In the early years of Dire Straits, Knopfler utilized a Morley volume pedal before switching to what became his mainstay, the venerable Ernie Ball unit.
In crafting his subtle guitar sound, Mark Knopfler relied on one of the most basic musical elements – volume. And the lack of it. From his early days with Dire Straits, he employed a volume pedal, the most simple of guitar “effects.” He used it, however, in a way never intended.
From some of the first fill licks in “Sultans Of Swing” played on his Stratocaster through the solo lines of “Brothers In Arms” with his Les Paul Standard, Knopfler used volume pedals to create swells and dives that colored his phrasing in a way no stompbox or rack effect could. Combined with his fingerpicking, rapid hammer-ons and pull-offs, and a powerful bluesman’s vibrato, the tremulous volume of key notes made expressive music.
Ernie Ball’s Volume Pedal was not so much a guitar effect as it was a fundamental tool. Yet Knopfler was not the first – or last – to use it as a true effect.
Roland Sherwood Ball began as a pedal-steel player, gigging around Los Angeles with the Tommy Duncan Band and playing dance music and Western swing. Duncan had been lead vocalist with Bob Wills’ Texas Playboys, so he knew how to swing! Fearing their pedal-steel guitarist’s name lacked that swing, the band nicknamed him “Ernie.”
In 1953, Ball heard tell of an upstart radio repairman who was making pedal steels and amplifiers, and set out to Fullerton to meet Leo Fender. Ball was an instant convert to Fender’s wares and their possibilities. He not only became a Fender pedal-steel endorsee, but opened a teaching academy for budding electric guitarists, and in ’57 opened (in Tarzana) what he would later claim was the world’s first music store devoted to electric guitars.
At the dawn of the ’60s, Ball introduced his Super Slinky strings with the all-important G string made in a light gauge, for easy bending. His first converts included Merle Travis and the Ventures before Jimi Hendrix and others made them famous as rock-and-roll’s favored strings.
The Ball volume pedal arrived in 1975, according to company history. The concept likely came from Ernie’s days playing pedal steel in a band; he was accustomed to the pedal controls on his “electric table,” so he built his own foot control, which allowed him to adjust volume to play solos, then ease back to play behind the band.
The original pedal’s chassis used two pieces of angle iron welded together. A strong string with a spring connected to the top plate drove the potentiometer, adjusting the output. The pedal was that simple. And that brilliant.
Ernie Ball’s Volume Pedal quickly earned a reputation for being reliable, durable, and basically indestructible. Truly, the only component that could easily break was the string, and you didn’t need to be a pro guitar tech or lab engineer to replace that. In fact, Ball received an endorsement from a customer who used his two volume pedals as car jacks; according to Ernie Ball Artist Relations and Marketing man Kevin Scoles, he carefully positioned the pedals in his driveway, and drove his automobile up onto them so he could replace an ailing starter motor.
The basics of the pedal changed little over the decades. The original’s side-mounted input sockets were moved to the front. The angle iron soon was replaced by a simple – and much lighter – aluminum chassis. It could probably still be used for car repairs, but it wasn’t advised.
While the volume pedal did not change in fundamental operation, it did evolve in sophistication. Ernie Ball began offering a range of models, including mono and stereo units plus pedals for use with passive or active electronics. But that was it. The simple foot pedal became a staple in many guitarists’ studio and road rigs.
Most guitarists used the volume pedal as Ball intended – a basic control to allow them to increase their volume to take a solo between verses, then back off, all without pulling their fingers away from the business at hand. The volume pedal might lack the sex appeal of a fuzz, phaser, or octave duplicator, but it did its job. And did it well, night after night.
Knopfler and others found further (and more creative) uses for the simple pedal. Some guitarists attempt to create volume swells by adjusting their guitar’s Volume knob with their pinky as they play. But that’s a test of dexterity many could never manage. The foot control solved that.
For the anthemic “Brothers In Arms,” Knopfler played with one foot almost always on the volume pedal. In fact, he used it as continuously – and as quintessentially to the song – as Hendrix used his wah in “Voodoo Child (Slight Return).” Knopfler could enhance notes with volume surges, add dynamics to phrases, create an organ-like tone in others. The Ernie Ball Volume Pedal helped give his Les Paul a voice.
This article originally appeared in VG December 2012 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.