Hello! Today I'd like to speak to you about one of my most important pieces of gear and why I keep one present in all my rigs: The Volume Pedal! A Tonal Tool in every right and circumstance, the volume pedal can often be overlooked for a simple reason --- it only controls volume right?! The common tendency is to think that a volume pedal is just another volume knob, which you've already got sitting right there on your guitar.... why in the H-E-Double-Hockey-Sticks would you need something you've already got!? Well, there's more than one way to skin a cat, and the same goes for volume pedals. Adding a volume pedal to your pedalboard systems can open up a new universe of tonal choices and layers that previously were not easily found. I'll get into all of that and why it's such a great tool. And of course there are better options for which Volume Pedal you might choose, in addition to how to run them, so I'll get into that as well!
Starting off past all of the above hyperbole, it is of my opinion, and many other great "Gear Gurus," that running a volume pedal first in line right after your guitar is a total waste of a great tool, and is actually just like having two volume knobs. Maybe you like having the ability to choose your volume with your foot? Maybe you like having a giant on/off button to silence the whole enchilada. I say avoid that all together, and use the volume pedal as a master volume. By putting the volume pedal after all your gain pedals (overdrive, boost, fuzz & distortion) but before your time based effects (delay, tremolo, reverb), you will essentially have a master volume on your pedalboard. This allows you to obtain any type of tone whether sparkly clean, slightly on the edge of break-up, all the way to total annihilation. The key however is you get to achieve this tone at ANY stage volume you like. This allows you to set the amplifier loud enough to "get above" the rest of the band, and just tune in that volume pedal for every musical moment. It's natural sounding and you get the benefit of the full richness of the tone without any issues with unbalanced guitar tones. It's a sound guy or gal's dream because you will be satisfied with your HUGE solo tones but they're at a level that's actually respectful for the stage and situation you're playing with. This technique has been used for ages in the live world but most often was found in studios, where session musicians had to match the levels and get the balance of tone, volume and presence in the sweet spot - and quickly.
Volume Pedal, Meet Volume Pot
Another very useful technique is to really get the marriage of the volume pot on your guitar and the volume pedal on the floor happening. This is where all the shades of color can come into play. Specifically with any tone, whether it be from an amplifier that's very dynamic and can go from clean to edge of breakup with just the signal being pumped into it, or by simulating that experience with a clean amplifier and using pedals --- you can get so much out of just rolling back your guitar's volume pot and using the volume pedal to compensate the balance of stage volume. This is just another one of the reasons the volume pedal is so important to my tone and work. It really helps me balance the entirety of what I'm doing. Couple that with the volume pot on the guitar and being able to get all those shades going, not losing any presence in the mix or being too loud, it's undeniably useful. To read more about the use of your volume pot on the guitar, learn the basics, and also tricks to get the most out of that tool, take a look here: TONE TOOLS ::: Clean "Roll-Off" ::: My First Effect
In a market that's flooded with so many options and companies making great gear in 2017, you might be wondering where to start. Not all volume pedals are created equally and not all sound or function as good as they could. Much like any piece of equipment, it's important to find the tool that works the best for you. I can however help point you in the direction of some of the best sounding ones, on recommendation from my friend and tone-man David Phillips at LA Sound Design.
One of the easiest and affordable choices being the Ernie Ball Jr. 25k volume pedal. They're available at every modern retailer online or in-store. They fit well on a pedalboard and have a nice "throw", being the action from heel to toe on the pedal itself. The only caveat to the Ernie Ball would be the string it employs to create the tension on the pedal itself. The string can break over time due to use and it simply getting older. They do last a very long time, but many guitarists including myself have had to have them repaired. Factor in having them widely available, sounding and feeling great, they're a good option.
My favorite and considerably the best option is the Boss FV300L. It is however unfortunately discontinued but can be found fairly easily on the used market. There are no strings in the housing, only metal. In fact the whole pedal is made out of nice molded metal. It's much larger than the Ernie Ball Jr. however, so you'll need to be sure you have the space on your pedalboard for it. Other than the robust features of this discontinued gem, I find that there's a bit more transparency in the tone of the pedal. Specifically in the middle and top end. It's not that it's brighter, there's just more of a natural tone to it. For that reason, I have them on all of my boards. If you have the space they're definitely worth hunting for. Note that the newer Boss FV500L is not the same circuitry and does not sound anywhere as good.
Hey Dude, Don't Volume Pedals Suck Tone?!
Yes they do, thank you for bringing that up! Volume pedals do suck tone, sometimes in the worst of ways, making the sound dull and lifeless. This terrible vampiric tonal nightmare can easily be avoided however by the use of a buffer. It's important, actually required, that if you put a volume pedal on your pedalboard, to have a buffer circuit before it. It can be a high quality buffer interface like the PI-01 or the BB-01 Boost/Buffer from LA Sound Design or it could be any pedal that has a buffer that's always on. Just be sure to have that pedal be before the volume pedal, and you won't loose any high end content, and your sound will ward off those tone suckers. If you'd like to skip buying a high quality buffer circuit for your rig, a simple Boss pedal would do the trick. The Boss pedal tuners are a good choice. Essentially, the buffer or buffered pedal helps "drive the signal" through the impedance loading and takes that darkened tone and brings it back to life. It's an important piece of the puzzle that must be utilized for the best results. The converse however is that if you have an extremely bright rig, you might like the the dulling effect, so as always don't just take my word for it... do what's right for your ears. For most rigs however, that would not be the case.
All in all, adding a volume pedal to your tool box can offer up a whole new world of interactivity and dynamics to your sound. It's easily one the most important pieces in my rigs. I rely on that control in both the studio environment and on stage. Being able to match the actual volume and offer a balanced presence in a mix is a very attractive trait as a working musician to have. When playing for the song is the most important task at hand, having tools like this at your disposal are invaluable.