If you’re anything like me, you grew up listening to your parents playing U2, The Police, and other ‘80s bands every weekend. I was captivated by the rich, textural sounds I heard coming out of the speakers, which were so different then the in-your-face sounds of my favorite band, the very modern, in your face sounding, Foo Fighters. And thus began my infatuation with both reverb and delay, two very different, but inspiring guitar effects.
It’s actually very common for people to confuse reverb and delay, especially among new guitar players and pedal enthusiasts. Often, they are used together, meaning you can easily associate them with each other. For some, this leads to the two effects being blended into one desired tone. But don’t be fooled, reverb and delay are two separate guitar effects. Let’s dig into the specific differences.
Reverb is the natural, mechanical, or digital result of a loud sound bouncing off of the walls back to the listener. This creates a short echo that can also sound a bit like sustain. This effect dates back to the invention of musical performance, as sound would reflect off the walls of grand concert halls or a small room. When it comes to guitar effects and pedals, we have manipulated this sound, and exaggerated it, to shape our instrument in many ways. Reverb is often best described as a way to make your guitar sound more full or bigger sounding. This effect is also often built-in to amplifiers and can be considered an “always on” pedal for some players.
Delay on the other hand is an audio effect where your guitar signal is recorded and then played back after an amount of time. Delay times vary drastically, and can be a quick echo, sort of like a reverb, or the delayed signal can be repeated seconds after the original note is picked. Delay often has other effects added on top of these repeats. Sometimes it is modulation, sometimes oscillation, but most often it is changes in volume. This allows for awesome tones that ring out and fade away. Delay is often used by players to fill space, create a sense of ambience, and layer sounds. Contrary to reverb, delay isn’t considered “always on” for most players and is used for more specific purposes throughout a song.
Versatility vs Diversity
Another key difference between reverb and delay is the controls on each pedal, as well as the number of variations on each effect. Delay is best known for having 3 controls that provide a ton of sonic versatility. You’ll have control over the number of repeats you hear. A smaller number would be something like slapback delay, a sound that repeats only once or twice in quick succession. This is a popular technique for rockabilly-style and sometimes Country music as well.
Arguably more iconic is the use of many repeats, which is a sound that The Edge from U2 popularized in songs like “Where The Streets Have No Name”. In addition to repeats (also called regeneration), you’ll find a control for the delay speed or time, which shapes how quickly or slowly the pedal will repeat the signal. This can be from milliseconds to seconds after you hit a note or chord. Much of the delay pedal’s sound comes from using this control in combination with the regeneration control, letting you dial in a wide variety of sounds with only two knobs. Lastly, you’re likely to see a level or volume knob, which controls the volume of the effect. This means you can pick how loud you want the delayed signal to be in reference to your original signal. Oftentimes, this is set to be a bit quieter so that players get the sound of notes layered on top of each other.
Reverb gets way more diverse than the versatile delay controls and sounds. There are several types of reverb for guitar and bass. In fact, I could have written a whole article on just the reverb settings found on my Boss RV-6 reverb pedal! Spring reverb is one of the most beloved and well known variants, and got its start in old Fender amps. Fender would install a tank with a spring in it, whose vibrations would mimic the sound of the guitar amp bouncing off of the walls. When this spring setting is pushed to its limits, you get a sound called “drip reverb” that is an essential ingredient to surf guitar music. “Hall Reverb” is another popular take on the effect which instead focuses on capturing the sound of a guitar resonating throughout a huge concert hall and slowly fading out. My personal favorite is shimmer reverb, which adds an almost synth-like crescendo of sound in the background of your playing. Check out these examples of those three below!
Where To Put These Pedals In Your Signal Chain
While many guitarists like me don’t care much for signal chain specifics, there are some general rules to follow when running these pedals into your amp. A delay pedal should be the last pedal on your pedalboard, unless you have a loop pedal, then delay should be second to last!
So for reference, the first one in your signal chain is what your guitar cable runs into, while the last has a cable running into your amplifier. This is because you want delay to generally repeat all the sounds that come before it on your signal. If you have a drive and a chorus pedal running, you want to repeat that tone. If the chorus is after the delay, you will add chorus on top of the delayed signal. Some experimentalists may enjoy messing around with that idea, but most stick to this basic format.
Reverb generally goes right before your delay, towards the end of your signal chain as well. Some will place it behind their delay pedal, but it doesn’t really matter all that much, as both work together to create ambience and textural space. If your amp has an FX loop, delay and reverb can certainly run into there if you want a real pristine delay. This means no interference or buffering from your other pedals to get in the way of your pedals natural tone. One big rule to remember though is never put reverb before overdrive, distortion, or fuzz. You’ll thank me later, it just doesn’t sound good at all.
But guess what? Rules were meant to be broken! These are two of my favorite effects and I consider them incredibly inspirational. Grab a reverb and delay and figure out how they work for you and your musical goals. I’m sure someone will run a distortion right after a reverb and create some type of sweet, sonic madness on the next lo-fi indie hit. These are two very different pedals that can work together to do a lot of the same things. They make your guitar sound bigger, thicker, and give a three dimensional, spacey feel to your tone.
Delay and Reverb Pedal Buying Guides
To help you find the best delay and reverb pedals for your musical style, take a look at these Gearank Guides:
About the Author and Contributors
A journalist from southern Rhode Island who focuses on DIY guitar mods, gear reviews, and opinion articles and has been playing guitars since he was 14.
When he's not writing or installing P-90s into guitars, he's pursuing a graduate degree in chemical oceanography at the University of Rhode Island. Follow him on Twitter @MDunn_33.
Jason Horton - Editing and Illustrating.
Video: Produced by Matt Dunn and available under the standard YouTube License.
Main/Top Image: by Jason Horton using delay pedal images from Boss and Walrus Audio.