional. A less robust build quality usually means a much more affordable pedal, so make sure that’s something you really require. Regarding size, the more feature-laden a delay pedal is, the larger it will be, and typically more expensive. One of the pedals we recommend actually comes in three different size variations.
Cost: Unfortunately we don’t all have the budget to throw a Strymon El Capistan on our pedalboard. Price can often be the deciding factor, so we made sure to select pedals in different price ranges. Whether you’re looking for a starter delay pedal, or something to invest in and keep on your pedalboard for years to come, we’ve got you covered with some options.
How Did We Choose the Winners?
We completely realize that it’s impossible for any one person to decide what the “best” delay pedal is. In our research, we looked at forums like reddit, Gearslutz, Telecaster Guitar Forum, etc. and kept a tally of what delay pedals people are recommending, and made sure to note when they were the best for a certain use-case (e.g. best digital delay, best delay pedal under $100, etc). We then tallied up the results in a master list, and ordered the top 12 (actually we only had to buy 8 of them since between us we already owned 4).
From there, we spent several days testing all the pedals in our studio. We tested them in isolation, with other effects, and with several different guitars and amps. We then gathered everyone’s opinion ... and voilà! That’s how our top 5 list was born.
A note on prices: The Strymon El Capistan did indeed fall in our original top 5 list, however we decided to leave it off. The $370+ price tag is simply too much to swallow for most guitarists. Strymon makes fantastic boutique pedals, but we felt it was too much of an outlier. Our recommendations are in the $35 - $200 range.
The Top 5 Delay Pedals
Without further ado, here are our selections for the best delay pedals.
MXR M169 Carbon Copy
Delay Type: Analog Delay
Max Delay Time: 600ms
The MXR Carbon Copy is the undisputed champion when it comes to total number of recommendations for a delay pedal. Right away it’s worth mentioning that this is a no-frills true analog delay pedal, and an outstanding one at that. Why no-frills? As we covered earlier, with analog pedals you tend to give up the bells and whistles like looping and tap tempo (the lack of tap tempo is probably the biggest gripe we came across for this pedal).
This is absolutely a pedal for those who appreciate analog tone. Owners of this pedal describe the sound as “organic,” “lush,” “full,” “subtle,” and having “warm tonal characteristics.” With the Carbon Copy you get up to 600 milliseconds of delay time. From a usability standpoint, people like the relatively large size of the knobs, making it easy to dial in settings with your toe as you’re playing. And speaking of control, there are 3 knobs to play with: REGEN controls the amount of delay/repeats, MIX controls the level of delay, and DELAY controls the rate (there is also a MOD button which toggles the modulation feature). Build quality is great; MXR knows what they’re doing in this department.
Of course, it’s not perfect. Analog delay is not for everyone. Some people might prefer the clearer and crisper tone a digital delay such as the Boss DD-3 provides. Analog delay is susceptible to coloration, since every repeat of the sound reuses the previous repeat. One reddit user noted:
“One downfall may be that the repeats lose their gusto after 4 or 5. If you dig lots of repeats it may be an issue.”
For as good of a pedal as the Carbon Copy is, the price is not at all unreasonable. While not in the super-budget range, keep in mind you’re paying for a pedal that is widely regarded as the best analog delay pedal, and has found its way onto countless pedalboards of the pros. Billie Joe Armstrong, Billy Gibbons, Zakk Wylde, and Brad Paisley have made room on their pedalboard for the Carbon Copy.
With dozens of positive endorsements by owners of this pedal in forums, 220+ Amazon reviews and a near-perfect 4.5 star rating, and overwhelming approval from our panel of reviewers, the MXR Carbon Copy is a no-brainer for our Best of the Best.
Line 6 DL4
Delay Type: Digital Delay + Looper
Max Delay Time: 14 seconds
The Line 6 DL4 has the distinction of being the most highly recommended digital delay pedal, and the second-most recommended delay overall. Remember how we said digital delays offer more versatility? No pedal showcases this better than the DL4. Part delay pedal, part looper, this is arguably Line 6’s most successful effect pedal. If you’re the type of person to look at the pedalboards of the pros, you don’t have to look long before spotting one of these green boxes in the wild (John Mayer, Coldplay's Jonny Buckland, John Frusciante, Joe Perry, and Thom Yorke all use it, to name a few).
They call this a “delay modeler,” which means that because of the digital circuitry, it is able to model or replicate 15 vintage delay and echo effects (the left-most knob on this unit lets you select what delay to model). Sure, a purist in a studio setting might be able to tell that the DL4 does not replicate the true warmth and character of vintage analog delays… and if you’re that type of player, we suggest you own a true analog delay like the MXR Carbon Copy. The majority opinion is that the Line 6 DL4 is a fantastic sounding delay unit, and does justice to the delays it attempts to replicate.
The enclosure is rather large so be mindful of how much space you have on your pedalboard; but for the versatility it offers, it’s a small price to pay. Not only are all of the presets customizable with the DELAY TIME, REPEATS, TWEAK, AND TWEEZ knobs, but you have 3 programmable preset slots to save your custom settings, tap tempo, and an outstanding loop function (labeled the Loop Sampler).
It’s worth talking about the Loop Sampler - you get 14 seconds of memory to record your guitar playing, and loop it over and over. For instance, you can record a rhythm part, and play lead over it as it loops. You can continue to overdub more and more on your original loop, essentially becoming a one-man-band. While it’s not a perfect looper, and some users complain that the 14 seconds is a little short, it’s generally great for most users, and will save you from buying a separate looper pedal.
To address some of the negative feedback we uncovered, some users complain that the stomp switches are not the most sturdy. We personally own one of these, and in years of use we’ve never had a problem (granted we don’t abuse our pedals to the max). Another gripe is the price, which some users feel is a bit on the high end. It’s by no means budget-priced, but we think considering how many features you get, the price is justified.
Note: If you decide on the Line 6 DL4, you’ll need to buy the separate Line 6 PX-2 Power Supply, found here.
TC Electronic Flashback 2 Delay
Delay Type: Digital Delay + Looper
Max Delay Time: 6 seconds (40 seconds with the Flashback X4, and 7 seconds with the Flashback Mini)
If you like the idea of a DL4 but find it to be a little over budget, you need to take a close look at the TC Electronic Flashback 2 Delay and Looper Effect Pedal. As with the DL4, versatility is the name of the game, and TC Electronic delivers in a big way. An important thing to note is that the Flashback actually comes in 3 flavors. The most recommended version happens to be the middle one, the Flashback 2 Delay and Looper. If you don’t need the looper functionality, then we strongly suggest you go with the budget-friendly Flashback Mini. Conversely, if you want more features and have the cash to spare, you’ll want to look at the larger Flashback X4.
The TC Electronic Flashback 2 is the second iteration of the super popular original Flashback delay pedal, and has all the features of its predecessor plus a few cool new ones, most notably the MASH footswitch control (more on that shortly). You can think of the Flashback 2 as a more compact Line 6 DL4. The lower right knob lets you select between seven built-in delay types: 2290, Analog, Tape, Dynamic, Modulation, Crystal (which has this shimmery/spacey thing going on), and Reverse; the 2290 setting is particularly highly praised as a fantastic clean delay. One feature that makes the Flashback stand out from the DL4 is the TonePrint feature. All three versions of this pedal can be plugged into your computer via USB, and you can load in different delay settings supposedly made by the pros themselves. To get an idea of the various TonePrints available for the Flashback 2 Delay, go here. This feature could have definitely been a hindrance if not implemented correctly, but the majority opinion is that TC Electronic did a great job with it. Want a delay custom-made by Steve Morse or Omar Rodríguez-López? Plug in your pedal via USB, download the TonePrint, and start playing. It’s very easy and intuitive to use. You have three TonePrint slots available in this pedal, so while you’re playing you can switch between the three, as well as the normal built-in delay settings of course.
The looper is not quite as good as the DL4’s. Think of it more as a bonus, rather than a core feature. The strength of the Flashback is the tonal versatility; there are definitely much better loopers out there. If looping is important to you, the relatively low price tag of the Flashback should leave you with cash leftover to grab a TC Electronic Ditto. That said, this pedal offers a generous 40 seconds of loop time.
The MASH feature is pretty interesting, and while your milage may vary in terms of how practical it is, we sure had fun playing with it. If you give the pedal’s footswitch a quick tap, it turns the pedal on and off (like any other stompbox). However, if you apply sustained pressure to the footswitch, it basically acts like an expression pedal. There’s an LED in the middle of the pedal that shines brighter the more pressure you apply, which in turn modulates the current delay sound more and more. It does some pretty cool things like infinitely hold your last delay repetition, change the pitch of the delays, apply a synth-like shimmer, and all sorts of other crazy modulations.
One minor annoyance of the Flashback 2 is tap-tempo is not built in - or rather, it’s not fully self contained. When you’re running the pedal mono, you’re able to use the stereo input jack to plug in a footswitch for tap-tempo.
As far as digital delays go, the sound quality of the TC Electronic Flashback is one of the best. It has made its way onto the pedalboards of the stars, including Joe Perry, Albert Lee, Troy Van Leeuwen, and Steve Morse. As one reviewer puts it:
“I absolutely love mine. It has a slapback mode which is very easy to get a great sound out of, as well as a lot of other cool and useful modes including: analog, modulated, reverse, and tape to name my favorites.”
Bottom line: If you want a versatile digital delay and decent looper, grab the Flashback 2. If you can do without the looper but still love the idea of a digital delay (and want to take advantage of the TonePrint feature), you’ll save about $50 by going with the Flashback Mini. If budget is not an issue and you want a slightly more modern and superior sounding version of the DL4, we suggest you go with the Flashback X4.
Donner Yellow Fall Delay
Delay Type: Digital Delay, disguised as an Analog Delay (not 100% sure here)
Max Delay Time: 620ms
Some players are just looking for a simple, great sounding delay pedal with a small footprint that won’t break the bank. We were very happy to see several recommendations for the Donner Yellow Fall Delay. For as good as this thing sounds, you won’t believe the price. You just can’t beat this for a simple delay.
You get 3 knobs to play with: ECHO which controls the wet/dry mix, TIME lets you select 20-620ms delays, and FEEDBACK for the length of repetitions. Unfortunately the Echo and Feedback knobs are too small to be manipulated with your feet as you’re playing. This pedal is marketed as “True Bypass,” meaning it should not color your signal when inactive. Despite this claim, some users reported a slight bit of coloration. There are some pedals out there which are truly transparent True Bypass, but for this price point you can’t expect perfection.
Some users have reported that this is not a true analog delay pedal, but rather a digital recreation. Still, it has drawn some comparisons to the analog tone of the MXR Carbon Copy, which is very high praise considering you can buy 4 of these for the price of one of those! Whether it’s true analog or not, it tends to sound darker than most digital delays, and the repeats are prone to artifacts from harmonic distortion, meaning Donner did a very good job with the sound.
We fell in love with this little pedal and bought one after watching this great video review. The lowest price we can find is definitely on Amazon, so we suggest getting it from there. Coming in at a price way below the next-priciest on our top 5 list, and sporting a killer sound in a robust enclosure, we think this makes the perfect Bang for the Buck choice.
Boss DD-3 Digital Delay
Delay Type: Digital Delay
Max Delay Time: 800ms
Sometimes, less is more. That’s exactly the case with the Boss DD-3 Digital Delay Pedal. Boss has quite a lineup of the DD series of delay pedals - DD-2, DD-3, DD-5, DD-6, DD-7, DD-20... enough choices to make your head spin. We’ll simplify it for you and tell you that the Boss DD-3 got the most recommendations out of all of them (the DD-7 was a close second, and is featured below in our honorable mentions list).
Simple, effective, and indestructible, the DD-3 offers a great sounding delay up to 800ms. You actually get the choice of a Short (50ms), Medium (200mx), or Long (800ms) delay. There is also a hold function which users don’t particularly find useful.
The DD-3 is a mainstay on pro pedalboards - Dave Grohl, Slash, Joe Bonamassa, and Brad Paisley are amongst noted users of this workhorse digital delay pedal.
Bottom line: Go with the Boss DD-3 if you subscribe to the “less is more” philosophy with your gear. If a digital delay is what you’re after but you require more bells and whistles, then perhaps the TC Electronic Flashback Mini will suit you better. Otherwise, the Boss DD-3 is a fantastic choice, and will last you a lifetime because of the legendary Boss build quality.
Note: Feeling adventurous? You can look around the used market for a DD-3 modified by Keeley Electronics. They will mod it for you by adding a 3-way selector switch. You’ll still be able to use it in its original mode, and you’ll have two modes which emulate more of an analog feel. The best of both worlds! Alternatively, look around on eBay for a MIJ (Made in Japan) version of this pedal, which some purists say sounds a little better than the current Made in Taiwan version, though the jury seems to be out on whether there’s truly a difference worth paying a bit more for.
We’re very proud of the hours of research and testing we did, so we feel like we should share with you some of the delay pedals we were impressed with that didn’t quite make the top 5.
Strymon El Capistan dTape Echo
Delay Type: Digital Delay + Looper
The outstanding Strymon El Capistan actually did make our top 5, but we opted to leave it out due to its budget-un-friendly price tag. However if you have the cash for it, it’s widely regarded as one of the more pristine sounding, feature-rich delay pedals out there.
Delay Type: Digital Delay + Looper
Delay Type: Digital Delay + Looper
Electro-Harmonix Deluxe Memory Boy
Delay Type: Analog Delay
Boss DD-7 Digital Delay
Delay Type: Digital Delay + Looper
How do you think we did with our research? If there you have any experiences with delay pedals or opinions you’d like to share, feel free to tell us all about it in the comments section below.