A volume pedal for steel guitar is used to sustain the notes played, much like a modern piano’s sustain pedal, and can be used for a smoother continuity between notes and slides. By slightly hiding the attack of the picked notes with the volume pedal, and using a bar for vibrato, the volume pedal can produce a shimmering, crying effect when used correctly. This can emulate the human voice in a very detailed, unique way; by creating sonic nuances related to dynamics, delay, and equalization.
A steel player usually uses the volume pedal with their right foot, underneath the steel guitar, close to even with the player’s right picking arm. The player puts their foot on top of the pedal, with the heel of the foot close to the ground. This raises the toe of the pedal higher than the heel, much like you have your right foot angled over your gas pedal when driving. This allows you to push the pedal forward, in a smooth rocking motion, to raise the volume of the notes played. If you think about it like driving a car, then when you push the gas pedal forward with your toes (pedal to the metal!) you are activating the volume pedal and raising the volume of the signal.
Since pedal steel guitars have hot outputs (pickups) by design, when the pedal steel’s volume pedal is fully activated, the signal coming out of the amp will be very loud. Too loud! That is why proper volume pedal technique for steel guitar requires a player to keep the heel of their foot and the pedal lowered, keeping the signal at a slight percentage of fully activated. For instance, keeping the volume pedal at 25% of the level between off (heel down) and on (toes down), is a good starting point for working with sustain on the volume pedal.
As soon as a note(s) is picked, the steel player gradually increases the volume, in effect keeping the note(s) floating and shimmering in quality. This volume pedal swell’s timing, should actually keep the notes close to the same dynamic level as when they were first picked, giving the notes a long life musically; they become more sustainable. The notes can last longer, be more interactive with reverb and its tails, and also produce a crying-atmospheric quality.
A pedal steel is often known for the sound of its smooth glissandos between notes and chord inversions, enhanced by the proper use of the volume pedal. The sound we usually associate with steel guitar is in large part due to volume pedal technique, and bar vibrato.
The following examples display classic volume pedal uses with the pedal steel guitar; or those shimmery-crying, floating sounds so often associated with classic country music, and current Americana trends: