The echo is the single most widely used effect in every modern genre of music. I play church music. The church guitar culture is delay-crazy. I'm part of that collective obsession, having owned over 30 different delay pedals and tried out hundreds more.
And it's easy to do, when each new NAMM gives us a handful of new delay pedals with new features and new conveniences. After spending all this money on so many different delays, getting to know them, I've come back to just my DD-5 and Memory Man.
Here's how I approach two delay pedals, with no presets and no tap on one of them:
A lot of guys hate the sound of a delay into an overdriven amp, I don't. Choose a delay that is bright enough to not fart or flub out in your gainy amp. Choose shorter delays and keep your feedback lower, this will make the amp sound massive and expansive.
Avoid those cheesy bouncing, galloping rhythmic delays when they aren't appropriate. Some guys are dotted eighth all the time. Yuck. Think, would I want a horse to trample into the room during this part of the song?
We're having this tender, quiet moment as the pastor prays and all of a sudden the guitarist starts going DOT-dee-DOT-dee-DOT like a team of Budweiser Clydesdales just burst into the sanctuary.
Sometimes dotted eighth is the most perfect thing in the world. Lights fade in on The Edge as he begins to play, then Bono sings "I wanna runnnnnnnnn I WANT TO FLY" and in that moment, nothing could be more appropriate than a galloping dotted eighth delay.
If you have to use a bouncing or a ping-ponging rhythmic delay, try the mix low so as not to muddy your initial note.
If you're playing rhythmically, the initial note doesn't matter so much. You can play supportively. I almost never have a prominent rhythmic delay feature in the hooks that I write. When I do use a rhythmic delay, I back off my overall volume to clean up significantly and to sit back in the mix.
Doing this fills space, creates texture, and your band's overall sound becomes more layered and complex. Playing supportively like that will get you real gigs and get you invited back.
When your time comes to step out and play melodically, the melody should be prominent in the mix. Don't suffocate the melody with a loud rhythmic underpinning. Keep that delay mix low.
Yeah, so I pretty much always have my mixes low now that I'm thinking about it. The DD-5 is so bright that it cuts even at low mix. And the Memory Man just sounds awesome slow, low, and soupy.
You're not a guitarist when you use effects, you're a producer. Your choice of effects has a direct influence on the feel and even sometimes the arrangement of the entire song. Always serve the song. Only stand out when you're featured.
Setting your delay to be a light and low-mix echo for lead parts helps you stand out. Crank your guitar's volume to rip a solo and let each note softly but quickly trail off into a warm grit. Use the delay as a boost, but not a boost in volume, use it like a boost in authority
If a boost is more of me up, then an echo is more of me out. I think, Should what I'm playing here be echoed? This is one area in which I'll allow a little bit of an ego. I'll choose to like what I'm playing enough to hear it again and again and again and again and again as it fades
If I don't like hearing what I played repeated, then maybe I should turn the echo off, maybe it's not as important a part as I thought, maybe I should switch it up and play something else. At the end of the day, an echo does one thing. It subliminally conveys importance. It tells your audience to sit up, pay attention, this part is being echoed. This is a message.
Try reducing your delay usage to principles rather than parts. "Quarter notes maintain a patterned, rhythmic feel, without that annoying galloping sound," or, "Dotted eighth delays project a marching feel," or, "Tape delay is dark, and works well for ambience, whereas digital delay is bright and will stand out in the mix"—those are principles.
Parts are, "This song calls for dotted eighth" or, "In this song, Nigel Hendroff uses a triplet delay" or, "This song demands four individual delay presets." Instead of building exacting presets of the delays on whatever song, build utility presets. "This sounds good for this application."
Being out of sync with the tempo doesn't have to be a problem if you use your ears and develop a sense of space. You can syncopate delays for some weird, cool, unexpected, and magical things in a mix. One of my favorite things to do is mix quarters and dotted eighths with long trails.