Tag Archives: Pedal Steel Volume Pedals

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.


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

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.