Pardon the Edge: Eight amazing edge-free delay riffs
Written by Jamie Wolfert
I’ve got no personal beef with the Edge. He seems like a decent enough dude, and early U2 is alright, but I look forward to a day when I can have a conversation about delay effects without his (stage) name dominating the proceedings. To see what I mean, simply Google "delay songs," "delay riffs," or anything remotely like that, and then take a minute to scan the forum results. What you'll see is essentially a list of every song in the U2 discography, peppered with a handful of Pink Floyd and Brian May mentions. I realize that Mr. the Edge is a pioneer of the effect and all, but he's not the only guitarist that knows how to set up a dotted eighth note repeat (he is undoubtedly the richest, however).
There are many great echo manipulators among us. Some are very well known, while others remain underground heroes. What they have in common is a penchant for using delay effects in a way that goes well beyond merely enhancing the basic guitar sound with a little ambience. In this kind of application, the rhythmic quality and texture of the delay actually makes the riff. Without the effect, the guitar part in question would be totally unremarkable. Of course the Edge is a master of this kind of playing, but I would like to take a few minutes to introduce some examples of inventive echo sculpting from guitarists who are not members of U2. Here are ten great delay riffs that were created without any involvement from the Edge.
King Missile - "Detachable Penis"
I have heard rumors that the Edge cries himself to sleep at night because he didn't write the "Detachable Penis" riff (actually, I just made that up. It makes total sense, though). King Missile's oddball hit contains the king of all echoing guitar ostinatos. Consisting of a trio of endlessly looping, digitally delayed barre chords, guitarist Dave Rick's minimalist masterpiece is bonehead simple, instantly memorable, and creates an irresistible rhythmic pulse, which is basically the blueprint for any epic delay riff. Combine that with the mantra-like background vocals and John S. Hall's hilarious, deadpan story of a misplaced, disembodied penis, and you have one of the strangest, most distinctive entries in the alt-rock canon.
Nuno Bettencourt - "Flight of the Wounded Bumblebee"
At the opposite end of the grand spectrum of ‘90s rock guitar is Nuno Bettencourt of Extreme, a true genius of post-Van Halen shred. While not known as a big effects user, Nuno's somewhat tongue-in-cheek reinterpretation of Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov's 1899 orchestral interlude is a masterclass in using delay to create blistering, rhythmic sheets of sound. What appears, at first listen, to be rapid fire shredding on Nuno's part is actually relatively few played notes, accompanied by many digitally delayed ones. Not that Nuno couldn't have played all of them if he wanted to, but the delay adds a skittering, manic element that indeed recalls the flight of a wounded insect. This song was used as the intro to Extreme's "He-Man Woman Hater," from 1990's Pornograffiti, and has since become a live staple.
Buckethead - "Big Sur Moon"
If you can look past his blinding virtuosity and enigmatic persona, Buckethead is a master of effects usage as well, and "Big Sur Moon," from the mostly-acoustic Colma album, showcases his formidable abilities with rhythmic delay lines. Written for his mother while she was recovering from colon cancer, Colma is a heavy, achingly beautiful instrumental record, and "Big Sur Moon" is handily the standout track. Originally just over a minute long and played on a nylon string guitar, Buckethead has since made the song a foundation of his live performances, extending and reinterpreting it in myriad ways on the electric. It was even a centerpiece of his live solo interludes during his stint with Guns N' Roses.
David Bowie - "Let's Dance"
The rhythm guitar part from David Bowie's 1983 comeback hit "Let's Dance" is a curious case for several reasons. The delay definitely makes this riff, transforming a tasty offbeat chord stab into a celestial wave of funky shimmer, but unlike with every other entry in this article, the delay was not originally derived from a guitar effect during the performance. It was created in the studio during mixdown, likely by legendary mix engineer Bob Clearmountain. The other interesting thing about the "Let's Dance" riff is that everyone thinks Stevie Ray Vaughan played it. In fact, the part was written and played by the criminally underrated Nile Rodgers of Chic fame, who also produced the track, while SRV was only responsible for the solo (which is also pretty good, I guess).
The Life and Times - "Que Sera Sera"
Allen Epley is a national treasure. The sheer profundity of this man's riffage and songcraft, first with Kansas City, Missouri post-hardcore legends Shiner, and now with KC power trio The Life and Times, should have made him a household name decades ago. Epley is also a master pedalboard manipulator, especially with delay, which he uses to create Milky Way-sized washes of spacey, distorted guitar, and more than a few memorable hooks. A favorite of mine is the ingeniously sparse, repetitive riff from The Life and Times tune "Que Sera Sera," from the band's 2009 record, Tragic Boogie. The fact that this riff exists in the context of such a sublimely beautiful song is just ice cream on top of the pie.
The Evens - "Around the Corner"
Ian Mackaye's guitar sound has in many ways been defined by the notoriously bare bones setup he used with Fugazi; Gibson SG, Marshall JCM800 head, and nothing but a cable to go between them. The band experimented with guitar effects somewhat on its last record, the Argument, but for decades Mackaye adhered strictly to this rather austere rig philosophy. Thus, it is somewhat surprising that he created such a great, bouncy, delay rhythm for the song "Around the Corner," by The Evens, his band with partner and drummer Amy Farina. The opening riff consists of punchy baritone chord hits filled out by a single hard-hitting repeat coming back at the listener like a ricocheting bullet. Even more impressive is Farina's drumming, which sounds like it's been smattered with delay, when in fact she is creating the effect manually with nothing more than mad skills.
Maserati - "Monoliths"
Athens, Georgia psychedelic post-rock instrumental outfit Maserati is a study in highly orchestrated, larger-than-life delay riffs. Many lesser bands in the post-rock and space-rock world tend to use delays in sort of an aimless fashion to manufacture ambience, but the guitarists of Maserati, Cole Dennis and Matt Cherry, consistently create snakey, precisely intertwining fusillades of guitar that are both highly emotive and rhythmically compelling. A prime example of this precision at work is the song "Monoliths," from the band's Passages album. There's more monumental delay riffs in this tune than you can shake a Boss DD-3 at. I highly recommend checking out the band's live, in-studio KEXP performance on YouTube.
Van Halen - "Cathedral"
There's so much going on in this piece that at first it is difficult to tell if it's even a guitar, but "Cathedral," from Van Halen's Diver Down LP, is a great example of Eddie's facility with a Maestro Echoplex. Between the hammer-ons, pull-offs, rapid volume knob manipulation, and all-important tape echo, EVH created a sound that was far closer to a church organ (hence the song's title) than a Kramer superstrat plugged into a Marshall stack. "Cathedral" is undoubtedly the granddaddy of all delay-enhanced shred guitar showpieces, with Nuno Bettencourt's "Flight of the Wounded Bumblebee," Paul Gilbert's "Echo Song," and Yngwie Malmsteen's "Echo Etude," being but a few examples.