Many people have asked me “What is a loop pedal”, what is it for and how do I use one; so I thought I’d write a post on the subject to introduce you to the wonderful world of looping!
The basic function of all loop pedals is the same, but many manufacturers have built in other gismos as well and a totally bewildering array of options that I believe just get in the way of playing music.
So I am going to focus on the basics here that you will find on all loop pedals and leave the rest for specific reviews although I will finish up with a brief overview on other functions commonly built in to loop pedals.
I use the brilliant TC Electronics Ditto which is a really nice little unit, and you’ll see it in action later on!
Let me address each of the questions in turn.
What is a Guitar Loop Pedal?
Firstly let’s understand what a loop is…
The word “loop” comes from the days of recording on tape. When a section of music needed to be repeated a number of times, engineers would take the physical section of tape containing that music, literally cut it and join the end to the beginning – creating an actual loop of tape.
And so, when this loop of tape was loaded and played, the particular piece of audio just repeated itself over and over again until the tape machine was stopped.
Our loop pedal is pretty much doing exactly that, except the tape cutting and joining is done via a button on the pedal operated by us, and the looping is digital and stops when we press another (or the same) button with our foot.
So, a loop pedal has the ability to record a section of audio (guitar in our case) and stores it digitally.
The exact audio section that is stored is controlled by us via a foot switch and the loop will play until we turn it off – as you see, almost exactly how the old tape loops used to work, but no-one has the job of cutting and joining tape anymore!
To be clear, you activate recording via a foot switch, the pedal records whatever signal it receives until the switch is pressed again to stop recording – that is your loop.
This loop will then play over and over again without stopping until you stop the looper.
The use of the word “record” is important, because the pedal records the actual sound it receives just as those old tape machines did.
What is it for?
What this means for us as hobby guitarists, is that we can play a rhythm part, record it, have it repeat over and over again and we can then play a lead part over the top.
This is great for just jamming, but can also be a superb practice tool when trying to learn a specific riff or section of a song or even improvising skills over a chord sequence.
This is great for our own entertainment for sure, but is often used within band contexts to make the overall sound “bigger” because it sounds like there is more than one guitar playing.
I have even seen street buskers using them!
In fact, you can do more even with a basic loop pedal, so read on.
How Do I Use One??
Well, we’ve already seen how it can be used for playing a rhythm part, but you can do much more than that!
You see, you can layer more loops over loops – don’t panic, I’ll explain.
Imagine that old loop of tape, looping round and round playing the section of audio that it contains.
Suppose, each time it reaches the beginning again, you are able to record something else on to that tape without wiping what is already there – once, twice or 3 or more times like layers on a cake.
Guess what? Our loop pedal can do the same thing!
You can build layer after layer on your loop and still be able to play “real time” over it; that is, even with multiple loops recorded and playing, you can play another part without recording it – a one-person band in fact!
Oh by the way, because the timing accuracy is really important for the first loop, it is advisable to use a metronome for that first loop – but if you have good timing, maybe you won’t need to it’s your call.
Important – because the loop pedal is recording the actual sound reaching it, a loop pedal usually goes at the end of the effects chain. That means, if you are using chorus pedals, distortion pedals and so on, they are plugged in such that the signal is processed by these pedals before it gets to your loop pedal.
And here’s the money – as you “record” different layers on your loop, you can change the sound with your other pedals for new layers and become a one-person-band!
Because the loop pedal is normally the last effect before your amplifier, any changes you make to the tone of your amp will have an effect on everything passed through to it.
Typical effects chain might be:
- Guitar plugged into input of a chorus pedal;
- Output of the chorus goes to input of distortion pedal;
- Output of distortion to the input of the loop pedal;
- Output of loop pedal goes to the input of your amp.
For example, you could record a rhythm loop clean, then add chorus to your tone and record extra rhythm parts, switch in distortion and record some little stabbing chords – – you will have 3 loops all playing together at this point with three totally different sounds – and power to add more!
If you’re interested, the pedal I use exclusively is the TC Electronics Ditto – and it is so easy to use it’s ridiculous!
The build and sound quality are excellent and I highly recommend this pedal as a really simple to use but top notch pedal at an excellent price.
So What Else Can You Get on Loop Pedals?
The world is your oyster, as the saying goes and your credit card is your limit (or not!).
But here is a list of some of the extras you can get on loop pedals – should you want to do so!
Be sure to check out the specs of the particular pedal you are looking at carefully to ensure you are getting what you want and need.
- Different lengths of loop storable – watch out for this, some loop pedals can only store a limited duration, some aren’t long enough for an entire song. But then, your own use of a loop pedal will dictate whether that’s a problem or not;
- Built in drum machines – oh yes, some come with anything from simple drum loops built in to complicated integrated drum machines;
- Extra storage – some will have slots for SD cards that you can use to permanently store your loops; could be useful in a band situation or busking!
- Some effects – there are pedals that incorporate delays and other effects – personally, this starts to blow my mind, but some people love it;
- Multiple loop storage on board – there are pedals that will store multiple loops at the same time that are selectable by the player;
- Effects/expression connectivity – to really up the complexity, you can start to affect the overall sound of the loop pedal via expression pedals;
- Tap tempo control – to set the beats per minute;
- Midi integration – for the connection of midi controllers;
- Various signal pass-through options and connectivity options (mono/stereo and so on), digital connections to computers/laptops.
My own preference is to keep it simple – a loop pedal does the looping, a delay pedal does the delay and so on, but if you love having endless options then some of these built-in functions will definitely be for you.
My top recommendation is the TC Electronics Ditto which is high quality and very simple to use and only has looping functions.
However, possibilities are endless, so you might want to check out these other units as well if you want more functionality…
Loop pedals are great, and the simpler ones are one of the cheaper pedals you can buy and I believe give you the most bang for your buck.
Of course, like all things guitar, there are many variations and people that will swear by their own particular pedal.
So, has that answered that question – what is a loop pedal? If not, feel free to comment on my post and I’ll get back to you.
All the best and keep on rockin’