I get a lot of questions about how to control volume and how to set the amp and pedal volume controls. There’s no easy answer to this because volume isn’t an effect like a distortion and how and why depends very much on your technique and what your rig consists of.
It’s easy to just crank everything and get blinded by settings on the individual components but how you set one pedal will affect the other. This is a common mistake when one use David’s settings combined with pedals and amps that he doesn’t use. It’s also important to understand how volume affects your overall tone. The volume control on your pedals doesn’t just control the actual output but also the overall tone.
A tube amp will sound more punchy and/or distorted the louder you play and this will again affect your pedals. Different venues – bedroom, studio, club, stadium and their size and construction/acoustics) – demands different volume settings and you might realize that you have to do major adjustments between venues. Being able to control the volume also helps in terms of eliminating noise and generally improve your overall tone.
I always set my amp first then the pedals and if needed fine tune the amp. The best way to do this is to plug the guitar straight into the amp and set the EQ controls, output volume and master to match the venue or room I’m in. Then I plug the guitar into the pedal board and set all the pedals. The louder I set the amp the more I need to roll off the gain and volume on the pedals or else I get tones that are too aggressive. However you also want to have tones that suit the place and audience. A good example is the difference between David’s tones on the Albert Hall and Gdansk 2006 shows. Remember to keep the guitar volume and volume pedal at max when you set up your rig.
As explained above the effect volume should be set accordingly to the amp’s output but it’s also important to consider each pedal individually and in combination with the other pedals on the board like a distortion+booster combo. The pedal volume affects the overall tone of the pedal. The lower its set the thinner the tone. The higher it’s set the smoother it gets but set too high the pedal will sound too aggressive and be hard to control.
Depending on what tones you want you should always spend some time experimenting with different volume settings. If you combine gain effects (compressor, overdrive/booster, distortion, fuzz etc) it’s important that you match the volume of each pedal. If both pedals are cranked you’ll get feedback and a muddy tone but if the distortion pedal is set too low the booster won’t have the wanted effect and you’ll end up with a thin tone. If you look at David’s classic Muff+Tube Driver combo both pedals are set fairly mild with the Muff volume around 50% (unity level) and the Tube Driver volume slightly above. Added mild gain settings you’ll get a tone that’s not that much more aggressive or louder than the Muff alone but the Tube Driver will gently colour the tone with its character adding attack and sustain.
The term boost is perhaps a bit misleading in regards to David’s tones but again, you should set your pedals according to what tones you want. I prefer mine a bit more aggressive than David’s so I always keep the Tube Driver volume higher than his.
The guitar volume control is a great tool for creating dynamics and for controlling gain, feedback, overtones and sustain. The fact that the guitar is in front of the pedals means that the guitar volume will control the signal or gain coming from the guitar to the pedals. This way you can effectively control the gain on your distortions and overdrives making even the meanest fuzz sound like a mild overdrive – an effective way of utilizing the potential of a single pedal, which again allows for fewer pedals on your board.
David is a master at using the guitar volume for controlling gain and creating so called swells with different delays by rolling on/off the control. In the clip below I’m demonstrating how to control the distortion by focusing on each note and rolling on/off the volume when needed. In the first part of the solo I’m controlling both the gain and sustain with the volume around 5 and further into the solo I’m increasing the volume for more gain as the song progresses into a full blown outtro solo. In regards to clean tones I often roll off the volume to 8-9 for controlling the overtones and attack.
Contrary to the guitar volume a volume pedal is normally placed either last in the chain or in front of the delays. This means that it controls the overall volume without affecting the character of the gain pedals. I have my volume pedal in front of the delays, which allows me to mute the signal and have the delays sustain. This sounds more natural when you finish a song or if you want to create swells without muting the gains.
Combining different swell/echo techniques with both the guitar volume and a volume pedal adds character and dynamics to your playing. Whether or not you need a volume pedal is up to you. The average plug and play rock n roller will often just use the guitar volume but I think a volume pedal is much more efficient for controlling big pedal boards, muting while changing guitars and for creating different effects or adding boost.
I urge you to always trust your ears. There are no rules but having some knowledge about volume and how it will affect your tone, whether you want to suppress it or crank it, will make your playing sound better and it’ll be easier to utilize the potential of each pedal in combination with your guitar and amp.