When you’re performing solo, there are times you may wish you had more than two hands. Sometimes a single guitar part just isn’t enough to create a compelling accompaniment. There is a solution: Technology comes to the rescue in the form of a looper—an electronic device that records sounds, instantly plays them back, and allows you to layer them. In the hands of performers like Ed Sheeran, KT Tunstall, and Phil Keaggy, a looper can turn one person into an entire band.
In this article, you’ll learn about some typical looping pedals, the features you might look for when shopping for one, and, most important, how a looper can enhance your guitar playing and accompaniments for live performance, practice, and even composing.
The Basics of Loopers
Most looping devices come in the form of pedals that go between your guitar and amp. With the tap of a footswitch, the looper records what you play, and with another tap, plays the recording back, repeatedly, while you continue to play your instrument through your amp or PA. To make things a bit more complex, you can also add layers—overdubbing additional sounds without erasing previous ones. With this feature, you can, for example, play a percussive beat on your guitar, add a bass line, and finally, a rhythm guitar part. For those who like to keep things simple, there are several loopers, including the TC Electronic Ditto and the Boss RC-1 Loop Station, that support these capabilities with a single footswitch.
Simplicity is good, but single-button loopers can be challenging to use onstage because some operations, such as stopping the loop or overdubbing, may require double-tapping or pressing and holding the button for several seconds. Many loopers add at least a second button—at the cost of space on your pedal board—making it easier to start, stop, overdub, or play back by pressing different buttons. Examples of dual (or multi) button loopers include TC Electronic’s Ditto X2, the Boss RC-30 Loop Station, and DigiTech’s JamMan Stereo Phrase Sampler.
More advanced loopers tend to support multiple independent loops, so you can start and stop individual loops without affecting the others. Some loopers can chain loops in a sequence, allowing you to switch easily between a verse and a chorus, for example. Examples of multi-loop pedals include the Boss RC-300, Electro-Harmonix 22500, and TC Electronic Ditto X4.
Not Just Loops
Companies have gotten creative about features that go hand-in-hand with loops. For example, the Digitech Trio+ Band Creator includes a drum machine, and can even auto-generate bass lines to accompany your loops. Many devices allow you to manipulate loops, changing pitch or speed or even playing loops backwards.
Although basic loopers tend to support a single input for guitar, stereo inputs are common, and some devices support inputs for microphones and other instruments. TC Electronic’s TC-Helicon VoiceLive 3 supports looping both guitar and voice and provides a selection of effects from reverb to amp models. The Boss VE-8 Acoustic Singer, along with Boss’s Acoustic Singer line of amplifiers, supports looping together with effects for both voice and guitar, including a vocal harmonizer.
On the high end, the Boss RC-505 is a tour de force, with five stereo loopers, multiple inputs, and a large set of effects. Targeted at DJs and Beatbox artists, the RC-505 is designed to be controlled with your hands, but can also be controlled via a MIDI pedal.
Choosing a Looper
If you’re new to looping, one of the more basic loopers should be more than sufficient and may be easiest to master. Pedals that force you to double click, or click and hold to stop a loop, can be great for practicing but may be frustrating on the stage. You may be tempted to get the device with the most features, but more sophisticated loopers can be mind-bogglingly complex—keep in mind that singer-songwriter Ed Sheeran did amazing things with a simple Boss RC-20 before moving onto a more complex system.
An important consideration is how much recording time the device supports. Some older models may only allow loops as short as 10 seconds, but many newer loopers can support many minutes or even hours of recorded time, which might be important to you. Some, like the Boss RC-30 or RC-300, can store loops for later recall—allowing you to preload backing tracks recorded in a studio—while others are specifically performance-oriented and only retain loops until the device is powered down. The number and type of inputs may also be a consideration if you want to loop more than just your guitar.
Learning to Loop
Learning to use a looper effectively requires practice. Like metronomes, loopers are unforgiving when it comes to time. You have to play with precision, and also learn to hit the button on the looper at exactly the right time. Any mistakes are going to loop around again and again! Many loopers do have an undo feature, and it’s a good idea to get familiar with it to minimize embarrassing moments onstage.
Guitarists new to loopers are often tempted to start with long loops, but keep in mind that the audience probably doesn’t want to hear you strum through a 12-bar blues just so you can solo over it. Creating an interesting performance with a looper requires attention to composition and arranging. Many of the looping masters tend to use very short loops, often with simple individual parts that interlock effectively. Just as with a band, the more parts you have, the simpler and more precise they need to be.
Loopers are not only useful onstage, they can be great companions for songwriting. You might lay down a groove and a simple bass line, and the looper will tirelessly play your idea back while you expand on it. If you play with another guitarist, a looper is a great way to experiment with parts before sharing them with your partner. Models that save multiple loops can also provide a great way to capture ideas for later recall. And, of course, everyone can appreciate a device that’s willing to play rhythm guitar for hours on end while you practice improvising.
For a solo artist or duo, looping can open up new dimensions, helping create a bigger, more engaging sound that brings your musical vision to life. Whether your goal is to enhance your live performance, or just to have an easy way to compose, practice, or jam at home, above all, looping is fun!
The Outer Limits
If hardware loopers don’t provide enough power or flexibility, and you’re a bit technically minded, you might explore software options. Ableton Live 9 ($99 Intro edition; $449 Standard; $749 Suite) is essentially a computer-based multi-track recording environment designed around loops for live performance. Ed Sheeran’s “Chewie II Monsta Looper” is a custom system built around a MIDI controller connected to a computer running Ableton Live, combined with the free Mobius 2 VST plugin from Circular Labs. For another example of the potential of Ableton Live, check out cellist Zoë Keating on YouTube.
This article originally appeared in the January 2018 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.