Playing with Expression Part 6 – Using the Volume Knob

By Rob Thorpe

Welcome to part six of our mini series on playing more expressively. In the previous column I talked about using your pickup selector to shape the tone of phrases or individual notes while playing.

This time we’re moving on to another of the onboard controls: using the volume knob. Far from just being an on/off switch as many players use it, we can create some very musical effects by using the volume knob, bringing even more depth to our playing. Players like Jeff Beck and Steve Morse are very adept at adjusting the volume pot while playing, which gives each note a ‘swell’ reminiscent of the slower attack of bowed strings or wind instruments.

Depending on the model of guitar you have certain elements of this lesson may be more difficult, as each brand puts the controls in different places. The preferred style is a strat or Ibanez style guitar where the volume pot and pickup selector are right under your fingers in the normal playing position, whereas Gibson and Gretch style guitars place them further away from the strings, forcing you to move your whole hand when using the volume knob.

Of course, the same effects can still be got by placing a volume pedal between the guitar and amp, preferably before any effects too.

Adjusting the output of the guitar can change the tone of each note. This is most apparent when playing through a small valve amp, where the overdriven tone is produced by putting a high input signal across the valves, by using the volume knob we can clean up the tone as well as adjusting the volume. Having this ability to change the tone right from the guitar itself is very useful to be able to play different phrases with more or less overdrive. We discussed this briefly in the dynamics lesson (part 4 here) where digging in with the pick could deliver more grit, and this technique extended the same principle.

Using the volume knob Example 1

Our first example starts off simply by playing long notes each with a volume swell from completely off to completely on. This technique is also commonly known as ‘violining’. You should try to pick slightly before the beat to allow for the time delay caused by fading the note in.

To be able to multitask with your picking hand, try curl your pinkie around the volume pot while still holding the pick in the normal position. The overall motion is a combination of down picking from the wrist and contracting the little finger as it grips the knob.

Using the volume knob Example 2

In our second example, I’ve attempted to imitate a pedal steel guitar. These instruments frequently combine bending multiple strings with a volume pedal. Prepare the doublestop bend beforehand and pick the strings with the volume completely off, and bring the pot up before audibly releasing the bend.

Using the volume knob Example 3

The final example uses volume swells in combination with a rhythmic delay trick. We are having to play a scale sequence in continuous 1/8th notes, all with quick volume swells. However, the delay is set to a dotted 1/8th note so the overall effect of 1/16th notes. Several players have used this unique textural combination, including Yngwie Malmsteen and Albert Lee. The tab shows only the notes you need to play, and the notes created by the delay are added to the notation in brackets. If you don’t have a delay pedal that can select rhythmic subdivisions, then the delay length is 400 milli-seconds.

Recommended listening: Jeff Beck is one of the most expressive voices on guitar, and has a very personal command of the guitar’s onboard controls. Also listen to Steve Morse, and slide virtuoso Derek Trucks for other very melodic uses of volume control.