There's no guitar effect quite as exciting, expressive or dynamic as delay. It’s such a versatile effect. By using echo, you can completely change the timbre of a guitar part. By repeating a phrase at unity volume, you effectively have a looper at your disposal. A reverse delay, fully wet with a single repeat is an instant psych solo machine. But these are just a few of the many ideas that you can experiment with when you have one of the best delay pedals at your disposal.
Let’s put it another way; players from The Edge, to Tom Morello, to Matt Bellamy, and Johnny Greenwood would not have been able to create the music they did without delay effects.
The first echo effects used tape loops to replay the guitar signal, before bucket-brigade analogue delay pedals took over, due to greater reliability and lower cost. Modern digital delays go far beyond their ancestors, both in sound and functionality.
If you're unsure where to start, then don't worry - we've rounded-up some of the best options in this guide for you to check out. If you need more guidance, hit the ‘buying advice’ button above.
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Best delay pedals: Our top picks
If you want a no-frills analog delay pedal that doesn't cost the earth, the TC Electronic Echobrain is a good place to start. It's simple, sounds good, and even blends well with other delays and reverbs in case you later add more FX to your pedalboard, or indeed if you are looking to add a delay pedal to your current board. That said, the Electro-Harmonix Memory Boy and Boss DM-2W are both worth considering if your budget can stretch to them.
If you want a simple digital delay, then the Boss DD-3T is our top recommendation right now. The DD-3 has been a staple for three decades for a reason, and the addition of tap-tempo just makes it that much better.
If you fancy a bigger delay unit, it’s a toss up between the Boss-DD-500 or the Strymon Timeline. Without tweaking the stock sounds, we think the Strymon patches are a little better voiced, and offer more instant gratification. But on the options side, the DD-500 has comparable sound quality once dialed in, delivers a great UI with lots of options, and some market-leading stereo and parallel settings once you've updated the firmware. It's also a little cheaper, so if we had to pick only one best delay pedal out of the two, the DD-500 wins by a hair.
Best delay pedals: Product guide
The Boss DD-3 has been the staple digital delay for 30 years, and the reason is no secret - it simply sounds amazing. Pristine delays, a pleasant overall timbre, and an EQ profile that works equally well in a band context or studio mix, make this a no-brainer for everybody from bedroom musicians to pros.
With the latest update, Boss has improved the base functionality of the DD-3 by adding a tap-tempo input, allowing you to use an external tap source to control the delay.
Read the full Boss DD-3T review
If you want the analog, BBD experience but don't want to pay a premium for the privilege, then the TC Echobrain is an excellent option.
Intuitive, robust build quality and no slouch in the sounds department, it's an ideal first delay or stacking delay for ambient soundscape use, for example; or for if you want another timbre of delay on your board and you already own a digital delay.
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The Memory Boy is Electro-Harmonix's mid-range analog offering. As you'd expect from an analog delay, it's dark but characterful, giving a lush and organic delay sound. In terms of parameters, it's small but powerful, with modulation built in, and several modes to change the character of the modulation applied to the echoes.
It's not as immediately recognizable as the Boss or MXR analog delays, but the combination of value for money, extra options and excellent core tone make it a winner.
The Boss DM-2 and DM-3 analog delays are, quite simply, among the best-sounding delay pedals ever made. So it came as little surprise that one of Boss's first targets for its boutique Waza craft range was the DM-2.
With a glorious dark echo tone that works on record or live, and pairing excellently with other delays and drive pedals, the DM-2 is hours of fun, and can even be controlled via an expression pedal for added space-cadet madness.
Read the full Boss DM-2W review
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With a decent range of presets that cover all the basics - analog delay, tape echo, a pristine digital mode and some more sound effect-type delays, the TC Flashback 2 is an impressive piece of kit for the money.
In addition to the basic feature list, it has user presets assignable via TC's powerful Toneprint software, as well as a hardware expression pedal built in. That said, the expression, or mash functionality, can be a bit tricky to use in practice.
The sounds are solid, with a good range of user-tweakable options, and the delays themselves never stray into brittle territory, keeping a warm, organic timbre whatever the patch.
The Strymon Timeline was the first big-box delay to offer truly studio-grade tone, with a range of excellent patches and signal processing that could go toe-to-toe with studio rack delay units.
The user interface is slick, with plenty of options accessible on the front panel, but it has to be said that firmware updates to some of its competitors have left it somewhat behind in power-user features that are accessible to the menu-diving obsessives on units such as the DD-500.
However, the bottom line is that if your main concern is the highest quality sounds possible, with the simplest interface, it's hard to argue against the Timeline.
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With an array of patches covering everything from tape echo to shimmer and octave delays, the Electro-Harmonix Canyon is a solid choice if you want to cover a lot of ground.
The overall voicing feels less 'studio' and pristine than some of the other units on this list, but it's a lot of fun to use and works for its intended use - inspiring your creativity as a player.
There's an additional tap-in, as well as buttons on the top panel, meaning it's easy to dial in precise tempos on the fly with an external tap source.
Read the full Electro-Harmonix Canyon review
On release, the DD-500 even pipped the Strymon Timeline to the post in terms of raw audio quality - although it's debatable which has the better patches. The Boss unit's are endlessly tweakable, both on the pedal itself or via software on a computer, but the real gamechanger for it was its post-release firmware updates.
With these, it goes from a unit offering two switchable patches and a user-assignable switch to one capable of having either three switchable patches at once, or two serial, parallel or stereo parallel patches at once - a complete revelation in power.
What does this mean in practice? Well, put simply, it means that the DD-500 can take the place of two pedals on your board; but it can also do shoegaze-heaven parallel delays panned left and right - ideal if you're running two amps, and for many other niche delay setups beside.
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For the best tape-echo emulation on the market, Strymon may have bested themselves with the new Volante, but the smaller form factor and equally excellent sounds of the El Cap have us still recommending this over its bigger-box cousin.
With several different tape-head options to emulate classic tape-echo units, as well as controls for wow and flutter, and tape age, the El Cap can do everything from a very clean, forward-sounding tape echo for use in clean pop, to a much grimier, darker echo tone ideal for ambient and shoegaze.
With its gorgeous built-in modulation, the MXR Carbon Copy is a superbly distinctive- sounding pedal. Although it shines when used for a variety of different uses, it's probably most at home in the shoegaze, dream pop and ambient genres, even cropping up on a lot of post-rock guitarists' pedalboards.
As you'd expect, it's a heavy-hitter on its own, but it also stacks well with other delays and creates gorgeous pad-like echoes when put after a drive.
Read the full MXR Carbon Copy Mini review
Although some of its delay patches are showing their age, as the original multi-function floor looper the DL4 still stacks up, allowing users to easily create and fire one-shot loops, stack loops, speed them up or manipulate them in other ways.
While other pedals here, like the DD-500 and the Strymon Timeline, sport powerful loopers, the DL4 is still arguably unsurpassed in terms of sheer ease of use and intuitively accessible features for live performance.
The only drawbacks are its large size and relative unreliability. However, if you're looking for a looper first, and a delay second, you'd be foolhardy not to at least consider the DL4.
Best delay pedals: Buying advice
Analog delay pedals work by using a so-called Bucket Brigade chip, a capacitor array that gives them a distinctively dark sound that's increasingly lo-fi when you apply longer delay settings. If you turn up the feedback, you'll find that these can be easily coerced into infinite feedback and auto-oscillation.
Digital delays are generally more pristine in timbre. Depending on who you ask, you might hear them described as brighter or even clinical. Some, like the Boss DD-3, DD-5 and DD-6, deliver a distinctive tone of their own that sits somewhere between clinical and the darker, grungier tone of an analog delay.
Digital emulations of delays have become commonplace with modern signal processing, and it's not unusual to see larger delay units emulating not only classic analog delays, but also tape echoes and other types of delay.
Finally, there exists a somewhat hazier group of digital delays that aren't trying to emulate other sounds, but instead do something radically new. They tend to be relatively niche, and it's a deep rabbit hole to venture down, but here we're thinking about pedals like the Montreal Assembly Count to Five, the Catalinbread CSIDMAN, the Red Panda Particle and others. If you've already got the basics covered, then a more out there delay could spark some needed inspiration in your rig.