How To Use Loop Pedals
Creative layering techniques made easy
It’s fair to say loop pedals have exploded in popularity over the past few years. Where once tape loops were available using complex studio techniques (think of the intro to Pink Floyd’s Money), where actual tape was cut with actual scissors and laid back together with actual sellotape, now you can pick up a fully featured loop pedal for relative peanuts.
They offer players a whole heap of interesting opportunities. From the learner guitarist looking to practice his or her solo improvisation over a backing track, through to the creative experimenter adding countless layers atop each other to produce amazing soundscapes. But everyone has to start somewhere. And while the basics of looping aren’t hard to grasp, there are some principles you’ll need to understand before you dive in. Let’s take a look at how to use a loop pedal.
What is a loop pedal?
It’s probably useful to have a quick look at what a loop pedal, or looper, actually is. Loopers are devices which record a snapshot of a sound, and then play it back indefinitely, or until you tell it to stop. You have complete control over what is recorded, and over how long each loop is. Once you’ve recorded one loop – a chord progression, for example – you are able to record another loop directly over the top in a process called overdubbing.
Using this basic record/overdub cycle, you can layer sounds on top of sounds to create entire passages of music. This is great for songwriting, practising and composition, as well as being a fun way to play on your own.
The key to good looping is timing. It really is all about the timing. If you’re starting out – either as a player or with loopers – the best advice we can give is to become acquainted with a metronome. Learn to play in time with that, and use it to help mark your loop start and end points, and you can’t go far wrong.
If the constant tick-tock of a metronome drives you potty (you’re not alone there) you might instead find a basic drum track to play along with. Many inexpensive loop pedals nowadays come with the ability to either record audio from external sources like iPads or drum machines, while some allow you to store audio files on the pedal itself.
Fail to prepare?
While there are loopers out there with all kinds of exotic features, like the multi-channel beast which is the Boss RC-300, we’re going to be focusing on using something relatively straightforward. Something like the Boss RC-3. This is a solid pedal to start you off on your looping journey, yet has enough features that you won’t grow out of it too soon.
While you can just jump in and experiment, or play the first thing that comes into your head, we’d always advocate having a rough idea of what you’re trying to do. Decide if you’re going to be putting some chords down, or layering up other sounds, and choose a few tones you can work with.
The Boss RC-3 has a nice little function where it starts recording the loop when it hears the signal from the guitar. If your pedal doesn’t have this, the manual method involves little more than pressing the switch and starting to play. Once you’ve got to the end of your riff or section, press it again and it will play back what you’ve just recorded.
The pedal will now do one of two things, depending on the model you have and the way it’s been setup (you can usually change this to suit your needs.) Either the pedal will immediately start recording the next loop or overdub once you stop the first, or it will play the loop back without recording. Even the more entry-level pedals like the Rowin LEF-332 work in this way. Decide which works for you and set it up accordingly.
Most, if not all, loopers follow a generally accepted method of control from here. You’ll likely press the switch twice to stop playback, and then press and hold to wipe the memory and start again. Your pedal may feature an undo function, which can be useful if you’ve recorded six decent overdubs but you fluff your lines on the seventh. Best advice – read the manual or watch some of the many helpful tutorials on YouTube.
Once you’ve got the basic techniques down you can look at expanding your sonic arsenal. A decent technique here is to think about the tones you’re using with your guitar; try and find sounds which are different but complement each other well.
If you’re using a slightly fuller-featured pedal, like the excellent Boss RC-30, then you may have multiple inputs. You could use this to have the guitar on one channel and a microphone on another. This is the exact setup used by people like Ed Sheeran and KT Tunstall, and offers the chance to use the looper as the entire foundation of your music.
Loopers are a great way to add something a bit different to your sound. Nail the timing and you’re away. Play around with different styles, tones and textures and you will likely stumble across something you wouldn’t ordinarily have been able to achieve.