14 Best Compressor Pedals: Your Buyer’s Guide

A compressor pedal can perform a variety of jobs depending on where you place it in your guitar signal chain and what style of compressor you choose. Anything from singing, sustaining solos to country fingerpicking, a good compressor – much like a good overdrive pedal – is useful in a wide variety of styles. Below you will find the 15 best options for a guitar compressor pedal that will help you master your playing dynamics.

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What is a compressor?

Ah, compression. The occasionally misunderstood, oft-abused signal processing element present in almost every audio environment. Typically the domain of the mixing and/or mastering engineer, guitarists are well served by knowing what a compressor is and what it does.

A compressor is a device — whether physical or algorithmic — that decreases the dynamic range of an audio signal. Dynamic range is, in the simplest terms, the highest and lowest points of volume from a given sound source.

A compressor limits and reduces the highest points and boosts the lowest points to bring the two extremes closer together. The result is a more even, controlled tone that makes your total output more consistent and perceptibly louder. You'll hear some folks refer to this as "squishing" your signal.

Compression for a guitar player usually takes the form of a pedal, though certainly plugins in your DAW or a rack console might also do this job. You might use one to manage spiky pickups that respond a little too well to changes in your pick attack. You can use them to affect a certain kind of sound for a given passage, or even as a lead boost in place of a boost pedal. Compressors also increase sustain since, again, they're boosting quiet sounds, so as your signal trails off, the compression will add more gain and lengthen the end of your note.

Like an EQ pedal, compressors can also help you punch through a mix. As a matter of fact, guitar compressor pedals are at their best in a live setting. For one thing, you might need a healthy amount of volume to appreciate the full effect of what the compressor is achieving for you. For another, when you're just playing at home, it's much less likely that you'll struggle with volume jumps without the context of other musicians to illustrate how you might be taking over in certain places.

The decision to buy a compressor largely hinges on what problems you're trying to solve. If you are a very passionate player who tends to hit the strings harder as the show goes on, but you don't want your signal getting out of control, you might consider one. If your songs alternate between very loud passages and very quiet ones, you can use one to retain all the detail when playing playing softly. Sometimes, a guitar that really shines in the studio doesn't translate the same on stage and can use the assist. Or, as Dan from That Pedal Show says, a compressor is quite simply an overdrive for your clean tone.

Let's unpack that sentiment a little. If you've turned up the volume on your amp enough, you'll start to run out of available headroom, which then affects so-called "natural" compression by similarly limiting dynamic range since you can't go any higher. As headroom runs out, the signal clips, which is what generates that well-loved driven sound. A compressor intentionally decreases the signal while increasing the volume floor for the sake of evenness, usually keeping it well within the confines of your amp's available headroom.

Effective use of a compressor can mean that you get louder cleans that don't clip, which can have obvious benefits to the feedback you feel when playing. That relationship between amp and instrument is one of the core elements of good tone and, by extension, good playing. For more on amp compression, listen to Rabea Massaad's demo here.

By contrast, if you're using an overdrive or distortion pedal, the signal is boosted and clipped within the pedal's available headroom first, which results in a compressed signal before the amplifier. For a lot of medium to heavy gain sounds, a compressor isn't necessary at all. The compression achieved by boosting the signal until it clips beyond the existing headroom naturally limits the highs and lows enough that you are unlikely to struggle with unwanted volume spikes, even if you start playing harder.

Still, that doesn't mean you won't want one. There are just too many combinations of guitars, amps, pedals, and players to say for sure. Maybe you have a large tube amplifier with a massive amount of headroom, like, say, a Fender Super Reverb. You might not struggle with the amp clipping before you want it to, but because it has so much headroom, if you hit harder, the signal will be louder. Enter the compressor.

Maybe you have two different drive pedals that give you the sound you love at different volumes and you find yourself lost in the mix. Enter the compressor.

Maybe you have wildly inconsistent pick attack and don't want anyone to know. Enter the compressor. Ultimately, when your compressor is dialed in correctly for your needs, playing can be easier and the feeling under the fingers can be more satisfying.

Now that we've established a foundation, we can talk a bit about the different kinds of compressor pedals out there. The genre started out in the MXR Dyna Comp area of things (it appears on this list), which is a transistor compressor. This is probably the tone you'll hear when newer compressor designs refer to "vintage" compression. These tend to be dark and compress a lot, making them well-suited to bright but somewhat weak single coil pickups like in your old Telecaster.

Optical compressors use a light-based resistor and have a smoother response and overall character. There are OTA (operational transconductance amplifier) compressors, which is a similar kind of circuit to OP-AMP stages found in overdrive pedals, employed by the vaunted but discontinued Ross Compressor. Finally, there are the "studio" compressors, which tend to offer a higher degree of control than older designs.

When evaluating which to choose, you'll want to familiarize yourself with the parameters of compression so you can identify the control set you want. Compression is made up of the following controls:

    • Ratio: The degree to which the signal is compressed, or the multiplier of range reduction. 2:1 is relatively mild, whereas 10:1 is extreme.
    • Threshold: Determines the staring point of the compression.
    • Attack: Sets how quickly the compression is applied after the note is played. Set very fast, you can lose some transient response and feel, though this is sometimes desired and appropriate.
    • Release: The opposite of attack; determines how long after the note is played that compression should be maintained. Often called Sustain on devices meant for guitar.
    • Level: The output level of the compressed signal.

Simple guitar compressor pedals boil the first four controls down into one knob or switch, usually called Sensitivity or Amount or something similar. Most pedals available today offer more control than that, mapping to one of the parameters above. They also more and more often feature a blend knob that allows you to dial in your preferred amount of the original, uncompressed signal. This is very useful in maintaining the transient response and pick attack at the front of the note, which helps them play especially well with modulation effects and mild overdrive. Additionally, Tone knobs are becoming very prevalent, which allows you to dial the effect in to match your sound.

Where do I put a compressor in my signal chain?

The answer, 90 percent of the time, is at the front. This shapes and compresses your tone directly from your guitar and delivers that pristine signal to the rest of your effects. If you have a crushing sound from your pedals, you might want to put it at the end to produce a studio-like effect of summing the dynamics of everything in the chain.

Be aware that compression will increase the presence of any noise in your signal chain, so putting it at the end is a gamble if you don't have very clean power or noise mitigation utilities on your board.

This list is no particular order. All of these have been used and loved extensively and all have their place. We've chosen a range of price points from just under $100 to over $300. We've segmented the list into two sections: the first set are normal sized pedals, while the second set are mini pedals, because utility players like these needn't take up a lot of space if you don't want them to.

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