And NOW (now now now), we present to YOU (you you you) the next stompbox in our history timeline (line line line) – OK, I’ll stop. Anyway, it’s the Echoplex, the classic tape delay effect designed in 1959.
The two earliest versions, the Echoplex EP-1 and the Echoplex EP-2, are housed in what looks like an old tool box. These are the last of the Echoplexes to feature tubes. Today, they’re hard to find, cost a lot, and not easy to repair, though that hasn’t stopped collectors from seeking these out. The solid state Echoplex EP-3 was introduced in the 1970s and was a lot more reliable and less expensive.
It’s the brainchild of Mike Battle, who honed his engineering skills first as a kid building crystal sets and repairing radios and other household appliances, and later in the military as a tech for remote-controlled target planes for gunner practice.
The Echoplex is essentially a tape machine with two playback heads, one that repeats milliseconds after the first. Although it’s the first stand alone delay effect for guitar, special mentioned needs to be give to the Echosonic, a tape delay effect built into an amplifier. Built by Ray Butts, it was used famously by Elvis Presley’s guitarist Scotty Moore. Unlike the Echosonic, the tape heads could be adjusted, allowing users to change the frequency and duration of the delay.
The pedal was just one of many attempts in history to control the not-so-predictable forces of echo and reverb. (“Reverb” and “echo” get used interchangeably, but echo is actually a repeating sound —”Hello!… hello!.. Hello!” – and you need a lot of space for it. Reverb happens indoors when there’s not enough distance for delays, and it results in a continuous ring until fading.) Previously, musicians were at the mercy of whatever space they were recording in, and did the best they could – sometimes placing recording equipment down the all or at the bottom of the stairs, for instance. With these devices, though, musicians and recording engineers could create their own reverb (or at least what sounded like it) and shape it to their preference.
Ownership of the Echoplex is a little convoluted. Maestro was the company that first manufactured the Echoplex, and then in 1984, Harris Teller bought the Echoplex name as well a lot of old parts, and used those to make new versions of earlier Echoplexes. Eventually ,Gibson purchased the Echoplex name and sold a digital version until the 1990s. Dunlop later bought the name, and since 2016, has manufactured the EP103 Echoplex Delay Pedal. It’s also a digital one, but reviews praised it for how close its sound hews to the classic EP-3.
As for famous users, there have been lots – Brian May, Eddie Van Halen and Neil Young, among others. As part of the infusion of technology on “Bitches Brew,” Miles Davis used the Echoplex for his trumpet (as did his guitarist Sonny Sharrock on the Jack Johnson sessions). Virtuosos of the Echoplex include Tommy Bolin and Comets of Fire, both use the effect like an instrument in itself.
Andy Summers credits the Echoplex with essentially shaping the sound of The Police. Here’s what he told the folks at Boss:
“That changed the sound of the band once I got the Echoplex. It made the sound of the band so big, and also I could create these rhythms with the Echoplex, which I wasn’t really hearing anywhere else at the time.”
Some contemporaries of the Echoplex include the Roland Space Echo and the Binson Echorec. Today, there’s a number of digital pedals that emulate the sound of those machines, such as the Wampler Faux Tape Echo and the Catalinbread Echorec.
Special thanks to Tom Beaujour for lending us his Echoplex for the photo shoot.