There are various ways to practice volume pedal technique for pedal steel guitar. Focusing practice time and effort on developing good volume pedal technique, will improve a pedal steel player’s skills on the instrument. The volume pedal is an important part of the steel player’s “voice”, and has a definite impact on a player’s style, tone, and character on the instrument.
When first playing pedal steel with a volume pedal, it is a good idea just to get comfortable with having your foot on the pedal, in a proper position/angle. There are so many simultaneous variables involved with playing pedal steel; slowly getting more comfortable with each aspect of playing will reap the greatest rewards for the aspiring player. After all, we don’t want to be great at just using the volume pedal, and leave other important technical aspects of learning the instrument on hold.
To begin getting comfortable with the physical aspects of using the volume pedal, having a base position, or starting point to work off of, will be beneficial. Most things are built from the ground up, and having a strong foundation to work on can go a long ways. Most professional pedal steel players will have their foot at this “starting point” on the volume pedal for the majority of their playing. Only when they attack or pick the strings, will they gradually engage the volume pedal, using it as a sustain mechanism and producing longer tones. For more about this idea/technique, read my article “How To Use a Volume Pedal for Pedal Steel Guitar”.
The “starting position” of the pedal should not hide the attack when picking/playing notes on the pedal steel guitar. The attack is the immediate sound and timbre one hears as soon as the string is picked. This is not the note itself per se, but more of the actual sound of the picks striking, or attacking the strings. This is a common mistake by beginners; they may not feel confident on the instrument yet, and cover up the attack of their notes in an effort to hide their picking technique. It is best to avoid this, as great sounds and tone can come from the pedal steel with a bolder approach – picking strongly, while using the bar and volume pedal to reinforce this via sustain, will make players have a more impacting impression on listeners. Professional players often have solid, full tones because they pick strongly, or as some say “play those notes like you mean it!” In other words, have something you want to say through the instrument, and say it with confidence through your playing and volume pedal.
The starting position will vary depending on the volume pedal brand/type, the amplifier’s gain settings, the pedal steel guitar itself, and how hard you pick too. I’ve found from playing, and watching other players’ use of the volume pedal, that having the volume pedal about 25% engaged is a good starting position (at 0% there is no volume coming through signal, at 100% there is full volume from signal). This leaves a player plenty of headroom for sustaining the notes by gradually engaging the pedal, and probably doesn’t hide the attack too much. Even volume swells from professional players that produce that classic “floating, ethereal, crying sound” will have a slight attack audible on those notes before they are sustained and swelled upon. Are you having a swell day so far?
Having the volume pedal steadily hovering around this 25% when playing or not playing, will begin crystallizing the muscle memory in your right foot. Eventually we will want this right foot to act as the dynamic voice for the instrument, much like great singers can raise or lower their voice as the music calls for. If you hear a louder or softer note in your mind, and you want to communicate it through the instrument, your right foot should instantly be able to follow these dynamics without thinking. This will take time and practice, but will be worthwhile. I actually believe the sounds associated with the steel guitar and proper manipulation of the volume pedal, are what got me interested in playing pedal steel guitar in the first place. So have fun with it too, as it is an integral part of the steel guitar’s vocabulary!
Keep in mind that having your foot on the volume pedal, at the 25% starting point, may be uncomfortable at first. The right foot’s muscles may get tired quickly, and want to rest on the ground or another position, however it is usually best to try to power through this as long as comfortably possible. Over time these muscles will develop and strengthen accordingly, and you will be very comfortable with leaving your foot on the volume pedal in the correct position for as long as you play. Like running a marathon, we need to train these muscles gradually so they can be ready for the actual race. When race day comes, you will have a leg up on the volume pedal, literally and metaphorically.