Volume Pedals And Steel Guitars
Getting tone right for the steel guitar
last update: Sept 18, 2011

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Index


Darn Country Music
Pumpinī The Volume
I Fought The Law And I Won
More On Pots
Going Digital



Darn Country Music

Country Music has been floating in and out of my life. Some times I darn love country, then again I canīt hear darn country. Currently itīs loving time. (Apart from that - the steel is not limited to country music...)



"I ainīt got nothing against rock and roll. But when your heart's been broken, you need a song that's slow. There ainīt nothing like a steel guitar to drown a memory.  Before you spend your money baby, play a song for  me.

Donīt rock the jukebox, I wanna hear some  Jones, my heart ainīt ready, for the Rolling Stones. I donīt feel like rocking, since my baby's gone, so donīt rock the jukebox, play me a country song."

- Alan Jackson, Donīt Rock The Jukebox

However, out with the old pedal steel and the steel bar and the picks and the ole volume pedal.

A volume pedal is crucial to the steel guitar, it lends a very dynamic and soulful expression to its tone. Unfortunately most pedals sold for the job are not fit for it, so letīs look how we can improve on the situation.

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Pumpinī The Volume

Volume pedals for steel guitars are used extensively. The volume pedal gets permanently pumped, much more than say, a wah pedal; this would only be used with discretion occasionally.

I guess that 50% of the pedals around are of simple mechanical type using a potentiometer as variable element, the rest will be mostly optoelectronic. The latter had accumulated a bad reputation in the past, because early specimens were tone suckers besides having an awkward range and being current eaters. So for the steel, most pedals are mechanical ones. Incidentally, this will be the pedal a typical specialized steel guitar dealer will stock by tradition.

A potentiometer gets fairly abused in this application, so early failure is preprogrammed and regular pot change inevitable. As with other pedals, a war has ensued, which pot law gives the smoothest volume control for the steel. Now the point is not to cut the signal off, this is rarely desired. This sounds awful and amateur. The point is to give some "breath" and sustain to the signal, to hide the attack and make the signal appear to sustain at a rate and magnitude that is entirely up to the players personal intonation and taste.

Mastering the volume pedal becomes a two-fold task, namely pumping permanently during playing by a process that is  mainly automatized and  keeping the pedal throw (and thus the volume cut back) even.

Unfortunately, the latter is entangled with the pedal type you use, the pot law you use (which may change once you replace a worn out one) and, curiously, even with the type of shoes you wear. Flat shoes compared to the ubiquitous country boots do position your foot slightly different under the steel, which may make an entirely different pivot point for rocking your foot. Since some positions are not comfortable for the  foot (where the toes are risen) this determines your amount of cut-back.

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I Fought The Law And I Won

So different logarithmic pot laws may not provide the solution we are seeking for.
It dawned on me when I recalled seeing a training video of a steel player:



"You can avoid to cut the volume entirely off by putting something like a 9V block battery under the back side of the pedalīs moving part. This provides an artificial mechanical stop point"

- quote from a steel guitar training video, source unknown.

A mechanical stop thus could provide some relief, but may be clumsy.

A current volume pedal maker has a seemingly digital pedal that allows to dial in several pot laws, but this may be of little use, not to mention the price tag. Also, for a steel the pedal should be rather slim to avoid raising the knee (and therefore the playing height) too high to maintain an ergonomical playing position, so not all pedals will do. I am pretty tall so I had to use a Goodrich lowboy model (L-120).

The Boss FV-50 volume pedal has a separate pot that adds some resistance to the ground side and therefore limit the maximum attenuation you can achieve with a full pedal travel to a preset level. This "stretches" the law of the potentiometer over a bigger mechanical travel so to speak. That is exactly what we need. Unfortunately, the Boss units will not withstand the rigours of steel guitar usage, so letīs make a homebrew solution.

The Goodrich unit has two output jacks in parallel (maybe for a stereo option using the same housing). I removed one and installed a linear pot instead. This is wired in series with the ground leg of the pedalīs volume pot and thus adjusts the maximum attenuation you can achieve. I used a 10k pot for the volume action (read later on why using such a low value is possible...) and a 5k for the cutback which results in a 2:1 ratio.

control box


Playing with a pedal like this is a breeze compared to the on-off playing I had before. It does exactly what one would expect and frees you from one burden while trying to coordinate your picking, muting, bar muting, foot pedals, knee levers and whatever. And you can alter the level of cutback at the twist of a knob.

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More On Pots

But this is not the end of the list of improvements.
One more aspect we must not forget is impedance. Most steel guitar volume pedals sold have 500k input impedance, which in parallel with some ampīs or effectīs input and together with alleged cable capacity is way too low to preserve tone. This is noticeable, you lose the sparkle and liveliness of tone. Steel players are nit-picky about their tone, so the first thing they get is either an active pedal or a separate impedance converter box in front of it (the lowboy model was not available with a buffer when I bought it, so I installed my own...)

Also, a 500k source as the pot will be does not exhibit breath-taking drive characteristics as well, so an additional driver after the pot would not hurt. Using a low-current buffer will preserve battery power for a long time even for two buffers. The pot now becomes an effects device with proper input impedance and drive characteristics.

Buffering the input of the pedal removes a lot of restrictions on pot selection we have otherwise. We can use about any pot impedance we like. I used conductive plastic pots with success. Being normally used as rotary position indicators (that  have not end-stops), they are fit for 10 million revolutions before they fail, which is a factor of 100 bigger than but the best carbon pots.

They only come with a linear law, but this can be changed with the addition of a simple resistor as shown in the secret life of pots. Since most conductive plastic pots do not have end-stops, they just roll over from min to max with a dead zone in between. This results in a bigger usable electrical rotational angle. Using a pot like for its full range may  therefore require a different (smaller diameter) bobbin for rolling up the thread that usually creates the pot angle displacement on such devices.
It was a simple milling job done by a friend in a short time.

As usual, I advocate installing a buffer or a dedicated external box they sell for the purpose. If a very low impedance pot (resulting 20k or so) is used, an output driver (buffer) may be overkill and thus may be omitted.

On the steel I have (a Sho-Bud universal), no controls are installed on the guitar itself (such as volume and tone). This sometimes is unpractial. I made myself a little passive external box that clips onto the leg of the steel containing a 1Meg log pot for volume (a load for the pickup which is inaudible) plus a series of small caps with increasing value on a rotary switch such as I have used it in my strat modification. This works well and preserves tone quality, but only in conjunction with a subsequent buffer of high enough input impedance.

control box circuit

Note: This type of tone control places a small capacity (in the range of up to some nF) in parallel with the pickup, which creates a resonant circuit with high Q, sort of a narrow band mid boost. A small resistor in series can dampen this effect if desired.

I now have pristine tone, volume and tone knobs on the guitar and a buffered pedal with a maximum cutback control. Country Heaven, here I come!

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Going Digital

The digital guitar processor I have (RP-500) has a similar maximum cutback feature by setting a minimum value on the volume pedal when full back. This does exactly the same thing, although the pedal certainly has a different throw and overall feel than, say a Goodrich.
While the RP-500 is certainly too big to fit under a steel guitar, the RP-350 may just fit (for 3 pedal E9 steels at least). However, their smaller brothers like the RP-255 will certainly fit, while having the same engine under their hood. They all share the same basic features needed: diverse reverbs of superb quality and diverse delay types (not much can be worse than a small Boss delay stompbox).

rp350 under the steel

Serious pedalling folks!

I had good results with selecting a vintage type amp simulation (which were, for all practical means, low gain and linear) and some 4x12 speaker simulation which should provide enough low end (N.B: selecting "direct" instead of speaker simulation certainly will provide tons of low end if you are not into recording). Mid scoops and boosts can be dialled in ad lib. The Digitechīs input impedance is with 500kOhms not overwhelming, but wonīt do any more damage to tone than a volume pot smaller than 1 Meg in your steel. I would, nevertheless, spend a buffer box.

So for a player on a budget, this may be the way to go. You get your delay, reverb, amp, speaker simulation, recording interface and volume pedal all in one box for a price that normally the volume pedal alone costs. And you see - less cables too.

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Update History
  • Sept 18, 2011: first release
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