Compressor pedals have been an essential piece of pedalboards since the early days of rock and roll, yet they are seemingly the most underrated types of pedals.
The functionality of a compressor pedal should never be underestimated though, as when used correctly, it can add an entirely new dimension of color and character to your sound.
“Why do I need a compressor pedal when I already have my plethora of distortion and effects pedals though?”
To simplify the answer, compression helps give your sound more sustain. As a guitarist, it can help give you everything from that tight, funk tone, to the long, gritty blues notes, to the legato-style hammer-ons and pull-offs, all by squishing the spikes in your sound and boosting the signal when it is too soft.
Finding the right compressor pedal for guitar can be tough though, especially if you’ve never used one before. Luckily, we’ve curated a list of some of our favorites on the market, as well as a little guide for picking out your own.
- 1 Top 5 Recommended Compressor Pedals for Guitar
- 2 Parameter Controls 101 - What to Consider Before Buying
- 3 Additional Parameters to Consider
- 4 Which Compression Type Should I Choose?
- 5 The Importance of Pedal Size
- 6 True Bypass
- 7 Sweet Release
Top 5 Recommended Compressor Pedals for Guitar
Having a good compressor pedal that is versatile is important if you want to be able to dial in a wide variety of tones for different styles of music. This is where the Hyper Gravity from TC Electronic takes the cake.
Not only is it one of the most flexible compressor pedals on the market, the price point isn’t that high either. To start, the build of this pedal is extremely tough and will last you a lifetime, even if you’re giving it a beating on tour.
On the face of the pedal, you have your sustain, attack, level, and blend knobs, a pretty standard layout.
Where TC Electronic really shines though is with the mode switch that allows you to pick between Spectra, Toneprint, and Vintage modes.
- Spectra gives you a beautiful, studio-quality multi-band compression that is very similar to one you would find in a DAW like Pro Tools.
- Toneprint allows you to build your own compression on software and upload it to your pedal, or take prints from other users to upload.
- Lastly, the Vintage mode gives you compression tones similar to those that you hear in old country or pop music. Think David Gilmour-style sustain.
Bottom Line: Not only is this guitar compressor pedal extremely versatile, but it also gives you a transparent sound that doesn’t suck away the highs as you play. This is easily one of the best compressor pedals on the market for the session guitarist who is playing a wide variety of music.
If you don’t have tons of real estate left on your pedalboard but still need to squeeze that little compressor pedal in there, the Xotic SP is a perfect choice.
The Xotic SP is built into a sleek, miniature chassis and is made to replicate the classic Ross Compressor - and does a great job at it!
You have three simple controls built onto the face of the pedal: Volume, Blend, and a Three-Way Switch. The Volume gives you up to 15dB to work with, the Blend helps you to mix your compress sound seamlessly with your clean sound, and the the three-way-switch changes the amount of compression (low, medium, and high).
If you want to really dig into this pedal, you can even modify the internal switches to get different kinds of compression tones. As for the overall sound, it is incredibly precise and gives you substantial dynamic range without sounding to squashed, though can definitely squish your tone when driven if you want that snappy funk.
Bottom Line: If you need a compressor pedal that is compact and great for small pedalboards, the Xotic SP is one of the best out there. It’s also incredibly versatile and has lots of tweakability for such a tiny build.
Best Budget Option
While buying any type of budget pedal might seem like a dangerous decision, the JOYO JF-10 is one of the few that gets the job done well. It’s also a great beginner compressor pedal with the simple and user-friendly layout.
As for the sound, it’s still pretty transparent and works without cutting out any of the highs, breaking the stigma of a cheap compressor. It is made to replicate the classic Ross Compressor and has a powerful attack that attenuates bass.
As for the actual build of the pedal, it’s very sturdy and robust and will last you just as long as that old Boss pedal you’ve had for the past 20 years.
The footswitch clicks well and the knobs have a nice, smooth turn, something you typically don’t get with cheap pedals. All of this is wrapped up in a standard-sized 9v pedal that will fit nicely on any pedalboard.
Bottom Line: One of the few great budget pedals on the market just happens to be a compressor pedal, and that compressor pedal happens to be the JOYO JF-10. While it may not be the most versatile on the market, it brings solid performance and transparency, something guitarists should be able to get with.
If you’re a sucker for boutique pedals, you might just fall in love with the Empress Effects Compressor Pedal. The body of this pedal is monstrous and is great for those who have no shortage of space or are dead serious about getting the best compression.
Because of the wide template of the pedal, you get not only your standard compressor controls but also some that are unique. Besides the attack, release, and mix, you can adjust the input and output independently and similarly to a compressor you might find in your DAW.
At the top of the pedal, you get a line of LED lights that give you a visual representation of how the pedal is working your sound. Next to that, you can toggle the ratio from 2:1 to 4:1, and even give it that limiting effect with the 10:1 setting. Essentially, you can dig deep into this pedal and adjust almost every physical compression parameter you can think of.
Bottom Line: If you have the money to spend and the real estate available on your board, the Empress Effects Compressor Pedal is incredibly versatile and gives you in-depth control like no other pedal on the market.
This Dyna Comp pedal is based on the one that was released in the mid-90s and still holds its reputation as one of the most reliable guitar compressor pedals out there.
You most likely recognize it, as it’s been featured on just about every major 90s’ guitarist’s pedalboard we can think of.
The in-line compressor is very simple and mostly evens out your signal before it hits your amp. The tweakability is limited, though the one thing it can do it does very well. You get natural dynamics and sustain with a transparent sound.
The control knobs include output (basically volume) and sensitivity (the amount of compression). It gives you tons of sustain without ruining your tone. The pedal is wrapped up in a famous little red chassis that is tough and will last you years to come.
Bottom Line: From smooth jazz tones to harsh metal sounds, this compressor can handle it all and has stood the test of time. If you want a good compressor pedal that is simple, reliable, and easy to use, the MXR Dyna Comp is the way to go.
Parameter Controls 101 - What to Consider Before Buying
Most guitar compressor pedals will come with a lot of the same basic controls, though there are a few that add their own unique parameters to stand apart.
That all being said, trying to compare a compressor pedal that has 10 knobs vs. one that has 2 doesn’t mean the one with more is any better. Here are some typical parameter controls you should look out for when making your decision:
Volume (sometimes labeled as level or output), essentially controls the level of the signal you are boosting. This means that you can set it to be the same volume as your bypassed sound or boost it hard to distort your amp.
Cheaper compressor may clip or distort too much when the volume is boosted too high, something that isn’t very desirable. Others may have a limited dynamic range, meaning the volume doesn’t change seamlessly as you adjust your knob.
Just as you would turn your guitar up and down and get a smooth volume transition from low to high, you would want the same thing with your compressor, and a quality compressor pedal will offer that.
The sustain control on a guitar compressor pedal, sometimes referred to as “sensitivity”, is how compressed your clean signal is. If the level of the sustain is set very low, you should get a signal that maintains dynamic range. If the level of the sustain is set very high, you get that squishy funk sort of sound.
A great compressor will be versatile and allow you to get the entire range of sounds in-between. If the sensitivity of the compressor is too high too soon, you’ll have a sound that lacks dynamic range. On the other hand, if you’re looking for that funk sound and can’t seem to set the sustain high enough… well, you get the point.
Attack / Release
Quick Compression Lesson:
The attack knob will direct the speed that the compressor kicks in at while the release knob will control how quickly that compressed signal “de-compresses” after it dips below the set threshold (that threshold being controlled by the level or sustain knob).
Different compressors have different attack and release times and some are better suited for specific sounds than others. In order to determine the “best”, we’ll keep our eye out for versatility.
Having a compressor pedal with adjustable attack and release times will allow you to get a wide range of sounds. Set your attack to short and you’ll be able to hit your signal fast and get that choppy sound, or set it to long and give your sound a little bit of breathing room. Set your release time to short and you can boost low-end frequencies or set it to short and get that “pump”.
Being able to experiment with and pinpoint different attack and release times can help you to explore different sounds and dial in the perfect compression tone for your guitar and amp.
Additional Parameters to Consider
Besides the standard parameters that we see on most compressors, more and more manufacturers are beginning to add other parameters to increase tweakability. Here are some of the more common additions that we see:
Sometimes when you compress your sound heavily, you compromise your tone. You might find yourself losing body in your signal or having the high frequencies sucked down when the compressor engages. Because of this, some manufacturers began including tone knobs that help to compensate for those lost frequencies.
If you’ve ever heard of parallel compression, that’s the best way to explain blend. Most of the time, guitarists will insert a compressor into their pedal lineup and just let it do its work. Not up until recently did pedal manufacturers begin to incorporate these blend knobs to give pedals a “send/return” type of effect.
Essentially, these pedals can blend in your clean signal with your compressed signal, maintaining your fundamental tone, all while getting the best of your compressed one. Having a blend knob like the one on the TC Electronic Hyper Gravity can help you control your compression immensely.
Which Compression Type Should I Choose?
Different compressor pedals will utilize various types of compression. Understanding the different types of compression, though subtle, will help you to understand what kind of impact they will have on your overall tone. Here are the most common types of compression that we see with guitar pedals:
VCA Compression, or Voltage Controlled Amplifier Compression, is probably one of the most common types of compression that is used in guitar pedals. This is because VCA compressors are incredibly versatile and work well within a wide variety of genres and sounds. VCA compressors utilize integrated circuits that help to control the amount of gain reduction. If you’re looking for a simple, transparent, and clean compressor, VCA’s are just that.
Optical Compressors get their name from the fact that they are built with an isolator circuit, photocell, and with either a small light bulb or LED. You’ll know that the compressor is working, as the light source will shine brighter the higher the level of signal you give it.
Attack times on these types of compressors are much slower than others, though they definitely output a very clean and transparent sound. You really won’t be able to get that gluey and tight sound with an optical compressor unless you drive it, though if you want compression that is smooth, this is where to look.
FET Compressors, or Field Effect Transistors, are basically a subset of VCA compressors with their own unique characteristics. FET compressors are meant to emulate tubes with more reliable solid-state construction. One of the most famous FET compressors around is the 1176. People love these kinds of compressors because they add a special color to your sound. One of the more unique FET compressors on the market is the compressor from Empress Effects.
OTA Compressors, otherwise known as Operational Transconductance Amplifiers, are compressors that have built-in chips that output variable current rather than voltage. These types of compressors are very fast and are capable of giving you heavy compression, perfect for funk or country-style chicken pickin’. The MXR DynaComp reboot and the Xotic SP are great examples of OTA Compression pedals.
We could write an entire article on the benefits and uses of multi-band compression, though that would take up a lot of space. What you should know about multi-band compressor pedals is that they are incredibly transparent and work by compressing only within certain frequency ranges that need it most.
Basically, you can choose to only compress low, mid, or high end frequencies, while leaving the other ones unaffected. This adds tons of versatility to your compression and allows to experiment with a wider variety of tones compared to other types of compressor pedals. A great example of a multi-band compressor pedal is the TC-Electronic Hyper Gravity.
The Importance of Pedal Size
When you start building your pedalboard, having the right amount of real estate onboard is essential. Unfortunately, most of us don’t have room, let alone the money, for large professional boards. For that reason, tons of guitarists are seeking out smaller pedals that don’t bite into that real estate.
Obviously smaller pedals are ideal regarding travel and space, though keep in mind that the smaller the pedal, the fewer parameters it will have to manipulate. Think of the Miniature Xotic SP vs. the massive Empress Compressor. This is not to say that smaller pedals don’t sound as good, as many of them pack a considerable punch, though you must make a compromise when you choose either.
A true bypass pedal won’t impact your signal when it is deactivated, while a buffered output pedal will boost the signal, even when off. There are pros and cons to each.
Buffered output pedals are great when you’re using tons of pedals or long cables, as they help to boost the lost frequency response that you incur with that cable length, essentially giving it a bit more beef before it hits the amp. The downside is that you sacrifice the natural sound of your guitar-to-amp connection.
True Bypass pedals are great in maintaining that natural, untouched signal, though when faced with long lines of cable, may lose a bit of clarity or power.
Overall, we really like what the TC Electronic Hyper Gravity has to offer as a compressor pedal for guitar. It’s so incredibly versatile and is truly able to replicate almost any kind of compression you can think of.
With all of the controls and durable build, it’s a pedal that will last you years to come.
Even if you don’t decide to go for the Hyper Gravity, make sure that the compressor pedal you do choose has a great mix of tonal qualities and dynamic parameters. Doing so will make sure that you can maximize the use of it as a tool for your music.
Now get out there and shred!