I’ve been using one device or another to loop sound for the last 25 years. Recently, a wealth of fairly inexpensive looping pedals have been released, and this article will focus on some unexpected – and unintended – uses for them.
First, I wanted to discuss the two different kinds of looping devices available. One kind is built upon the idea of old tape loops. The beginning of a piece of magnetic tape was attached to its end, so it could play over and over. Think about a delay pedal set where the echoes never stop: now if you play a note, that note repeats forever. Play too much and everything is repeated, quickly saturating the tape, and providing a horrible (or glorious) noise. The joy for the player comes in manipulating the loop in various ways and mixing it with live playing over top of the loop. It’s something like a DJ, except instead of working with pre-recorded material you’re playing everything live. This is my favorite kind of looping, and the one I use live. Current devices that allow for spontaneous creation and manipulation of loops include the Boomerang III, the Pigtronix Infinity and the Looperlative LP1. These types of loopers have essentially one thing in common- they generally don’t provide storage of loops, but allow for many manipulations of the loop once it’s recorded. We’ll look at this type of looping device another time.
The other type of looping is more of a singer/songwriter or practice tool. They usually include rhythm tracks, hours of storage time, and quantizing, which allows the rhythmically-challenged to hit the pedal somewhere near the downbeat and still have it be on time. Some have multiple loops, and allow the player to switch between a verse and chorus pattern in realtime. This type of looper can also store loops, so during a performance you can call up loops you’ve prerecorded and play over them. Manufacturers like Boss and Digitech have many models of this ‘band-in-a-box’ type of pedal, and while they may seem limiting to the improvising guitarist, they are a helpful practice tool and we might just find out a few ways to use them differently than they were intended.
Using a Looper with Effects
Usually, the loop pedal would be last in the chain. This way you could loop the sound of all those great effects that you spent hours hunting down. It’s simple: if the looper is after the distortion and chorus, then you can loop the sound of your guitar with distortion and chorus. If you looper is before the distortion and chorus, the loop itself gets distorted or chorused. This is the configuration that can be especially helpful when trying out settings of different effects. Loop some chords, save them, then loop some single notes and some common phrases you like to play. Save them in individual loops. Let the looper play, then get start turning the knobs on the effects! It’s much easier to do it this way than to hold a guitar and play as you turn knobs with the pedal on your knee.
You could even bring the pedal with your favorite riffs recorded on it into a store and try out different effects there. The upside is that you don’t have to bring your guitar in (since nothing in the store sounds exactly like your guitar), and you can turn the knobs of multiple pedals while the looper plays away. You can step back from the pedals and amp to hear how it sounds in the room, since usually you have to try out pedals by sitting two feet from the amp with the effect balanced on your knee. This will work with trying out amps too, although certainly doesn’t replace plugging in and testing the ‘feel’ of an amp.
Yes, you can test pickups with a looper…
No two guitars sound alike, and it’s impossible to do side-by-side comparisons with pickups in different guitars. Since it can take up to 40 minutes to change a pickup and re-string, our aural memory can actually forget what the last pickup sounded like. Using a looper as a sonic notepad helps us remember. Put the looper at the end of the signal chain, and record some of your typical playing- then save. Install the new pickup and record the same phrases with the same effects and amp settings. Walk around the room as they play through your own amp. This might be the best way to hear how different pickups sound since the playback is through your own rig.
There are probably many other ways to use these types of loopers, and I’m sure you have suggestions I missed or didn’t have room for. How do you use your looper? And what kind of looping device do you prefer?