It all comes down to setting the correct tempo on your delay pedal.
So, why not just cut to the chase?
To nail the dotted eighth note delay, it’s usually a matter of settings.
We'll cover the settings and - for those interested - the music theory involved with understanding and using a dotted eighth note rhythm in your delay pedal. For more concepts, checkout our primer on how to play guitar with sorted topical coverage.
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But, wouldn’t you rather actually know what’s happening and be able to explain it to others?
If you’re a teacher, isn’t it better to be able to tell your student what’s going on behind what they’re hearing?
Getting the correct tempo sounds simple. And in a way, it is.
But before we get there, to the friendly and practical explanation of what to do, some background material must be understood.
Even so, I’ll give you the opportunity to skip ahead and take the mental shortcut.
If you’re still reading, props. You’re not happy being a surface level guitar player.
And that’s going to help you here quite a bit.
Because creating a dotted eighth note rhythm with your delay pedal involves three separate pieces working together.
If you understand all three, you’ll be able to know and articulate what’s going on under the hood.
Here are the three pieces:
We’ve got to address each of these areas before reaching the practical how of what we’re trying to do.
This is true, even for some who know the dotted eighth sound when they hear it. It sounds like what Edge is always doing on U2‘s records, or the delay effect “that sounds like you’re playing really fast.” Some call it “faux alternate picking.”
We might recognize that sound with our ear, yet we don’t fully comprehend how it’s being created.
Let’s start with this:
A delay pedal that is mimicking a dotted eighth note rhythm is a tempo-based delay. This means your pedal’s timing must be matched with the song or beat that you’re playing along with.
Delay pedals measure time in milliseconds (MS). However, not all delay pedals have an output that tells you the exact time it’s set to.
So we can start by addressing that discrepancy in delay pedals so you can assess your own gear.
Differences in Delay Pedals (Gear)
Some have tap tempo functionality, like the Line 6 DL4, but all will have at least a time knob that needs to be adjusted manually. Ideally, you’d have a tap tempo or a digital readout that tells you the exact delay time in MS. Pedals like the TC Electronic ND-1 Nova Delay and the Boss DD-20 Giga Delay have this readout functionality built in, though they tend to cost quite a bit more.
Whatever pedal you own, you’ve got to match the time of your delay with the beat or tempo you want to keep up with. I found that to be easier once I had established an understanding of rhythm and time signatures.
That’s up next.
Understanding Dotted Eighth Note Time Signature and Beat (Theory)
Time signatures are numeric representations of the beat in a given piece of music. On sheet music they’re represented by two numbers, one on top of the other, at the beginning of a bar (or measure) of music.
The example given below is one of the most commonly used time signatures, 4/4, which is also known as “common time.”
You can have a variety of different time signatures, including 2/4, 3/4, 6/8 and many others. However, 4/4 is the most common in the music you’d be familiar with.
For this example, we can stick with 4/4 and get to our dotted eighth rhythm from there.
What do the numerals in the time signature mean?
The top numeral indicates the number of beats in one bar of music.
So in this case, four.
The second number, on the bottom, represents the note value of each note in the bar. So in this case, you’d be dealing with a quarter note.
What is a quarter note?
Note values are a good thing to get familiar with before we continue talking about keeping time. Thankfully, they aren’t tremendously difficult.
You’ll want to remember these five basic note values:
A whole note will be held for the entire bar, while a half note will (predictably) be held half the bar and a quarter note for a fourth of the time and so on.
Since we had a four as the bottom numeral of our time signature, that means each note value in the bar will be a quarter note.
Thus, our bar of sheet music will now look like this:
Still wondering how this would sound?
Watching this video for just a few seconds will bring it all together:
You might be wondering, “Why are we working with quarter notes if we’re trying to mimic an eighth note rhythm?”
The reason is that most often you’ll be dealing with an actual 4/4 time.
We pick an eighth note rhythm with our right hand and then use our delay pedal to echo a faster time than what’s actually being played.
In a sense, we’re going to double up on the 4/4 time before we add our dotted eighth notes.
Now that we’ve understood the basics of time signatures, let’s take our 4/4 pattern and start to work through the practical steps of applying the delay effect and putting it all together.
Applying your Delay Pedal (Technique)
For my example I’m going to be using a Line 6 DL4 Delay Modeler with tap tempo functionality.
If you don’t have a tap tempo button, you’ll have to dial in the correct tempo by hand, using your pedal’s time knob.
What you’ll want to do is dial in echoes that occur twice as often as the note value of the music you’re playing.
For example, if the regular four note count sounds like this:
You’re going to actually strike the note on the “1-and-2-and-3-and-4-and” count. If you dial in the correct tempo, your delay should produce an echo that repeats at the same speed, whatever that may be.
So the notes and “and” symbols are what you’ll actually pick.
Since a dotted eighth note equals the note plus one half of that note, you get a note that occurs 3/4 of the way through each beat.
That note is the delay sound that echoes after the note you actually pick, hence the term “dotted eighth note delay.”
Here’s the process:
You can see that the dotted eighth note occurs 3/4 of the way through the first beat and then subsequently after every beat, assuming you keep picking. You’ll also hear more notes if the delay is set to a larger number of echoes (see “What about repeats?”).
Don’t over-think it though. Using a tap tempo or even dialing in delay time by hand is something that should be fairly instinctual to you.
If you do happen to use a DL4, the tap tempo has “1/2” written below it, which basically means that it will double whatever speed you tap, making it easier to tap along with the beat of the song and then have the echo doubled in time.
What about repeats?
You probably have a dial on your delay pedal called repeats or feedback. That indicates the number of times the pedal will echo the sound that it gets from your signal.
It could be as low as one repeat or continuous, though most moderate with three or four.
So in most cases, you’ll hear the note you pick repeating more than once, which means you’ll hear the same note for the next three or four beats, just like we observed in the above graphic.
Setting your repeats is a matter of preference and style. I tend to stay around five and six repeats, which is a little high, but it’s just what I like and is most familiar to me.
Just be aware of how it impacts your signal and consider experimenting with some different options depending on what you’re playing.
A Working Example
Now, keep in mind that you don’t need to identify and write out the time signature every time you want to go through this process.
You’ve read and understood what it all means, now you just have to feel the tempo.
This is the practical application that you’ve been waiting for.
Step #1: Pick eighth notes with the delay pedal off.
Pick along with a simple, 1-and-2-and-3-and-4-and beat, without worrying at all about your delay pedal. Just get a feel for counting quarter and eighth notes.
Step #2: Dial in the correct tempo, via tap or “time” knob.
Then dial in a delay that matches the tempo you’re playing to.
Step #3: Pick eighth notes with the delay pedal on.
Turn your delay pedal on. Now when you pick eighth notes, you’ll hear an echo at 3/4 of each beat and then after every note played.
Why not just pick dotted eighth notes without a delay?
You certainly can do this.
However, manually creating this sound won’t always be 100% accurate, where a delay pedal will time things perfectly.
A delay pedal will also create a layering effect, where you can hear the delay of one note while simultaneously beginning to play another (similar to what we illustrated earlier). It creates a more ethereal sound that it fuller and more satisfying than if you try and produce it manually.
Besides, there’s no shame in using a delay pedal if you want to create this sound. It becomes part of the music.
What if I can’t get the tempo right?
One thing I would advise is to get used to your delay pedal; how it behaves, how it operates and what its tendencies are.
Then you’ll be in a better spot to really zero in on the right tempo.
I would also add that you should get used to it while playing alone, or along with an MP3 before taking your act to a group of live musicians.
The reason is that tempos on a studio MP3 will be perfect, or close to it.
When playing live with a group of musicians, in any setting, you’ll tend to have variances in tempo (speeding up or slowing down) which means you’ll have to deal with more confusion as you get familiar with your pedal. That’s a tough way to learn how to dial in the right delay time.
Learning it on your own with studio tracks of your favorite songs is a far better alternative.
The second thing to consider is that if you don’t have a delay with a tap tempo, it might be time to get one.
I’ve tried dialing in delay with and without it and to be honest it is absolutely a night and day difference, as having the tap tempo is so much easier.
I’d recommend going with something like the Boss DD-20 or the Line 6 DL4.
Or maybe you just have other comments that you’d like to share.
As long as it’s civil, it’s all fair game. See you there.