There’s barely anything as exciting for a guitar player as building a pedalboard. Although things sometimes might get too geeky, focusing on all the simple details, it’s still one of the most fun things to do. Just imagine all those effects that will not only make your music more exciting but will help you express yourself better through playing. Which is, at the end of the day, the very point of guitar pedals and all the other equipment.

But having this in mind, there are some things guitar players tend to overlook. Being overly focused on the distortions or some other fun effects, they do often forget that they’re supposed to be a part of the band and that their pedals have a role bigger than they thought previously. Especially if they’re a member of a larger group or orchestra where the dynamics are of great importance. One of these pedals that guitar players just keep forgetting about is the compressor, and it seems there aren’t enough words to express how important it is. There’s also another one that’s as important as compressor, though people still tend to avoid it and look down upon it as if its only purpose is to take the money out of your pocket. We’re talking about volume pedals.

While they might be boring – probably the most boring pedal in existence – they are essential for a good pedalboard of a professional guitar player. With this being said, we’ll use the opportunity to share some details about them, explain how they work, and give some examples.

How it works

It’s pretty simple, really. The very obvious feature is that it resembles a standard wah pedal, featuring the well-known rocking part. Other obvious parts include the input and the output jack. In addition, volume pedals usually have the “minimum volume” knob, which sets the volume level for the “open” position of the pedal, ultimately the pedal’s overall sweep.

In its essence, the volume pedal is like any volume pot. The mechanism inside is pretty simple, and the moving part of the pedal just tweaks the volume pot inside. The maximum volume is always the same and depends on the rest of your gear. The volume pedal does not work like a booster, you can only lower the volume of your original signal.

In addition, many volume pedals these days are also modified to work as expression pedals, controlling certain parameters of other pedals that have the option for expression pedal connectivity. There is a separate jack on these volume pedals that can be connected on this other pedal using a stereo cable. It’s not rare to find pedals that can work with an expression pedal, and these usually include stuff like auto wahs, filters, choruses, phasers, and other pedals.

Here’s an example of an average volume/expression pedal. This one is a bit battered Boss FV-300L and it has seen some action as an expression pedal for an automatic wah. The “Minimum volume” knob also works as the minimum level for the parameter it is controlling as an external expression pedal. (All photos by the author)

Here’s how it looks inside. It’s pretty simple, working essentially as an average volume pot.

Here it is paired with a Boss AW-3 Auto Wah via a simple stereo cable.

Do I REALLY need it? Can’t I just use the volume knob on my guitar

Well, look – everyone’s pedalboard is their own business. At the end of the day, you do what suits your style of music and playing the most. However, almost all (if not all) genres will have some dynamics involved, with different instruments being louder or quieter in certain songs or certain parts. This is where the volume pedal comes in to save the day.

Is there anything else I need to know?

While the whole concept of the volume pedal is pretty simple there are some things you need to bear in mind. There are high impedance and low impedance volume pedals. According to general rules, the low impedance volume pedals, like the one pictured above, go later in the signal chain, after the distortion. The high impedance volume pedals, on the other hand, go earlier in the signal chain, sometimes even at the very beginning.

These two positions give completely different effects. Having a volume pedal before the distortion will determine how much signal goes into the dirt box, eventually doing a similar effect as a volume knob on a guitar. And the other option – if you have it later in the signal chain, it does pretty much the same thing as the master volume on the amp.

However, you also need to consider more placement options if you have a and/or reverb in your signal chain. If you put the after these atmospheric effects, you’ll also control the volume of the repeats of delays and reverbs, using the volume pedal to control your overall output in the mix. If you put it before the delay and reverb, the repeats themselves will not be affected by the pedal and will keep going a bit after you completely turn your signal to the minimum.

So why are these low and high impedance things important? Well, if you place the low impedance at the beginning of the signal chain, your tone will get all soaked up, especially the distortion on, losing a certain deal of its original sustain and power. According to some sources, this can be corrected by putting a buffer pedal in the signal chain, something like a regular Boss tuner. For keyboard players, it is recommended that they use low impedance volume pedals.

All of these are, of course, not the strict rules to follow, but just the best ways how you can get the most out of your original without any additional signal loss or unwanted noises.

Aside from the low and high impedance and all the placing options, you need to pay attention to the obvious thing – that the pedal is of good build quality. You don’t want it to be all loose and fall down to the “closed” position and bring the volume all the way up while you’re playing this really quiet rhythm part. The one pictured above required some tweaking and improvised repairing in order for it to work properly after a few years of use.

What are some good volume pedals?

Just like with anything else today, there’s so much to chose from. Here are some quality volume pedals that you can find today.