Category Archives: Equipment/Gear

Sonic Territory: The Volume and Delay Pedal

There are several distinguishable things that give the pedal steel its unique timbre and sonic voice: the volume pedal, the bar, and its hot signal are a few of them. Understanding how these elements work together really is the key to appreciating the voice of the instrument. Spice it up with a little delay and a good bit of reverb, and you’ve got a sound that is luscious, celestial, and intriguing.

One of the main things that originally drew me to the pedal steel guitar was its ability to produce ethereal, reverberant sounds. The sonic space it was occupying within recordings I listened to was a niche that not many instruments could fill. From my recording/mixing experience, I knew it was possible to cast recorded instruments into this sonic space with the use of EFX, but not many could produce that sound instantly from the playing of the instrument: the pedal steel has these sonic qualities in the pre-production stages.

Pedal Steel Reverb and Delay

Before I ever knew what a pedal steel was, I understood the power of how a volume pedal and delay pedal could work together; guitarist Tim Reynolds blew my mind with his approach to using these pedals on the live album Live at Luther College by Dave Matthews and Tim Reynolds. He was running a volume pedal into a delay pedal, with the delay set for feeding back and repeating at least a few times. By swelling into the notes with the volume pedal, and taking away the pick attack of them, the delay pedal would take over and send the sounds soaring into the atmosphere. I had never heard anything like it, and it was a new sonic territory that I had never noticed before.

I was a beginning guitar player at the time, in high school, and eager to learn this new trick. The first step was to purchase a volume pedal and delay pedal: of course I ended up choosing the volume pedal and delay pedal that I believe Tim Reynolds used in his rig on that recording. It was an Ernie Ball volume pedal, and a Boss DD6 digital delay pedal. The next step was dialing in some settings on the delay pedal, experimenting with the volume pedal’s action when playing, and trying to use my ear to mimic his sound effects. With curiosity and intrigue, it didn’t take long to find my voice with this technique.

Once in college, and jamming with any musicians I could find, I wasn’t shy of employing this technique. It became a staple of my playing, and I loved adding the sound to my first recordings and mixes that I was involved with. I listen back to demos and EPs I collaborated on, and it is interesting to hear the creative sparks flowing through the volume and delay pedals.

Rock and Roll Lap Steel on a Pedal Steel Amp

Around this time, I started hearing sounds in recordings I admired that were strangely familiar and intriguing to me. I was drawn to these new sounds, and how they impacted the song and recording, even if it was in the subtlest of ways. I was hearing them in Ryan Adams’s material (who I had just discovered), as well as Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin. On a whim, I did a little digging and discovered the pedal steel guitar was the culprit in these recordings…I decided to purchase my first pedal steel at this time, right when I graduated college.

I quickly learned how challenging playing the instrument is: anyone who has sat behind a pedal steel for the first time knows this feeling. However, I felt an odd sense of comfort playing it, even though I had no idea what I was doing initially. It was comforting because I had my handy volume pedal that I had already used many times before, and with some reverb thrown in, I essentially had my delay sound. I was able to jump right in, with less fear, because it was a vehicle that could deliver the sonic characteristics I knew and loved. I immediately started playing it within a band of friends, and adding whatever I could to the music, despite having a lack of technique and understanding of the tuning.

Oddly enough, a musician I was playing with at the time, who knew I was fresh on pedal steel, listened to an old recording of mine that I played guitar on. He said, “I thought you weren’t playing pedal steel on this recording.” I replied, “I’m not, I played guitar on it.” He looked perplexed, but then we both looked at each other bewildered and understood: I had been creating the sounds of the pedal steel for years before I ever knew what one was – just by manipulating the volume and delay pedals for my guitar.

PedalStand

Eventually, I learned that to become proficient on the pedal steel, I would have to truly learn the playing techniques involved with it, as well as the theory and history behind the instrument. This took years and a lot of practice, but it was eased by the knowledge of how a volume pedal can affect the sound of notes played, especially with some reverberation and delay.

Anyone who has lost themselves in the opening tracks of Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon knows the power of the volume pedal and its ability to push into the swamps of celestial reverberation. Especially when used with a pedal steel, whose bar can slide in and out of notes and provide vibrato like the human voice. When utilized, the pedal steel guitar truly can scream and cry.


Listen to these albums for sonic ideas that stem from the volume pedal and the use of reverb and/or delay:

Live at Luther College – Dave Matthews and Tim Reynolds

Dark Side of the Moon – Pink Floyd

Cold Roses – Ryan Adams & The Cardinals

Love is Hell – Ryan Adams

Guitar in the Space Age! – Bill Frisell


For more on delay, reverb, and EFX click below:

Gear and EFX – Pedal Steel

Positioning Your Steel Seat

Effective pedal steel technique requires an understanding of the physical components of playing the instrument. The body is used in various ways to get sounds out of the instrument: the left hand/arm is used to control the bar, the right hand is used to block and pick the strings, while both feet and legs are used to manipulate the pedals, levers, and volume pedal. Positioning your steel seat properly can provide a balance and foundation that helps make these various aspects more effortless.

Since so many limbs of the body are used, playing the pedal steel can feel like sitting behind a space ship’s control center. Basically, it can feel like there is a lot going on simultaneously, but it doesn’t have to feel like rocket science. When practicing or performing, it can be very helpful to have a habit of sitting in approximately the same position each time you are behind the steel.

This ensures multiple things:

-The right hand and arm are in a relaxed and similar picking position each time. This can also be a way to ensure you are picking in an area near the pickup that provides a good tonality.

-The left hand and arm are in a comfortable position to freely move up and down the fretboard, and to keep the bar straight.

-The left leg and foot are in a comfortable position to engage the pedals and knee levers.

-The right foot and heel is in a good position to control the volume pedal, with the heel being able to move freely towards the floor and so the ankle can rock the volume pedal up or down.

-You feel centered, balanced, and comfortable when sitting behind the instrument so that you are freer to create music.

-You’re coordinating your hands/arms, eyes, legs/feet, etc. by using repetitive motions when playing so that they become habits and build on each other. You’re building muscle memory.

SteelSeat

So what is a good position for the seat to be in? There is no set rule or position, but many players find it helpful to position it in a certain area in relation to the fretboard. I find it very useful to use the 15th fret as a guide.

There are three things that can help one find the same seat position each time:

  • Where the center of the seat is in relation to the fretboard.
  • How far away the front of the seat is from the body or cabinet of the guitar.
  • Where the belly button of the player faces in relation to the guitar.

Using these three factors, here’s a good way to ensure that your seat is positioned in the approximately the same spot each time:

  • Find where the middle or center of the seat is, and put it so it is lined up with the 15th fret of the neck closest to it.
  • Then, move the seat forward or backward from the beginning of the cabinet so that it is approximately the same length away from the guitar each time. Looking down from above can help with this, and I usually think of having the seat a certain amount of inches away – for me this is about 6 inches.
  • Sit down on the seat, and get in your playing position…is your belly button pointing towards the 15th fret, or where you’d like it to be? This can vary for certain players and technique styles, but having the belly button centered (or facing a similar spot each time) can help ensure that you are sitting in the seat the same way each time too.

SteelSeatPosition

Different player techniques and different body types will require different positions. So use whatever is comfortable and works best, and this may take some experimenting. Also keep in mind how high the seat is in relation to the ground and steel – it’s helpful to have it so that the arms are parallel to the floor when playing, which can be good for relaxing the wrists too.

The steps outlined above can be a good reference for finding the seat position that works for you! It can be reassuring at gig time to know that you are in the same position at your space ship’s control center; the same position you spent countless hours training in.


For more on technique, check out these pages…

How to Practice Volume Pedal Technique for Pedal Steel Guitar

How To Control the Bar: The Five Essential Ingredients

Pedal Steel Pedalboards

Having a reliably-powered, sturdy, organized pedalboard for shows, recording sessions, or even practice is a plus.  For pedal steel, it is a toolbox worth having for most jobs at hand.  Since the pedal steel takes up so much floor space on-stage, I’ve found it important to keep my pedalboard setup simple and small.  I have a bigger pedalboard rig when the occasion calls for it.

image

Here is one I crafted recently, that displays the benefits of a sleeker design.  I only have my tuner on there now, as that’s all I’m using EFX/pedal-wise at the moment (call me a purist?) cause my amp has reverb. This board design allows me to add my delay pedal, and another pedal, in addition to my tuner though, while still keeping it small/simple.

Pedaltrain Nano+ for Pedal Steel Pedalboard

This is the main mounting structure. You’ll notice in these pics above/below, that I added extra pedal steel leg rubber-feet to the factory rubber-feet it came with.  This added extra height underneath the board to securely attach my power supply, while still keeping the board stable and balanced.

Pedal Steel Pedal Board with Feet


Here you’ll notice the undercarriage of the board, which houses a reliable power supply that can handle/power most pedal types if configured properly.

Voodoo Powerlab Plus Power Supply for Pedal Steel


 

Player's View of Pedalboard

A player’s view (above or below) of how little real estate this board takes up.  It is right next to my volume pedal, which allows shorter 1/4″ cables to be run.  For live gigs, this can help cut back on any unwanted noises coming from ground loops, dimmer lights, etc. that may show up in your guitar signal.

Pedal Steel Pedalboard Player's View


I have not included the cables in these pics, to make everything easier to see visually. When connected, they are easily hidden from view and organized via wrapping underneath/thru the pedalboard (this is how the board is designed). This keeps everything neat, tidy, and only shows the cables where needed.

Pedal Steel Delay, Tuner, and Volume Pedal

With 1/4″ cables running for volume pedal and other pedals, as well as separate power supplies for volume pedal and pedalboard, keeping the cables organized, tidy-looking, and secure/safe from other musicians on the bandstand is a must.  If you look closer at pedalboard pics at top of page, you can see the design allows plenty of room for hiding, securing, or wrapping cables.  Black zip ties work well to secure cables to pedalboard and remove slack, while somewhat camouflaging themselves.

Pedal Steel Pick Art - Smiley Face

Check out my gear section for more related articles on pedal steel gear…

 

 

Pedal Steel Volume Pedals – Passive or Active?

When considering what type of volume pedal to use for steel guitar, one must look at the differences between active and passive volume pedals.  I would begin discovering these differences by looking closer at passive volume pedals that Goodrich make, or pot-less active types that Hilton make.  I’d also recommend trying both types with your pedal steel guitar and your amplifier, if possible .

Both active and passive types of volume pedals have their pros and cons.  I own and use both types, depending on the situation.

Practice or Recording Station for Pedal Steel


Goodrich volume pedals (with pot) – Passive volume pedals whose components contain a potentiometer (often called pot), and don’t need to be powered or plugged in.  The pot does need to be replaced every so often, much like an oil change on your car.  You’ll know it needs replacing when you hear a scratchy, clippy distortion sound coming through your amp every time you vary the volume level with the pedal.  This is assuming your cables and other gear are functioning properly.

I think of these passive types as “Analog” in design and sound, much like old vinyl records.  You will get a warmer, down-to-earth, more tube-like sound or tone.  That’s usually a plus, as well as not needing to power it in any way (no need to plug it in).  The only down-side I have found to this type of volume pedal is having to replace the pot every so often.  This is only because you have to find a good replacement, and put in some light labor to install it.

Goodrich Pedal Steel Sustain Box


Hilton volume pedals (no pot, electronic) – Active volume pedals with an electronic circuit, which need to be powered or plugged in.  They will usually come with appropriate power supply, but these can be fragile, short in length, and can accidentally get unattached from unit (not good if playing live!).  However, these pedals can last indefinitely with a working power supply.   Again, like an oil-change for your car, you may find yourself needing to replace the power supply every so often.

I think of these as more “Digital” in design and sound, much like CDs or compact discs.  You will get a more clear, crystallized, definitive sound or tone.  This can be great, especially in the modern studio, where you want more definite control/isolation of your sound.  Some of these also allow the player to vary the action, or output level of the pedal, so you can alter your heel position to taste.  This is nice for your muscle memory.  I like these pedals a lot, except for the power supply, which is fragile and sometimes unreliable at live shows (I’ve had a drummer accidentally kick mine out in the middle of a set/song, which cut out all my signal – goodbye steel player from set until problem is solved, Yikes!)

Pedals on pedal steel, with Hilton Volume Pedal. A floor-view of the steel's pedals, and the volme pedal


Check out the Steel Tracks for demonstrations of volume pedal technique, and the importance it can play for pedal steel players.

Pedal Steel – Tuning Options

Pedal steel tuners – choose one that works for you.  Consider tempered tunings, pedalboard/mounting, quality, and price.

If you tune pretty close to straight Equal Temperament (ET), A=440 Hz, like Buddy Emmons did later in his career, the Polytune (below) is a good tuner to use.

Pedal Steel Tuners - A Non-Tempered Tuning Pedal for Pedal Steel Guitar - TC Electronic Polytune

You can get a good in-tune sound from your pedal steel if you tune almost like a guitar player does: straight A=440 Hz, for all 10 E9- neck strings, but drop your G#’s by a couple cents (or looking at tuner, have them very slightly flat). Your ear will get used to it over time (if you’re used to tempered tunings), and you ear and muscle memory will compensate with slight bar slanting for different inversions and relative chords.  Even with pedals or knee levers depressed.

Since the polytune is a guitar pedal, and doesn’t come factory with any capability of attachment to the pedal steel, I’ve found attaching it to a reliable pedalboard to be the best option. Also, keeping it close enough to comfortably turn on/off with your hands or feet is a must. You must also be able to comfortably view it, and simultaneously tune the keyhead or pedal action. This is one option, with a view from the cockpit.

Player's View of Pedal Steel Tuner


Tempered Tunings

I find playing with a tempered tuning great at home, or playing solo, but challenging when playing with other instruments, especially keyboards.  If everyone on the bandstand is tuning electronically, chances are they’re tuning close to straight ET; and if you do too on steel, chances are you’ll sound more in tune with them. That’s my experience, and I’ve tried both types many times.  Nowadays, ET vs. JI seems to be mostly a matter of the player’s personal preference and ears for pedal steel.

Pedal Steel Amplifiers – Tube or Solid-State?

What is the best amplifier for pedal steel guitar for me to use?  Are pedal steel amps the same as guitar amps?  You’re not alone if you’ve ever asked these questions…

Finding an amplifier that works well for pedal steel can be tough.  The amp must be able to handle the pedal steel’s large frequency range, hot output (need amps with higher wattage), and unique timbre.  It may be best to first decide whether you’d prefer a solid-state amp, or a tube amp.


Solid-State Amps

These amps have the advantage of being lighter, cheaper, and low-maintenance.  Your sound will be more clean, digital, and rounded.

I am currently using the Peavey Nashville 112, which is a well-made solid state amp that is still manufactured.  It can reproduce the pedal steel’s frequency range well, for both necks, high-end and low-end frequencies.  It has lots of built-in capabilities great for a steel player that I find myself using: XLR balanced direct output, pre-eq ins and outs, post eq ins and outs, and the headphone jack for silent practicing.

Peavey Nashville 112 - Pedal Steel Amplifier - Best Amplifier for Pedal Steel Guitar


Tube Amps

These amps have the advantage of sounding beefier, warmer, and having some growl.  The best description of a great tube sound for pedal steel: it should make your bar slides and notes sound like they’re a combination of melting hot lava, electrifying lightning, crystal-clear glass, and beautiful fire-fly light all at the same time.  (How long did he think of that simile?)

Most played are vintage, as few manufacturers nowadays make tube amps with enough power/headroom to handle a pedal steel’s hot output and large frequency range.  Players commonly seek Fender Twin series amps that are made during a certain era, which are specifically good for pedal steel guitar.  If you find the right one, it will could sound like a million bucks.

Pedal Steel Amps

Finding a tube amp that works well for pedal steel can be tough.  The amp will also likely be expensive, heavy, and loud.  However, these are trade-offs that are totally justifiable though: the tone you’ll get from these some of the best out there for pedal steel.  Even though it lost a lot of frequency range, I used to play thru a Mesa Boogie F-50 for more blues/rock based tunes.  It sounded amazing, and had that great tube sound.  I wish it could’ve handled the lows and highs, and output of my instrument better though.  That’s why I’m no longer playing it: my personal pedal steel tube amp search continues.


Best Amplifier for Pedal Steel Guitar - Peavey Nashville 112 - Reverb and Master Gain

 

Walker Pedal Steel Seats

One advantage of playing pedal steel is you get a good excuse to invest in a hip, cool pedal steel seat.  Great for sitting on, storing your steel accessories  (it opens up like a suitcase), impressing your bandmates, and one-upping the electric guitar player.

Walker Pedal Steel Seat

This is my Walker pedal steel seat, made by Billy Knowles in Kenansville, NC.  You can check out my visit with him here.


Pedal Steel Seat - Accessories - Steel Guitar Seats

A back-side view of the seat situated in my practice area.  I chose the color of the upholstery to be black, to match my ’98 Emmons LeGrande II.  Billy Knowles made the seat for me in his shop on the day I purchased this steel from him.