As a musician and a gear nerd, I created this website as a platform to document knowledge on gear and music I acquired through much trial and error over the years, in the hopes that someone out there will find this information useful. Thanks for visiting!

- Euntaek

Volume Pedals

Volume Pedals

 
An Ernie Ball Volume Pedal Jr. on my pedalboard

An Ernie Ball Volume Pedal Jr. on my pedalboard

 

I must admit, I have a strange fascination for volume pedals. I’ve tried almost every type of volume pedal in the market, and at some point owned a good number of them as well. I’ve been debating whether I actually need a volume pedal since the day I started playing guitar - one sits on my board right now, but I know that at some point I’m going to think to myself “do I really need this?” and perhaps even take it off the board, just to put it back on a few weeks later. For me, this indecisiveness primarily comes from the fact that volume pedals are typically big and heavy, taking up much precious pedalboard estate.

This article is for those who are considering getting a volume pedal, as well as those who own one but are finding it less useful than they initially thought. I hope, by the end of this article, you have enough information to decide for yourself how the volume pedal can serve you.
 


Contents:

  • 1. Background
    • a) What are volume pedals?
    • b) Types of volume pedals
  • 2. Usage
    • a) Desired effect
    • b) Placement
  • 3. Selecting a volume pedal
    • a) Budget
    • b) Sweep & Taper
    • c) Active or Passive
  • 4. Potential issues
    • a) Tone suck
    • b) Strange taper
    • c) Wear & tear
  • 5. Recommendations
  • 6. Summary

1. BACKGROUND

 

a) What are volume pedals?

As obvious as it may sound, volume pedals are pedals that control the volume of the input signal. Typically, a volume pedal is constructed with a foot-operated lever that increases/decreases the volume depending on the which side of the lever is depressed. Its purpose is to provide you with an option of controlling the volume with your foot, instead of the volume pot on your guitar, if so desired. Now, some people may be wondering why a volume pedal is necessary when there is a pot on the guitar that is there specifically for this purpose - don’t worry, I’ll get to that later.

 

b) Types of volume pedals

If you’ve browsed the web for any kind of information on volume pedals, you’ve probably seen the amount of variety that is present in the market. All the terminology thrown around by manufacturers can get pretty confusing, so here I lay down the types of volume pedals present in the market, based on functional design.

 

- Active

Active volume pedals require a power source to function. There are several reasons why a volume pedal would require a power source:

i) Buffer: Some manufacturers opt to build in a buffer into the volume pedal, so that the sweep of the pedal is always the same whatever the input source may be. This also means that if you required a buffer in your signal chain (see my previous article on Buffers for more information), an active volume pedal with a buffer can serve as one.

ii) Construction: While the majority of volume pedals are constructed essentially as foot-controlled mechanical potentiometers, there are some that use optical sensors (using the amount of light passed through to an optical sensor to the output signal level), and more recently, the Hall effect (using a Hall sensor to measure the strength of a magnetic field to determine the output signal level), and these require a power source to function.

 

- Passive

Passive volume pedals do not require any power to function. As stated above, they are basically potentiometers controlled with your foot. Because they are passive, the potentiometer values determine what input source the volume pedal is suited for:

i) High impedance: These use pots that are suited for high-impedance signals such as a passive guitar.
ii) Low impedance: These use pots that are suited for low-impedance signals such as electronic keyboards & active guitars.

 

Sidenote 1 : Misleading product names
 
With the terminology in classifying volume pedals defined above, it is possible to address an important source of confusion present in the volume pedal market.
One of the most widely available and used volume pedal brands, Ernie Ball, offers a model of volume pedal that used to be named “Ernie Ball VP Junior 25k Active Volume Pedal”. To those who found this name confusing, you should be, because this pedal isn’t active - it’s a passive volume pedal that uses a pot suited for active input sources. They’ve recently rectified this by changing the name to “Ernie Ball VP Junior 25k for Active Electronics” (finally), but there are still retailers selling it with the old, misleading name, not to mention the old name has been around for many years before this change took place. Hope this clears this up once and for all.

2. USAGE

 

a) Desired effect

It’s easy to classify the volume pedal as a one-trick-pony, but there is quite some versatility to it depending on how you intend to use it. The pedal is not only capable of making quick volume adjustments on the fly or muting your rig in between songs, but it is also capable of actually producing “effects” - any volume-based effect such as tremolo can be replicated to some degree by the use of a volume pedal, and you may just find it opening up new methods of expression for you. Experimenting and finding out what you want it to do for you will  also inform you of where you’d like to place it in your pedal chain, which I’ll be talking about next.

 

b) Placement

The placement of a volume pedal in your pedal chain greatly affects the way that it can be used and what it is capable of doing. The 3 most common places to hook up your volume pedal are:

i) First in line: This makes the volume pedal behave more or less like the volume pot on your guitar, just controlled by your foot. If you have any drive pedals in your chain, the amount of saturation will be affected by your volume pedal setting as it now controls how much signal feeds into the drive pedals - that is, if you perform any swells, the volume will increase as the amount of drive increases.

ii) Last in line: In this case, the volume pedal performs as a master volume control. You control how loud your entire signal chain is, and when the volume pedal is set to 0, nothing passes through, including all the noise/hiss potentially generated by your drive pedals earlier in the chain.

iii) After drives, before time-based effects: Putting the volume pedal after your drives means that there is no change in the saturation of your signal when you operate the pedal. This placement option will also allow you to let your time based effects trail off when you decrease the volume to zero, as opposed to cutting everything out completely.

 

Which placement is right for you? It depends on what you want to achieve. Placement option (a) is for those who like how their guitar volume controls interact with their pedals, but do not have the luxury of constantly looking down and adjusting their volume pots on their guitar e.g. guitarists who sing, who are required to constantly strum as well. If you need to do volume swells, it’s either (a) or (c) - you may like the signal saturating more as you swell in, or you may want your gain level to stay constant while swelling into your time-based effects. For simple master volume work, (b) will do the job for you.

 

Sidenote 2: How I use the volume pedal
 
As for myself, I place my volume pedal as per option (iii), and use it in the following ways:
 
- Clean boost: Even though I have a clean boost pedal, I put it before my drives to saturate them further if need be. I leave the volume pedal at 75% or so most of the time, and kick it to full when a clean boost is required
 
- Swells: For a period of time I was performing swells with the volume pot on my guitar, but I didn’t like the fact that the gain was changing as I swelled in, and the compression from the drives made my volume swells inconsistent as it was ramping up the volume too quickly, which meant that I had to adjust how fast I swell in depending on how saturated I had my drives. Placing the volume pedal after the drives solved both these issues for me, allowing me to perform swells without changing my gain, and not having to constantly adjust the speed at which I swell in. It’s also great to have the delays trail off naturally when you decrease your volume.
 
- Volume control: For a while now I have not played squeaky clean - that is, I always have at least one drive pedal on all the time. I like drives that clean up well, so I typically have it set to somewhere I can get a bluesy lead tone with my guitar volume on full, and just back off the volume pot when I want something cleaner. Unfortunately this also decreases the volume of my signal (not just the gain), which is when I use the volume pedal to compensate for that so the overall volume level stays consistent. This means I’m basically adjusting my volume pot on the guitar and the volume pedal pretty much all the time. 

I’ve made this setup work for me but it’s definitely not for everybody - find what you need a volume pedal for (if you think you even need one) and see what position suits you best!

3. SELECTING A VOLUME PEDAL

 

Here comes the interesting part. The amount of variety of volume pedals available in the market is pretty staggering. There are offerings from the large manufacturers (Ernie Ball, Boss), extending all the way to the small, boutique ones (Hilton, Goodrich, Lehle), as well as quite a number of companies that offer modification services for existing volume pedals. It can be quite challenging to find something that you want out of the whole list, so here are some recommendations and a few things to keep in mind when making your decision:
 

a) Budget

As usual, this is first priority. With the options available in the market, the price range of the volume pedals ends up being rather wide. You could find a used Ernie Ball for $50, or go for a new Hilton at $319. Sure, some people can scoff at how much you’re spending on a volume pedal, but if you use it often and it’s important to you, that’s what matters… And that you actually can afford it.
 

b) Sweep & Taper

Once the money problem is out of the way, I believe the first thing to consider with volume pedals is the sweep & taper. By sweep, I mean the range of movement the volume pedal provides (the larger the throw of the pedal, the more control you have over the setting of the volume) and the resistance to movement (typically user adjustable to some extent). If you’re considering a volume pedal for anything other than a glorified mute switch, how it feels under your foot and its ability to precisely control the volume & stay at that volume when you take your foot off (yes, there are pedals that start rocking back to one position when you lift your foot off) are quite important. The taper is the volume curve of the pedal throughout its range of sweep. Volume pedals don’t work in a linear fashion (e.g. 10% of the throw of the pedal is not 10% of volume) throughout their sweep range and each pedal has its own volume curve. The best thing to do is to try them out, but in case they are not readily available for testing, reviews available online can typically can help you out to some degree.
 

c) Active or Passive

When you think of this, think of whether or not you want the volume pedal to be buffered. As I mentioned above, the primary reason for making a volume pedal active is for the built-in buffer that allows you to have a consistent sweep wherever you put the volume pedal in your chain. Naturally, the output signal from the volume pedal is buffered, so if you’re in need of a buffer, this could fill that role as well. On the other hand, if you do not have a spare power supply output and/or already have a dedicated buffer, you could consider passive volume pedals.
 

Selecting passive volume pedals are slightly more complicated due to the fact that they are sensitive to what type of input they see. Mismatched impedances typically lead to issues with the volume taper (e.g. volume increase is too sudden, seemingly no change in the first half of the pedal's sweep range) as well as tone loss, so it is important to know how you want to use the volume pedal, and to be familiar with your current setup to gauge how the volume pedal would react in different parts of your pedal chain.
 

A high-impedance volume pedal likes to see a high-impedance input. For the sweep to be consistent all the time, it either has to be first in your pedal chain immediately after your guitar, or after a true bypass pedal (or multiple true bypass pedals) that won’t be used together with your volume pedal. Note that this is for passive guitars - If you use active pickups like EMGs, your signal is buffered into a low-impedance at the output of your guitar, so a high-impedance pedal won’t work very well.
 

A low-impedance volume pedal likes to see a low-impedance input. You want a buffer before it (a buffered pedal such as a Boss pedal would work as well), preferably close as possible to the volume pedal, as if the buffer is placed farther away from the volume pedal, it is possible that the impedance isn’t low enough after the signal passes through multiple pedals to work correctly with the volume pedal. If you have true-bypass pedals you leave on all the time, it could serve the same purpose as well, though because these are not designed to be buffers, you may want to experiment with them and see if the output impedance is sufficiently low for the volume pedal.
 

If none of this buffer/impedance stuff made any sense to you, you can check out my article on buffers here.


4. POTENTIAL ISSUES

 

Many volume pedal issues can be avoided if some thought is put into selecting the correct one for the job, but alas, there are some issues that people are bound to run into if they have, at any point, used a volume pedal. Here, I lay out most of the potential problems volume pedals may give you:


a) Tone Suck

Tone suck, usually a loss of high frequencies, is quite possibly the most common issue that people encounter with volume pedals. Typically, active volume pedals don’t have this issue (in fact, they are built specifically to avoid this, on top of keeping the sweep consistent), but many passive volume pedals do. It is important to keep in mind that any passive volume pedal is capable of causing this issue, regardless of its quality.

i) When low-impedance passive volume pedals are driven correctly with a buffer placed before it, there will likely not be any issues with tone loss, but if it is matched with a high-impedance signal (e.g. straight from the guitar), the impedance mismatch will give rise to some degree of tone loss.

ii) A high-impedance passive volume pedal first in line is essentially having another pot on your guitar on the floor, but connected with a longer cable. This loads down the pickups (with the cable capacitance contributing to it), and it is possible to experience some tone loss. Although this is how it was designed to work, extra passive components = more loading and it cannot be avoided. It can be negligible to some, but it is definitely present. Needless to say, pairing a low-impedance passive volume pedal with a passive guitar will also cause some degree of tone loss from the impedance mismatch.

iii) Many of the passive volume pedals come with a tuner output. This is an output that is always active, regardless of the position of the volume pedal, and is designed to allow users to remove the tuner pedal from the pedal chain, and give them the ability to tune silently all the time by putting the volume pedal heel-down while leaving the tuner pedal on all the time. Unfortunately, the tuner output is typically wired in parallel to the output, which means the input signal is basically split in half when the tuner output is used. In order to minimise tone loss, I would generally recommend you don’t use the tuner output if the volume pedal happens to be a high-impedance passive one that’s first in your chain. Using the tuner out with a low-impedance volume pedal that has a good buffer before it should make the tone loss negligible, but in some cases may still be noticeable.
 

b) Strange taper

We touched upon this topic in section (3) above. By strange taper, I mean problems such as having the volume increase too slowly/quickly as well as feeling that the first half of the volume pedal doesn’t seem to do anything. Again, active volume pedals usually do not suffer from these complications as the internal buffering always makes sure that the sweep remains consistent whatever the input signal. In passive volume pedals, these issues are caused by impedance mismatches, and are more apparent in volume pedals with a very small sweep range as they accentuate the sudden changes in volume with minimal movement. To minimise issues with taper, always make sure the impedance of the signal matches that which the passive volume pedal is designed for.
 

c) Wear & tear

All volume pedals will suffer from some kind of wear and tear, as with most things that move. The majority of volume pedals are still designed using a foot-controlled mechanical pot, and not only do the pots wear out or get scratchy as dust builds up over time, the mechanism that translates foot movement into pot movement also constantly degrades. If you are worried about this, there are volume pedals that use designs that minimise wear and tear by not using mechanical pots (e.g. Lehle, Hilton, Morley) that you can consider.

 

Sidenote 3 : Ernie Ball Volume Pedals and strings
 
The pedal that seems to have caused the most grief among owners is the Ernie Ball Volume Pedal. In all of their volume pedals, the medium that transfers the foot movement to the pot movement is a string. These strings are notoriously prone to breakage (no surprises there), and even after Ernie Ball switched the string material to Kevlar years ago (previously it was made of cotton, dear me), there seems to be no shortage of people breaking their strings. There are replacement string kits that are sold by Ernie Ball, but these are ridiculously hard to install. I’ve been sticking to it because it’s a beautifully constructed pedal with a nice wide range of sweep and great feeling travel that I have yet to find in another pedal, but attempting to replace that string brought me close to throwing it out of the window - and I’m pretty handy with these things.

5. RECOMMENDATIONS

 

I’ll be basing most of these recommendations on the ones I’ve actually tested over some period of time. Do bear in mind that volume pedals are quite a personal thing, mainly because of the fact that everyone has a different idea of what their ideal sweep/taper should feel like. Many volume pedals do come with a way to adjust the tension, so that could possibly provide you with a way to get the pedal dialed in where you want it.

 

If you simply want the best volume pedal possible that isn't too large, I recommend the Thru-Tone modded Ernie Ball VP. It's got a dual buffer (input & output), and an impedance pot to control the amount of high frequency attenuation, and a custom pot & treated string that's meant to last much longer than a normal Ernie Ball VP. You'll be able to put this anywhere in your chain, and if you have a setup where you don't have a spare power outlet, you can flip the active/passive switch and have it work like a normal high-impedance passive volume pedal. Same great construction, sweep and throw as a regular Ernie Ball VP as well. For a modded VP, it is a little on the expensive side, but in my experience it's the best one I've come across.

 

If you're looking for an inexpensive passive volume pedal that does its job well, I recommend the 25k Ernie Ball VP Jr. or the Boss FV-500L. These are both low-impedance volume pedals, so they should be placed after a buffer. They are well constructed and have great sweep, and they are also inexpensive and easily replaceable. That means if you're on the road and one breaks, it will be easy to find another one at any guitar store - this is an important factor to consider if you tour a lot. The Boss is a lot larger than the Ernie Ball though, so do consider the space constraints when choosing one.

 

If you're looking for an active volume pedal and not concerned about size or price, the Hilton Pro Guitar volume pedal is the one. it's built like a tank and uses an infrared control system (no pots to wear out), and if you need it, you can set a minimum volume. Nothing much to say here, the sweep and taper is great and it's of extremely high quality, though it comes with a hefty price tag.

 

If you're looking for something small, there are several options out there. So far I have not found a mini volume pedal that I've actually liked (I have tried the AMT LLM-2, Hotone Soul Press, and the Boss FV-30H/L), and it's mainly due to the fact that I want a wider sweep. These are space-saving but I just can't get enough travel from the pedal. There are some I would like to try that supposedly have a nice sweep range like the Tapestry Audio Bloomery (really interesting design - it's space saving in width, not in height like most of the others) and the new Dunlop DVP4 Volume (X). People really seem to dig these but I haven't come across either of them yet to try.

 

The volume pedal that I really want right now is the Lehle Mono Volume. The geek in me really wants a volume pedal that uses a Hall Effect sensor, and while I would love to own it just for that, the benefit of having no pots to wear out and having the fantastic Lehle buffer with an optional boost circuit is great as well. From what I've read, it has a very smooth sweep with less resistance than most volume pedals - this might be what I will likely replace my Ernie Ball VP Jr. with when it bites the dust (I don't know whether I could plow through another string replacement session).

 

Please do note that this is not an exhaustive list - there are plenty of other manufacturers that make volume pedals with their own set of unique features that may be what you need. As much as possible, try them out with your setup before you buy a volume pedal, especially so if you intend to use it often.


6. SUMMARY

 

I hope this article did its job as a primer for those who are unfamiliar with volume pedals, and as a source of more detailed information for those who were looking for it. I tried to be as thorough as possible with use cases, as well as potential issues and how to circumvent them. A volume pedal is not for everybody, but I don’t think it’s something you can determine the need for without actually trying one (preferably a decent one). Maybe it’ll help you, maybe it won’t, but you won’t find out unless you experiment. 

Buffers

Buffers