Ever wish that your clean tones were more evened out when you strum hard?
Have you ever tried playing a “chicken pickin” style lick, but notice that you’re missing that squished tone that you hear on country records?
Or maybe you’re playing a guitar solo and you’re looking to get some added sustain when holding out long, soulful notes.
Believe it or not, the effect known as compression can solve all of these issues.
In this list I’ll be going over my top 6 picks for the best compressor pedal options that are perfect for guitar playing, no matter what genre you play.
Snapshot: Best Compressor Pedals in 2020
- MXR Dyna Comp – Best Under $100
- Xotic SP Compressor – Best Mini
- Aguilar TLC Compressor – Best for Bass
- Mooer Black Truck – Best for Metal
- Jackson Audio Bloom – Best High End
- Keeley Compressor Plus – Best Overall
While there are a lot of great rack mounted compressors perfect for the studio, in this article I am just focusing on pedal format compressors. These are most ideal for playing live, whether you’re a bassist, guitarist, violinist, or even a vocalist.
Let’s get started!
The Best Compressor Pedals On The Market
1. MXR Dyna Comp – Best Under $100
- In-line compressor “evens out” the signal to your amplifier
MXR makes some of the best compressor pedals around, but there’s no better pedal to start this list off with than what is possibly their most famous (and infamous) compressor pedal ever: the Dyna Comp. Known as the king of compression in Nashville, Tennessee, the Dyna Comp has a unique voice that is perfect for guitarists.
The first Dyna Comps were introduced in 1976 and it has been a staple in country music ever since. You can identify a Dyna Comp on someone’s board instantly when you see the red paint and two black knobs.
It is an all analog compressor with true bypass. While some compressors give you the ability to alter attack/release, the Dyna Comp keeps it simple. It has a built in attack time of 5ms and a release time of 1 second.
This may offer peace of mind to some (less parameters, less worries, right?), though for some this may not offer enough flexibility. The Dyna Comp is now offered in a mini pedal form, but the original is the cheapest and is a modern day classic that gets the job done.
This compressor pedal only has two knobs, which is good news for those that like to keep things minimal. There is a knob for Output, which allows you to adjust your overall volume once the effect is activated. The other knob is for Sensitivity, which can be understood as Threshold or the amount of compression added by the pedal.
Set this to the left for compression only under the most extreme circumstances, or to the right to compress everything. The Dyna Comp comes with a single footswitch and a red LED that turns on when the pedal is engaged.
The Dyna Comp has a sound of its own and is anything but transparent. It is most well known for having a dark tone, which is perfect for balancing out brightly voiced telecaster bridge pickups. This is why the pedal is seen on just about every pedal board in Nashville.
While many adore this dark tone, it may not be ideal for humbuckers, which sound darker and have a higher output to them already. Listening to a Dyna Comp is a great way to get used to hearing what compression can do to your signal if you aren’t familiar, as it is one of the most extreme compressor pedals out there.
- Effect Type: Compressor
- Signal: Analog
- Power Source: 9V
- Dimensions: 5.8 x 4.5 x 2.8”
- Features: True Hardwire Bypass
Final Thoughts on the MXR Dyna Comp
Though it may not be for everyone with its dark tone and limited controls, the Dyna Comp is perfect for those with bright clean tones or that want simple pedals. Many great compressor pedals, such as the famed Ross Compressor, are essentially a modded Dyna Comp.
The fact that MXR still makes this pedal regularly, with little change to the original design, signifies its success. If you’re new to compression and don’t want to break the bank, this is one of the best pedals to start with.
2. Xotic SP Compressor Pedal – Best Mini
If you need a compressor pedal but need it to take up as little space as possible, while still sounding like a top of the line effect, then look no further than the Xotic SP Compressor. Xotic’s mini pedals sound phenomenal and are built like an absolute tank.
Like I said, this pedal has a sturdy build that is ready for the open road. It is based off of the famous Ross Compressor pedal, with some modern updates that give you more control over the compression effect. This is an all analog pedal with true bypass switching.
In addition to the top mounted controls, this mini pedal also has internal dip switches for those who want fine tweaking capability. Overall, it’s an expertly crafted mini pedal that is perfect for your board or in the studio.
The pedal has two knobs; one for Volume and one for Blend. This is the first pedal to appear on this list that has a Blend control, which allows you to blend your dry, uncompressed tone with your wet, compressed signal.
This is a major improvement on the Ross style compressor, which doesn’t have a blend feature. There is also a little switch for Hi, Lo, and middle compression modes. Whereas most compressor pedals have a dedicated knob for this, the SP compressor simplifies the threshold to three standard settings.
Finally, there are a set of four internal dipswitches that function as follows (taken from the Xotic website):
To my ear, the SP Compressor pedal shares some of the dark tonality of the Dyna Comp, but it is much milder due to the fact that you are able to blend how much compression is added to your signal. You can also modify the high end using the internal dipswitches, which is a nice feature.
This is perfectly suited for clean, funk tones when set to higher compression settings, or just for evening out some extreme dynamics at lower settings. It manages to add a hint of character, without completely changing your sound. The Volume knob is also quite useful, as it can be an effective clean boost when the Blend is turned all the way to the left.
The blend knob also allows the pedal to play nicely with overdrive, so if you’re looking to boost/compress your solos, this is the way to go.
- Effect Type: Ross Compressor
- Signal: Analog
- Power Source: 9V
- Dimensions: 3.5 x 1.5 x 1.5”
- Features: True Bypass, Dipswitches for Attack, Blendable Compression
Final Thoughts on the Xotic SP Compressor
The Xotic SP Compressor pedal takes the essentials of good compression and distills it down into a high quality, well-built miniature effects pedal. It has a voice of its own, but that can be blended to your liking, making it great for subtle or overt compression. This is how compression should be done.
3. Aguilar TLC Compressor Pedal – Best for Bass
Compression isn’t just for guitar. Bass guitars have such a huge dynamic range that there are a number of great applications for compression, whether it be for taming slapped bass strings, picking, or evening out walking bass lines. The trick is to find a pedal that doesn’t squash your big tone. Enter the TLC Compressor.
TLC stands for Trans Linear Control, which is a dynamic circuit design that allows for minimal parts and low current draw. Essentially, this pedal is designed specifically for bass guitar and it does so in as straightforward a fashion as possible.
The TLC is made to impose as little distortion as possible, as this can get out of hand really fast on the bass. The newest version of this pedal is in a slightly smaller enclosure, making it much friendlier for small pedalboards. The TLC can be used as either a limiter, or a traditional compressor pedal.
Aguilar’s TLC Compressor has four knobs on it, and I have to admit the terms can be a little confusing if you don’t know what you’re working with. Level adjusts your gain that is lost after compression is applied. Slope can also be referred to as Ratio and it goes from 2:1 up to Infinity.
The Attack determines how quickly the compression is added to your signal. Finally, the Threshold determines at what point compression is added.
This is a truly transparent compressor pedal, which is perfect for bass guitar; no need to alter the EQ here. The pedal manages to preserve all your low end as well and doesn’t squish your bass to the point that it sounds tiny or thin. It can be set as a limiter or a compressor, depending on how saturated you want the effect to be.
This is achieved primarily by balancing out the Threshold and the Ratio to your liking. When in doubt, trust your ears! Even though this pedal is designed with bass players in mind, it would also be perfectly appropriate to use on guitar if you are looking for a transparent, subtle compressor.
- Effect Type: Limiter/Compressor
- Signal: Analog
- Power Source: 9V power supply or battery
- Dimensions: 5.37 x 2.8 x 2.3”
- Features: True Bypass, smaller case design, top jacks
Final Thoughts on the Aguilar TLC Compressor
While the TLC Compressor pedal may seem intimidating at first glance due to the technical language it uses, it’s actually a very straightforward, yet versatile compressor made with bassists in mind. Its transparency will keep your bass tone clear, while reigning in some of the harsher dynamics with grace. I could see this being used on guitars, vocals, even some drums if needed. This is a high end product and is the best compressor pedal for bass.
4. Mooer Black Truck Compressor Pedal- Best for Metal
- 6 effects pedals built into 1 simple unit. Compressor, Overdrive, Distortion, EQ, modulation, Delay/Reverb
Alright, I had to expand upon what constitutes a proper compressor pedal for the sake of Metal, but it had to be done. With metal guitar often being heavy in gain already (and therefor compression), adding more compression is rarely needed. That is where the Black Truck is perfect: it’s an all in one metal station with a great compressor if you need one.
The Black Truck is a portable, multi-effects unit built with metal guitarists in mind and it achieves its goal without getting overly complicated. Whereas many modelers have dozens of effects to boggle you with, this only has 6 effects built in. It’s like someone built you the perfect metal pedalboard/rig.
The reason I chose this as one of the best compressor pedal options for metal is because in addition to having a killer sounding Hi-Gain channel, it also features a multi-band EQ and (most importantly) a Gate control. Combine this with the simple, yet fantastic sounding optical compressor, and you are ready for Hi-Gain heaven. The compressor is designed after Mooer’s best-selling compressor, the Yellow Comp.
So, if you want the sound of this compressor, but not the rest of this rig, the Yellow Comp is a perfect choice.
The compressor in the Black Truck is simple to use and understand. It has knobs for Volume, EQ, and Compression. Doesn’t get much simpler than that. A fun trick is to turn the compression mix all the way down and then dial in the Volume and EQ for a great clean boost for solos.
The EQ can be operated in a traditional manner when using it for clean tones, but when using it in conjunction with hi-gain tones, it’s almost a must to dial in some EQ from the multiband EQ section of the board, as well as the noise gait, as compression can lift the noise floor.
Optical compressors such as the Yellow Comp found in the Black Truck are my favorite compressor pedals. They are naturally transparent and react to your dynamics in a really natural way. It can definitely be set in such a way that your heavier tones won’t be sapped of all their life, but you can rely on its responsiveness when tapping or playing solos.
The fact that the compressor has its own EQ means that you can boost high end frequencies for solos or cut them for chugging low end rhythm parts. This board is deserving of a full-fledged review, but in short, it sounds modern and was clearly made for heavy playing.
- Effect Type: Multi-Effect w/ Compressor
- Signal: Digital
- Power Source: MOOER PDNW-9V2A-US
- Dimensions: 14.57 x 3.78 x 2.01”
- Features: FX Loop, EQ, Gate, Hi Gain distortion
Final Thoughts on the Mooer Black Truck
The Black Truck may be overkill for someone who already has a near ideal rig built up for themselves. If this is the case, I would recommend an optical compressor pedal like the Yellow Comp or the Bloom (up for review next) where the compression won’t get in the way of your gain staging. However, if you’re looking for an all-encompassing metal rig to take gigging that has a great compressor built in, then this is a great option.
5. Jackson Audio Bloom Compressor Pedal – Best High End
Every guitar part that you’ve ever heard on a record has likely had some form of compression, EQ, and level adjustment. The folks at Jackson Audio realized this fact and created a pedal with all of these tone shaping features in one enclosure.
The Bloom by Jackson Audio is an optical compressor, three-band EQ, and boost pedal all in one. It’s like a mixing board fader just for your guitar. It also features programmable true or buffered bypass, so you can let it fight long cable runs if you prefer.
The Bloom features six different compression settings, each indicated by a genre and a dedicated LED light color as follows: (White = Limit, Green = country, Magenta = R&B, Blue = Ballad, Aqua = Slide, Orange = Aux). The pedal features dual compressors that are utilized in the Aqua mode, so that when one compressor ends, the other kicks in for extended sustain that is ideal for slide.
The Bloom has seven knobs, split into three rows pertaining to each of its three dynamic effects. The top row pertains to the optical compressor, with knobs for Volume, Blend, and Comp (Compression). The middle row of three controls effect the EQ, with knobs set in the middle creating a flat EQ.
Turning the knobs either direction lowers or raises these frequencies up to 12db. Finally, the last knob labeled Bloom adjusts the amount of boost. The left footswitch activates the Compressor, while the right activates the Bloom boost. To activate the EQ, simply hold down both switches. Newer models of this pedal even include MIDI control functionality.
This is probably the best sounding compressor pedal, or even general dynamic pedal I’ve ever heard. The boost lives up to its name. It truly helps your guitar bloom and it has this enticing squish to it that I thought could only be achieved from tube compression/saturation.
The EQ is simple, yet effective, and can make your guitar sound like it has different pickups than it does. The optical compression is really transparent, and the three controls work in tandem with one another. There are tips and tricks within the manual on how to find these perfect combinations, but the controls are straight forward enough that anyone can figure it out using their ears.
Even at maximum compression, the pedal sounds musical and doesn’t squeeze the life out of your signal. This is a beautiful, secret weapon of a pedal and is the best compressor pedal if you have a bigger budget.
- Effect Type: Optical Compression, EQ, Boost
- Signal: Analog
- Power Source: 9V
- Dimensions: 2.7 x 4.9”
- Features: True or Buffered Bypass, dual compressors
Final Thoughts on the Jackson Audio Bloom
The only reason this didn’t take the #1 spot on this list is because of its price tag. This is a unique and well thought out pedal design. Combining EQ and Boost with compression makes this a truly useful and versatile pedal. Pair this up with a great amp and your favorite guitar, and you may not need anything else. I want this pedal for my own board.
6. Keeley Compressor Plus – Best Overall
- Rackmount JFET compression in a compact pedal Sustain, Level, Blend, Tone and Attack/Release controls True bypass Made in the U.S.A.
Rounding out my list of the best compressor pedals is the compressor that changed everything for the modern player. Once Keeley created his own compressor (based off the Ross compressor as well), it became the must have compressor pedal for guitarists. This updated version is cost effective, easy to understand, and sounds amazing.
The Keeley Compressor Plus builds upon its predecessor by moving from two knobs to four and by introducing customized attack and release times tailored to your pickup type. It also has increased sustain due to an added expander circuit.
Its compression is achieved using JFET technology, giving the compressor character, as well as versatility for just about any instrument you put in front of it.
One of my favorite aspects about the Keeley Compressor Plus is that it puts its parameters into a language that is familiar for most guitarists. The Sustain knob determines the threshold. It has a level control so you can compensate for any lost gain.
It also has a control for Tone, allowing you to shape the voice of the pedal. Finally, there is an all-important Blend knob (new to the Plus) that takes you from your uncompressed clean tone to a full compressed sound. The switch in the middle is labeled for Single Coil or Humbucker, depending on which you use.
This switch activates one of two preset attack/release combinations that fit these pickup types appropriately.
The Keeley Compressor Plus has character, but it can be blended in or out to your liking. It has a certain warmth and resonance that I liken to the kind of compression you hear on good tape delays. It can give you smooth, jazzy compression, as well as bright jangly sounds depending on your guitar and amp combination.
The Tone is very useful and can help you tame high end (for all you telecaster players out there). If you’re looking for a Ross style compressor that is easy to use, this is your compressor pedal.
- Effect Type: Compressor
- Signal: Analog
- Power Source: 9V
- Dimensions: 2 x 2.35 x 4.41”
- Features: True Bypass, Blend control, Attack for Pickup type
Final Thoughts on the Keeley Compressor Plus
Keeley compressor pedals have been the Go-To option for professional guitarists for years for its warm sound and adaptability. It’s simple controls and terminology make it easy to understand, and therefore easier to use. For being such a well-built (by hand, no less) analog compressor, it still manages to come in at a price point that is accessible to many. It just doesn’t get much better than this.
How The Best Compressor Pedal Options Work
Whenever you play your guitar (or any instrument, for that matter) some parts will be loud, and some parts will be soft. This is called dynamics. While there are times that dynamics are wanted, sometimes unwanted dynamics such as strumming a clean guitar too loud, can cause unwanted clipping or can sound harsh to the human ear. Conversely, playing too quiet can cause its own array of issues in a mix.
This is where compression becomes a useful tool when recording or playing out. Compression works by controlling dynamics over time. This essentially makes your quiet parts louder and your louder parts quieter, resulting in a more uniform, less dynamic sound.
Even more confusing is the terminology that surrounds the effect. Compression pedals often have words like Threshold, Attack, and Ratio. These terms don’t seem very musical in nature.
That is because compression was first used in radio broadcasting and on early telephones to even out different voices to sound the same dynamically. Unfortunately, these technical terms have stuck around and have confused many musicians along the way.
In case you don’t know, here are the basic parameters of Compression to get you started:
- Threshold: (also called Sustain, Sensitivity, or Compression) determines how guitar signal it takes to trigger the compression effect.
- Attack: How quickly the compression is applied.
- Release: How long it takes for compression to stop being applied to your signal.
- Ratio: The amount of dry signal input compared to compressed output. This is represented as (Dry:Compressed) numerically 2:1, 4:1, 8:1, all the way up to infinity. As you apply compression, your output/gain will drop off, which means adding…
- Volume/Makeup Gain/Level: adding gain back to your signal. Often used to reach unity gain but can also be used as a boost.
- Blend: Also known as parallel compression. Allows you to blend your uncompressed clean tone with the compressed tone. Blending in your dry signal adds clarity.
These days, compression is used on guitar, bass, drums, vocals, and just about any other instrument you can think of. For guitar, its especially popular on clean guitar tones to help even out notes. This is used extensively in country and funk.
Overdrive pedals actually compress automatically through clipping, many choose not to add compression to dirty guitar tones, especially heavy gain guitar used in metal, as the signal is already heavily compressed. However, I included a compressor pedal in this list that is great for this type of guitar as well.
Why would you do that? You just said not to!
Well, even if you are playing an overdriven guitar part, you may want more sustain than what your amp or overdrive pedal is doing for you. This is most often the case in guitar solos or slide guitar, in which you hold notes out for extended periods of time. Compressor pedals work to level out your guitar signal once it starts to get quiet.
Compressor pedals can also be useful when you’re playing a lot of notes (think arpeggios or tapping) that you want to all sound even. Without a compressor, it’s almost inevitable that certain notes will be quieter or louder than others. Compressors can be great to even this notes out and make them sound more or less the same.
Dynamics with Confidence
The thing that compression does most for me as a player is that it gives me confidence.
It gives me the confidence that no matter how I play, I know that my dynamics won’t get too out of control. I find this to especially be the place in rhythm playing. My favorite type of playing is funk rhythm guitar.
Without compression, my percussive attack on the strings would sound uneven, and may even hurt the listener’s ears. However, with a good understanding of compression, I can play with full confidence that my guitar will sound even and controlled.
That’s how I look at compressor pedals. It’s a way for you to control your dynamics even further than your hands already do.
Despite often being a misunderstood and overlooked effect, compression can play a major role in your guitar’s tone. Whether it is evening out your string attack, or adding sustain to your lead lines, compression can help round out your sound.
It was my hope that I could shed some light on compression and share with you my thoughts on some of the best compressor pedals on the market.
The more you understand how it works, the better it will serve you. If you are new to the effect, start with something simple like a two knob compressor. However, know that this is only the beginning for what compression can offer you.
Have fun with your new compressor pedal!
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Davis Wilton Bader is a professional guitarist/writer based out of St. Louis, MO. He plays in the bands Lumet and The Outskirts.