Are you wanting to buy your first compressor pedal, but don’t know how to use it?
Maybe you’ve had compressor pedals before, but always ended up ditching them because the parameters confused you.
Compressor pedals are a really useful tool for electric and acoustic guitar players, but they are easily one of the most confusing effects units to understand and use properly.
In this article I’m going to give you some quick tips on how to use a compressor pedal effectively.
Understand What a Compressor Pedal Does
Before we go over how to use a compressor pedal, it is helpful to understand what a compressor pedal does. In short, a compressor pedal evens out the dynamic range of your playing.
For an in-depth overview of what compressor pedals do, check out my instructional guide.
6 Awesome Ways to Use a Compressor Pedal
While knowing how a compressor functions is important, sometimes the easiest way to learn an effect is by playing. With this article I am going to list my top six favorite ways to use compression so that you can take these approaches as inspiration for you own playing.
I will explain pertinent parameters as I go where needed. I will also be providing sound examples for each so you can have a point of reference.
While certain compressor pedals will do some of these sounds better than others, any great compressor pedal will get you close enough, so don’t get hung up on the pedals themselves so much.
1. Country Chicken Pickin’ and Funk Rhythm
The most iconic compressed guitar tones come from two genres of music that seem drastically different from one another: Country and Funk. While these styles of music seem worlds apart, the ways that compression pedals are used are almost identical.
Both of these types of playing utilize clean guitars which can benefit from compression’s dynamic leveling effect.
In the case of country chicken pickin, which practically clean shredding, a compressor helps to make every note sound more uniform. It also makes sure that the muted strings come up to the same level as the actual played notes.
For funk rhythm parts, there is a great deal of muted string playing just like in chicken pickin. There’s also a lot of transience (dynamic range) when you strum a clean, electric guitar. In the case of funk guitar, a compressor allows you to strum hard and fast without creating harsh peaks.
- MXR DynaComp – The naturally dark and squashed tone of this compressor lends itself well to single coil pickups, which are frequently used in Country and Funk.
2. Post Gain Compression
One of the most common ways to use compression is pre-gain. While this effect order makes for a useful sound, another way to use compression is Post-Gain, or after your dirt pedals, for added sustain.
The important factor for this is to have a compressor with a Mix knob. This allows the compressor to blend in some of your dry signal so that you can keep the sustain, while taking out the “compressed effect” sound.
Then, bump up the Make-Up Gain, or Volume, of the pedal and you can get some added gain from your amplifier without clipping the signal. This works especially well if the compressor pedal is placed last on your board.
Recommended Compressor for Post Gain Compression
- Keeley Aria – Overdrive and Compressor combo pedal that allows you to choose the effect order for post or pre compression.
3. Two Compressors and a Slide
Stacking overdrives in series is a common technique that guitarists use for creating unique overdrive sounds, but a lesser known technique is stacking compressors. This is a technique made famous by Lowell George (Little Feat) and is especially useful in smoothing out slide guitar work.
This is a technique that really requires a lot of experimentation, but it offers you the opportunity to combine unique flavors of compression from different pedals. The differing EQ, Knee, and Ratios, combined with stacking the output gain of different compressors offers a lot of tonal variance that will lend itself well to smooth slide playing.
Recommended Pedal for Two Compressors and a Slide
- Origin Effects Cali76 Stacked – Emulates two 1176 studio compressors in one pedal
4. Boost For Solos
While boost pedals are the obvious choice for use in boosting your signal for a guitar solo, compressors are another pedal worth considering when you’re taking the front of stage.
Boost pedals almost always have a Make-Up Gain, or Volume, pot on them that have loads of gain on tap just like a typical boost pedal. What separates them from Boost pedals is that they add compression and as a result add sustain. This ensures that all of your notes are heard and that they sing.
This is an especially great way to use a compressor pedal if you’re looking to do a clean voiced solo where you need sustain, but don’t want any added drive.
The key to pulling off this technique is to select a compressor with a Mix knob. Roll the mix back about 30% and pump up the output volume.
Recommended Pedal for Solo Boost
- Suhr Woodshed Comp – Mini compressor with plenty of gain on tap and a transparent voice.
Thought I was going to leave bass players out of the discussion? Not a chance!
One of the best ways to use a compressor pedal is with a bass guitar. Bass is a rhythm instrument and is often the backbone of any band/song. Adding a compressor, or a limiter, to the bass guitar makes the instrument sound uniform and steady.
Similar to funk rhythm guitar, compressor pedals are essential when playing slap bass. The dynamics that result from slapping large bass strings can overload the signal and hurt a listener’s ears.
Using a compressor ensures that the high end snap and low-end thud from each slap is evened out so that you can play with confidence.
Recommended Compressor Pedals for Slap Bass
- MXR M87 Bass Compressor – Compressor specifically voiced for Bass with variable ratio, attack, and release controls.
6. Strumming an Acoustic Guitar
Acoustic guitars can benefit greatly from using a compressor pedal. This is especially true with strumming, as there is a lot of transience that occurs when you play all six acoustic strings at once over and over.
In a live situation, going straight into the front of house without any compression can lead to an unpleasant performance.
By using a simple compressor with a low ratio setting, even light compression will even out your strums without killing the soulful feel of the instrument.
You can also set the Attack on a compressor to a fast setting, which means that the compressor will work as soon as it sees any signal. This takes away some of the harsh pick attack that comes from strumming as well.
Finally, adding compression to an acoustic guitar means your chords can be held out for longer. Just dial of the Sustain or Release control and listen to your chords ring out.
Just be careful not to add to much Gain, or you may experience some feedback issues.
Recommended Compressor Pedal for Strumming Acoustic Guitar
- JHS Pulp N’ Peel V4 – This compressor has a Balanced XLR Line Out jack so that you can use this pedal straight into the front of house, which is a common signal routing option that acoustic guitarists opt for.
No Rules. Just Suggestions.
If you’ve been confused about how to use a compressor pedal, don’t feel bad. Even some professional guitarists don’t fully know what they’re doing when it comes to compression. Some just use their ear.
And that’s okay!
Experimenting and trusting your ear is a great way to figure out how to use your favorite compressor. However, it can be frustrating if you feel like you’ve tried everything and don’t like your results.
If this sounds like you, I think using the above techniques are going to give you some quick and effective ways to utilize this awesome effect. Once you’ve played around with them, you can then experiment further and create your own ways of using it.
I think the George Lowell “2 Compressor” technique illustrates this perfectly. I didn’t think to use two compressors until writing this article. My research brought me to it and his results speak for themselves.
As I mentioned before, understanding how compression works will only aid in helping you find ways to make the effect practical in your own playing, so make sure to read up on how these pedals work. Then pick the right compressor pedal for you and start having fun!
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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.