Reverb is a fun guitar effect that can be used in a variety of genres. You hear it a lot in Rockabilly, early Rock ‘n Roll, Surf Rock, and some Country music, but it’s not exclusive to those kinds of music. Used right, reverb can be used pretty much anywhere. A lot of the time the reverb is a little bit more subtle than what you’d hear in Rockabilly or Surf Rock, but subtlety is sometimes the point.

And subtlety goes for all guitar effects. Yeah, sometimes you want to be a bit more overt with an effect, but often times adding just a little bit is the way to go. It’s about building and combining things together to make the perfect sound that’s balanced and just right.

Reverb occurs naturally in the world around us, so so amount of reverb is often desirable for any kind of guitar tone. It can sound a bit weird if a sound is completely devoid of reverb. Sometimes a little bit of reverb is needed to add some depth and space to a sound.

What Is Reverb?

Reverb is basically an echo. It’s the effect of a soundwave bouncing off a surface and coming to your ear. Reverb occurs naturally in almost every situation. Even sitting in your own home, sound reverberates off the walls and comes to your ears at different times; there’s always a slight delay. But in a room like your kitchen (unless you have an extremely large kitchen), the delay is so small, you don’t even notice it.

As a room or area gets larger and larger, the delay between the echoes gets larger and larger until it’s more and more noticeable. 

Essentially, that’s reverb.

A reverb pedal recreates this natural effect. Reverb isn’t just the pedal duplicating and repeating a sound: that’s a loop or a delay pedal. A reverb pedal reproduces a sound but gives it the decaying echo sound that you’re only given from being in a large empty room.

How Does A Reverb Pedal Work?

I’m only going to talk about digital reverb pedals. Analogue reverb pedals exist but they’re complicated. Analogue reverb pedals often use springs, plates, or some mechanical means to recreate an echoing sound. I won’t go into that!

Since a reverb pedal uses digital means to create the effect, it’s easy enough to just say it’s computer wizardry that does the job. And that’s almost enough. This isn’t a computing blog, it’s a guitar blog.

So what does the magic of computing do to create reverb? It’s just a matter of understanding the anatomy of a soundwave.

Sound that reverberates has four distinct elements:

  • Sound source: this is what it sounds like. It’s original source of the sound.
  • Early reflections: these are early echoes off surfaces close to the source. These are often indistinguishable from the source.
  • Reverb body: this is where the sweet stuff happens. These are longer delays and slightly decayed in sound since the sound has traveled a longer way.
  • Reverb tail: this is a more decayed sound that’s harder to hear and more delayed.

You hear all of these things naturally, but don’t really notice them. The big thing to create convincing reverb is the reverb body and the decay in volume from the soundwave travelling a longer distance. But it’s also a rich sound with not just one single echo, it’s a mix of many different echoes. Mix that in with some early reflections and a bit of a tail, and you have a rich, reverberating sound that sounds like you’re in a large and empty room.

Before the advent of pedals that could recreate reverb, artists created it naturally in recording environments either by recording in large open rooms or by setting up microphones in such a way as to capture the echoes bouncing around the studio. It worked well but was a lot of work.

What Are Some Songs With Reverb?

Perhaps the quintessential reverb song is Misirlou by Dick Dale. As with a lot of Surf Rock, this track is drenched in reverb.

Surf Rock in general took reverb and turned it up to 11. Here, the effect is less about adding depth and tone, it’s about creating a specific and recognisable sound. It’s pretty much the sound of the whole genre.

I mentioned earlier that reverb is often used with a bit more subtlety to add some breadth to a sound, but this part of the article is about showing what reverb sounds like and for you to easily hear it. There’s no better example than Misirlou!

I’ve used the version from Pulp Fiction here because it’s probably the most well known, but there are plenty of cuts of this track if you want to explore.

A lot of reverb is also often found in Rockabilly. A good example here is Stray Cat Strut by the Stray Cats. This whole song, not just the guitar but the bass, vocals, and probably even the drums sounds as if it has reverb. It’s almost as if they’re recording the song in a big empty room.

Reverb is a typical effect you’ll find in Rockabilly, but when it comes to the Stray Cats, they really knew what they were doing. The Stray Cats didn’t come about until the late 1970’s, well after Rockabilly has its big time in the sun. They were trying to recreate the sounds of the classic Rockabilly bands of the ’50s and 60’s. Did they overdo it? Probably not, but they did push it.

Also, check out Brian Setzer’s hair.

What Are Some Good Reverb Pedals?

As always, I always like Boss guitar pedals for a good and reliable overall sound. To that end, the Boss RV-6 pedal does the job for most applications.

MXR are another trusted brand in guitar pedals and, once again, create a good all around reverb pedal with their MXR reverb.

If you want something a little more exotic, Guitar World suggests the Electro-Harmonix Oceans 11 Reverb. I haven’t tried it, but the write up I linked to looks good.

And That’s Reverb

Hopefully you now know a bit more about reverb, why it’s important, and what it sounds like.

If you’re going for that retro Surf Rock or Rockabilly sound, feel free to drench your tone in reverb. Otherwise, use some reverb in your playing, just don’t go overboard.

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