With the abundance of great techniques when playing the electric guitar.
An underutilized and fun technique is manipulating a volume pedal after string attack for creating ‘ambient’ and ‘spacey’ sounding swells.
So where does the volume pedal go on your pedalboard for ambient swells? Is there an optimal position in the effects chain? Let’s dive right in…
The volume pedal should be placed after the overdrive/distortion section but before the time-based effects (reverb and delay) within the effects chain. This allows for a ‘long trail’ essential for the delay and reverb to continue ‘sustaining’ the sound when the volume pedal is cut off.
This will make more sense with an infographic! A very basic ambient pedalboard would look something like this…..
- Compressor (optional)
- Overdrive pedal – (optional)
- Volume pedal
- Modulation (optional)
Keep in mind, there is no right or wrong answer when it comes to volume pedal placement in your effects chain.
As it depends on tastes, playing style and what sounds you want to create. However, this is the best placement for ‘creating’, ‘ambient’, ‘spacey’, and ‘airy’ swells.
What are Guitar Swells?
‘Swells’ are created by killing the initial attack of the strummed strings, then slowly adding the volume ‘tail end’ of the note with a volume pedal combined with other pedals (delay, reverb, echo, and shimmer effects.)
This form of playing is a fun way of creating emotional textures and soundscapes, which is movement associated with post-rock instrumental bands.
Volume Pedal Placement Tips
A good point to remember is, the closer the pedal is to the beginning (right) of the effects chain, the more the sound will ‘trail’ through the other pedals.
The closer the volume pedal is to the end (left) of the effects chain, the more the sound will cut off when lowering the expression pedal.
Having a ‘long trail’ will be essential for the delay and reverb to sustain the notes even when the volume pedal has been killed off which is ideal for long air swells.
This Video Explains all Perfectly…
Good technique requires swelling the volume in soon enough to get the fullness of the note, but not too late that you miss the dynamic ‘ring’ of the plucked note or strummed chord.
For this reason, ambient guitarists usually place the pedal in this configuration, allowing the sound to trail more naturally creating a fuller and more ambient sound.
Placing the pedal in this configuration allows the signal to interact optimally with the delay and reverb, allowing them to decay out naturally instead of being cut off similar to a killswitch.
Volume Pedal or Guitar Volume Knob?
Volume swells can be accomplished by either using the volume knob or volume expression pedal. Using an external volume pedal, however, (in my opinion) yields more benefits for a few reasons:
- The expression pedal allows for precise control with the foot.
- The pedal ‘frees’ the hands for playing for maximum focus on technique.
- Different expression pedal arrangements within the effects chain can create different sound effects and textures.
The cool thing about adding a volume pedal in your arsenal is it can function in many interesting ways depending on how you manipulate your volume.
Other Volume Pedal Arrangements
Placing the volume pedal “before” your distortion and drive pedals, will emulate the function of the guitar volume knob.
If you were to lower the expression pedal in this arrangement, it would decrease the input gain essentially ‘cleaning up’ the guitar tone the same application for a guitar volume knob.
This may have some uses, as it can quickly add or lower gain using your foot instead of the volume knob for better control.
This can be useful on a pedalboard for a player who wants to add or loose gain for interchanging between rhythm playing and lead solos. Another added benefit is that your hands are now free from twiddling with the knobs of the guitar, distracting you from your playing.
Placing the volume pedal at the very end of the
For creating ambient swells this is not ideal, as cutting off the volume pedal with a sustaining note will kill the signal along with your delays and reverb losing the ambient sound. However, this function does serve well for using as a killswitch.
Delays and Reverb Section
This section is where the ambiance magic happens! This is how the textures will be layered with optional chorus, echo, pitch-shift, and optional vibrato effects.
For the optimal post-rock swell tone, usually, delay based effect goes after any optional modulation effect such as chorus or tremolo.
The delay adds the ambient wash and texture to the sound, which any good digital or analog delay will accomplish. The last piece of the puzzle is the reverb pedal which sits last in the effects chain to “wetten” the tone and provide room ambiance.
There are many reverb pedals to choose from, but ideally, a reverb pedal must include a slow decaying reverb type such as “cathedral”, “hall”, or “shimmer” for a big sound and spacey effect.
Ambient Board on a Budget
It’s worth noting when creating an ambient pedal board from scratch, the delay section can get quite expensive as some effects units can price up to $300.
I would not recommend breaking the bank for these units, as any ambient pedal board can be built on a budget.
With the popularity of ambient effects nowadays there are some great entry level delays and reverb with shimmers, tape echos, pitch shifts, and wet reverb to satisfy any ambient tone freak.
Meaning it would be best to pay the extra $80 for a good delay or reverb pedal as it will be a better long-serving investment.
What About Distortion?
Placing the volume pedal after the overdrive/distortion section allows no interference with the “saturation.” Meaning you can crank the drive pedals gain and the volume pedal will only affect the “master volume” and not the gain and saturation of the drive pedal.
Obviously, if you are going for a cleaner ambient sound, you can bypass the overdrive section. This is useful to know if you want to use any overdrive pedal as a subtle boost on your pedal board.
(Side note) Fuzz or heavy based distortion pedals are not the best pedals for ambient swells.
I only recommend an overdrive based pedals to offer a subtle clean boost to thicken a tone, without oversaturating and ruining the ambient effect. A clean overdrive boost will also help cut through a band mix during a live performance with other instruments.
Using a Compressor for Swells
Depending on how well your guitar sustains, having a compressor first in the chain is optimal for cleaner tone swells. Mainly because a compressor will add sustain, allowing the note or chord swells to remain audible for longer.
An engaged delay pedal will also mix well with the compressor, as the decaying delays will have more attack and include a richer tone.
A compressor also creates a rounder and fuller tone which will give your swells more “punch” enhancing the ambient and airy feel of the textured sound.
A guitar with humbuckers will already include a naturally compressed sound. A single coil guitar, however, will benefit hugely as compression adds a wider dimension by enhancing the quieter sounds produced from the guitar giving the tone more character.
With the popularity of post-rock ambient tones, the volume pedal will be your best friend when producing long sweeping ambient sounds with your guitar. Having a rough knowledge with pedal placement will assist in creating elegant and ambient tones.
This post has given you some solid advice for the correct placement for guitar swells but as always, I would recommend experimenting with your pedal arrangements to see what works best on your quest for tone. Thanks for reading!