The Effects Rigs of 6 Modern Pedal Steel Guitar Players

The pedal steel guitar is most closely associated with American country music. But now, with country music decidedly more pop, you might think that the days of pedal steel are behind us.

Thankfully, that's not the case. A bevy of modern players are taking the pedal steel to new genres and sonic plains, building on the experimental work of '60s and '70s players like Sneaky Pete Kleinow and Pete Drake or contemporary experimental steel players like Daniel Lanois.

Pete Drake using an early talk box device with his pedal steel.

Here are a few of our favorite modern players and a look at what makes their sound theirs.

Robert Randolph

You can't talk about modern pedal steel players without starting with Robert Randolph. Credited as one of the 100 greatest guitarists of all time, according to Rolling Stone, the four-time Grammy nominee's love of pedals is no secret. In fact, you might have already seen our 2017 video with him running through some of his favorite effects.

We interviewed him again to get his latest lineup. When asked if using effects influences his playing style at all, Randolph says, "It has a lot to do with it! I don't know how or why, but it just does. The creativity and moods it helps create and helps you get into different sounds. I don't think any guitar player really expects how it'll hit you when you sit down and trigger an effect, it triggers a different emotion."

Our 2017 feature with Robert Randolph.

Three brands in particular speak to Randoph: Source Audio, JHS, and Vertex. "Those three companies make far superior pedals to other companies," he says, both in terms of durability or sturdiness and tone. He also speaks highly of the Telonics FP-100 Multi-Taper volume pedal. "It's the best volume pedal ever made... it gives you more sustain at the top of ten."

Randolph, however, acknowledges that not every pedal works for him—or the pedal steel in general. "Pedal steel guitar pickups are so much hotter than normal guitar pickups," he says. "A lot of the effects that are made, they've been tried and tested on standard guitars. Then, the pedal steel pickups, they're three times as hot, so you never really get the natural sound."

Other pedals just don't seem as necessary on pedal steel as they might be with a six-string guitar. Namely, chorus pedals. "They don't sound very good on pedal steel to me… the pedal steel already has so many notes on it. Adding chorus just sounds boring and cheap."

As for effects he'd like to try, he tells us, "There's more exploring I have to do." He mentions experimenting with gate pedals for distortion, but playing with a Vocoder or Talk Box à la Pete Drake are high on the list as well.

Randolph's Current Pedals:

Chuck Johnson

In 2017, Chuck Johnson wowed many with the release of Balsams, which was his pedal steel debut. Pitchfork gave the album an 8.1 and called it, "a fully realized sonic world, and one worth visiting for a long time."

Johnson doesn't use pedals and effects to completely warp the sound of his instrument. Instead, he wants to "enhance the clean sound of the steel," he says. In lieu of fuzz and filters, he focuses on reverbs and delays. "The pedal steel already has an incredible, beautiful sustain, but sometimes I want to be able to squeeze a little more resonance out of it," he tells us.

Even though he keeps his overall pedal and plugin setup simple, Johnson admits he's "a bit of a steel guitar heretic" in another respect: He rarely uses an amp.

Chuck Johnson - "Riga Black"

"If I played the steel in a more traditional context (like as an accompaniment in a band) then I think a classic Fender tube amp or a Milkman amp with plenty of headroom would be ideal," he says. "But my recordings and my live sound are more about processing the instrument. And when I play live I am also generating sounds more associated with electronic music, and those sound better with a full-bandwidth PA than they do with an amp."

One other effect element drives Johnson's playing and writing: looping. "The degrading tape loop effect is the foundation of my album Balsams."

"When writing solo material I often play around with making long loops, improvising until I find something that can form the skeleton of a new piece. Then I'll record that, just letting it loop for a long time until I get some nice degradation and resonance," he says. "The sweet spot happens when the tone gets rolled off and there is this chorus-y resonance that almost sounds like a choir. Then I'll edit shorter sections of those sounds to add melodic and harmonic layers, as if I am building a string quartet. And I usually add synth parts to form basslines or textures that I can't get with the steel."

There's one type of effect that Johnson just hasn't been able to jive with so far: speaker cab sims. "I've yet to find a speaker sim box that was very satisfying."

Current effects:

Tim Marcus

You might know Tim Marcus for his company, Milkman, but Tim is a stellar pedal steel player—a passion which has inspired the beautiful clean tones of his amps.

Marcus looks to his pedal steel effects like he would with any other guitar. "I find that using effects can add to the base clean tone of the pedal steel in the same way that it does for regular 6-string guitar. For the most part, the effects I use are adding to the clean palate rather than using drives or 'dirt' pedals."

JHS' 2018 video with Tim Marcus.

"In a perfect world I'm just playing straight into an amp with a teeny tiny amount of reverb mixed in," he says. "I only start adding effects when other people are like 'try this' or when I am doubling parts with the other guitar player."

That's not to say he doesn't have fun with pedals and effects. Though he doesn't have as much free time between his business, family, and the bands he's in, occasionally he'll find time to experiment. "Every once in a while I will have an opportunity to spend a few hours playing with effects with no other people around and I can get into some more ambient territory."

There are a few effects that Marcus keeps on his board. He tells us he rotates between the 20 or so delay pedals he has, because they "always fall in and out of favor." He also keeps a Phase 90 on his board, along with a rotary or vibrato pedal, an envelope filter, and the Electro-Harmonix Mel-9.

Marcus' routing is a buffer into the Mel-9 and envelope filter. Then he goes into modulation, drives, and delay before the Milkman The Amp.

But Marcus is unique among players in this list in that his board serves two purposes: the pedal steel and his telecaster. He plays both instruments through the same rig for the same gig, though he plays pedal steel for the bulk of the time. The buffer at the front of the board allows him to switch between the two without losing the high frequencies of the pedal steel.

You can see his circa 2018 pedalboard in this video with Josh Scott from JHS:

Maggie Björklund

Described as "the new prophet of pedal steel" by The Bluegrass Situation, this Copenhagen-based player has played with Jack White, X's John Doe and Exene Cervenka, Mark Lanegan, members of Calexico, and more.

Known for being a hired gun, Björklund's approach on whether or not to use effects depends on who she's playing with. "On some songs you really need to have that old school classic steel, but I have played with electronic music and progressive rock bands and there I use a lot of effects to blend in, in just the right way," she says.

Maggie Björklund - "The Dark Side of the Heart," live at Bremen

Regardless of whether or not she's using any effects, Björklund says the "sound always affects" the way she plays, "it feeds the notes that flow."

Among the pedals she does use, she cites the Boss OC-3 Super Octave. "It feels like stepping from 1 to 100… that weird and simple [pedal] has pushed me forward into exploring the steel in new ways that make the basis for my music," she tells us.

Björklund also has a lot to say about the Particle by Red Panda. "It has a lot of settings to cut up the sound and twist and turn it. I have a favorite setting that I use with the delay and it can make the steel sound like the sound is underwater, like the echo from a submarine."

Current pedals:

Jonathan Gregg from SUSS

SUSS is a self-described "ambient country quintet" based out of New York City, with pedal steel and dobro sounds by Jonathan Gregg.

"I think we're all inspired to find new sounds," Gregg says. "With a band like SUSS there's certainly a wide-open range of opportunity… That said, the sound of the steel is already so sonically rich that you don't need to augment it much."

SUSS - "After The Storm," live at Park Church Co-op

But that doesn't mean that Gregg foregoes effects. He almost never plays without reverb and delay, be it a traditional honky tonk band or with SUSS. And with SUSS, he also relies on his GFI System Jonassus Overdrive pedal and the Electro-Harmonix Pitch Fork. "[The Pitchfork] provides high and low octaves and can make your guitar sound like a Hammond B3. I use these occasionally for special color."

Though he says the pedals and effects don't affect his technique, they do have an impact on his approach. Gregg uses the Pitch Fork as an example: "When I first got the Pitchfork the first thing I started to play was Garth Hudson's intro to 'Chest Fever'—maybe not something I'll end up using much, but the sound is amazing and it's a fun challenge."

Ultimately, Gregg has a word of advice for pedal steel players looking to add effects to their setups. "It's good to try new stuff, but the important thing is to find a place for the sound in your repertoire in a way that feels organic to the music you're playing. Otherwise it's just a gimmick," he says.

Current pedals:

Susan Alcorn

Voted "Best Other Instrument" by the International Critics Poll in 2016, Susan Alcorn has garnered a reputation as one of the leading pedal steel players today. The Guardian has called her a "visionary" for her solo work, and she's performed with dozens of musicians in various genres, including country & western, jazz, and 20th century classical music.

When Alcorn started playing pedal steel, she wasn't looking to play the instrument in non-traditional ways.

A Susan Alcorn solo set at Experimental Sound Studio.

"I remember I went to an audition where the only question they asked was could I emulate the sound of a spaceship. (The sound the crew probably heard in space? Silence. The sound of the rocket taking off? Deafening roar.) I told them that I had no interest in doing that, and of course did not get the gig," Alcorn says.

That all changed in 1984 when she bought a Roland guitar synthesizer and asked Bill Bartolini to make a 10-string pickup with individual magnets. "Voila! I could make my steel sound like a trumpet, a pipe organ, a flute, strings, you name it. It was a lot of fun to play through, and I could blend the sound of the steel guitar itself with the synth."

Ever since, Alcorn has been on a sonic journey that doesn't just involve pedals. "Eventually I discovered, in my search for new sounds and timbres, that I could get more interesting sounds, effects, and subtle changes in tone just by the way I played, specifically the way I approach the note with the picks, volume pedal, and steel guitar's own pedals and knee levers." In addition to her pedals, these days she uses an EBow, saxophone reeds, and even pencils to expand her "vast universe of harmonics."

Current pedals and tools:

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