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.