Guitar effects typically have a profound effect on the overall tone of your instrument. You KNOW when a guitarist engages a wah, or distortion, or any of the myriad other effects out there. Then, there’s the humble compressor; the true unsung hero of the savvy guitarist’s rig.

Unlike other effects which have an instantly recognizable impact on your sound, a compressor is much more subtle. But, compression can make the difference between a mediocre sound and a tone that’s absolutely perfect.

Since compressors aren’t exactly the belle of the ball when it comes to the world of effects, it can sometimes be difficult to know what to look for, or what separates a mediocre compressor from a top of the line model.

Today, we’re going to take a deep dive into the world of compressors, and take a closer look at some of the best compressors on the market to help you make the right choice when it’s time to add this powerful pedal to your rig.

What is the Best Compressor Pedal?

What exactly is a compressor pedal and what does it do?

A compressor pedal isn’t an effect per se, at least not in the same way that a chorus, delay, distortion, or other pedal is an effect. A compressor is actually an audio processing operation.

Through this process, the compressor amplifies the quieter aspects of your signal, while limiting the louder parts, resulting in a sound wave that’s been normalized, with no clipping, and a near uniform volume throughout the entire sound wave.

The resulting effect makes your guitar sound louder without actually increasing the volume of your signal. The sound is fatter and has more sustain than it otherwise would.

Virtually every guitarist can benefit from adding a compressor to their rig, and they’re especially popular among country, blues, funk, and fusion players who rely on single coil pickups to deliver their sound, as compression can add some serious “oomph” to the decidedly weak sound of single coils.

Compressors are also popular with guitarists and bassists who use active pickups, especially modern metal guitarists. Heavy compression can provide even more bite to an already aggressive guitar tone, and it’s a secret weapon of many top metal players.

Before compressors existed, audio engineers had to do their best to anticipate changes in the volume of their input signal and adjust the input volume accordingly. As you can imagine, this process was far from an exact science, and it was incredibly difficult to manage input volume.

While you may think that a musical instrument company developed the first compressors, it was actually the Bell Telephone Company and Western Electric that first patented this revolutionary technology in the early 1930s.

From there, audio companies took the premise of compression and ran with it, tweaking the electronics specifically for musical instruments. Early compressors were tube-driven and rather large. Thankfully, emerging technology made it much easier for electronics companies to shrink the compressor down, fitting it into the familiar stompbox housing that we know and love.

What makes a great compressor pedal?

In just a moment, we’re going to take a closer look at some of the best compressors that are available today. Whether you opt for one of those models or stake out on your own in search of the perfect compressor for your rig, you’ll want to evaluate any compressor you find based on this criteria.

  1. Broad range of controls
  2. Warm and natural sounding compression
  3. True bypass wiring
  4. Road ready build quality

Broad range of controls

As a guitar player, I’m sure you’re already familiar with one of the cardinal rules of our universe: more knobs will always be better than fewer knobs. This holds true when it comes to compression as well.

At a minimum, you’ll want your compressor to offer a threshold control, which controls at what volume the compressor engages, and output control, which determines the final volume of your processed signal.

Most of the better compressors on the market offer a few additional controls as well. Attack and release are popular additions, and these controls dictate how quickly compression is applied to your signal, and how long the compression is applied.

Other controls can also be useful as well. A tone control is a popular addition, and it acts as an additional EQ, allowing you to add or subtract midrange frequencies from your tone. A blend control to establish a mix between your raw signal and the compressed signal is also a popular addition.

While none of these controls are especially necessary, they allow the player to exact more control over their tone, and how the compressor performs. If you find yourself falling in love with a simple compressor that only features a knob or two, then, by all means, go with that. But, most players find that the more control they have over their compressor, the more tone they’re able to achieve.

Warm and natural sounding compression

Another critically important consideration to make is the overall sound of the compressor.

Ideally, you’ll want a compressor that offers warm, natural sounding compression. You want listeners to walk away thinking, “wow, what a great guitar sound” and not “that guy was using a compressor.”

OTA  compressors are a popular option, and they’re usually what you’re dealing with any time the pedal boasts “vintage-style compression.” Transistor-based compressors tend to have a darker tone, making them particularly well suited to the bright sound of signal coil pickups.

Optical compressors use a light-based resistor to achieve compression, and they offer an especially smooth and natural sounding response, and they lend themselves well to virtually every type of guitar or style of music.

FET Compressors are quite similar to OTA compressors, although they’re characterized by a tone that’s less dark. These compressors are another popular option for virtually every guitar and style of music.

The best way to determine the best type of compression for you is to play each type of compressor, and determine which offers the warmest and most natural tone for the style of music you play.

True bypass wiring

When it comes to effects pedals, there are two different methods by which the pedal can be wired: true bypass and buffered bypass.

In short, true bypass pedals provide a direct connection between the input and output of the pedal. So, when the pedal isn’t engaged, your signal travels directly through the pedal, without being routed through the pedal’s circuitry. The result is a dry tone that’s completely unaffected by the pedal when the effect isn’t engaged.

There are a few small drawbacks with true bypass pedals. For one, they don’t perform well with extremely long guitar cables (think 30’ or longer.) True bypass pedals also produce an audible popping sound when the effect is turned on or off.

To combat these issues, buffered pedals were created. With buffered pedals, your guitar signal is first sent through a buffer which acts as a preamplifier for your signal. Buffers eliminate the audible popping sound, and they have no issue driving cables of any length. But, there’s one major caveat with these pedals: whether the pedal is on or not, it affects your tone.

Even when the pedal is off, your signal is still sent through the buffer, which invariably adds color to your tone. Some guitarists don’t mind this change, while others don’t notice it at all. But, tone purists greatly prefer true bypass pedals, as they ensure that your guitar tone arrives at your amp just as pure as it was when it left your guitar.

Since compressors are regularly left on at all times, the popping noise associated with true bypass pedals isn’t likely to be a concern for you. So, unless you’re using a guitar cable the length of a garden hose, you may find that you’re better off going with a pedal that offers true bypass wiring.

Road ready build quality

The last thing you’ll need to consider before making your purchase is how well the pedal is built. While most pedals look quite similar aesthetically, there are some significant differences in build quality which separates the best compressors on the market from the mediocre ones.

For pedal manufacturers, built quality is usually the first place they compromise when they need to make adjustments to keep the price of their pedal low, or to increase their profit margin. While a pedal may look great on the surface, internal circuitry and components like potentiometers, switches, and jacks are usually the first to suffer when a manufacturer has to “trim the fat” from the pedal.

When you’re shopping for a compressor, you’ll want to take a close look at the different components of the pedal. The controls should move smoothly across the full range of adjustment, the footswitch should feel sturdy and durable, and the jacks should firmly grip your guitar cable when plugged in.

If the pedal you’re considering falls short in any of these areas, it’s usually an indicator that the compressor isn’t going to stand up well to the rigors of the road, or the cold advances of Father Time. If you want to be using your compressor for years to come, opt for one that’s built to last.

Compressor Pedal Reviews – Our Top 5 Recommendations

Empress Analog Compressor

Best Overall

What Makes It Special?

Boasting the most control of any compressor on the market, three different compression ratios, a fully analog signal path and a side chain for adding an EQ to the compressor make this boutique quality compressor one of the best on the market for discerning guitarists.

  • Studio quality controls
  • Built-in side chain
  • LED metering
  • All analog signal path

Offering the quality and tone shaping controls of high-end studio compressors, the Empress Analog compressor should be the first stop for tone purists and knob tweakers, as it provides plenty to like for both groups. Simply put, there are tons of features on this compressor you won’t find in any pedal on the market.

As for the parameters, this compressor allows you to control the input level, attack, release, mix, and output level of the compressor. LED metering allows you to monitor the input signal, gain reduction, or both, so you can get a visual representation of what the compressor is doing at all times, and an additional mini switch allows you to set the compression ratio at 2:1, 4:1, or 10:1, allowing you to tap into appropriate tones for every style of guitar playing.

The pedal is beautifully made, with a powder-coated sparkle finish and etched aluminum knobs, and it features a completely analog signal path which helps to provide some of the warmest and most natural sounding compression available.

What Customers Like

  • Unprecedented level of control
  • LED monitoring
  • Sidechain capability

What Customers Dislike

  • Expensive
  • Might be too large for cramped pedalboards

MXR M132 Super Comp Compressor

Best For the Price

What Makes It Special?

An updated version of the iconic Dyna Comp compressor, the Super Comp from MXR picks up right where the Dyna Comp left off, adding an attack knob to allow more precise control over the compression.

  • Attack, sensitivity, and output controls
  • Heavyweight build
  • Battery or AC power
  • Warm, natural sounding compression

MXR established the benchmark for compressor pedals with their iconic Dyna Comp, which has graced some of the biggest hit records in music over the last four decades. While the Dyna Comp offers tons of tone in an incredibly user-friendly package, it only allowed you to adjust the level and sensitivity, which some players found to be a bit too limiting.

With the Super Comp, MXR added an attack knob which provides an added level of control that allows players to allow the nuances of their playing style shine through. A favorite among single coil players, you’ll have a hard time finding a stage in Nashville that doesn’t have a Super Comp on it at this very moment.

What Customers Like

  • Attack control provides added functionality
  • Easy to use
  • Warm and natural sounding compression

What Customers Dislike

  • A bit noisy
  • Takes some fiddling to find the sweet spot for your guitar

Boss CS-3 Compressor/Sustainer

What Makes It Special?

With a bulletproof 5-year warranty and rock-solid reliability, the CS-3 has long been a favorite of pro musicians everywhere. This compressor puts a focus on sustain, making it ideal for lead guitarists looking to take their tone to the next level.

  • Level, tone, attack, and sustain controls
  • Bulletproof build quality
  • 5-year warranty
  • Low-noise components for quiet operation

The CS-3 is one of the most popular compressors on the market, and it’s well-loved among lead guitarists for the rich, smooth, and natural sustain that this pedal is known for. With controls for level, tone, attack, and sustain, guitarists should have no problem dialing in a broad range of tones for every style of playing.

Built to last, the CS-3 runs on 9V batteries or AC power, and it’s backed by Boss’ 5-year warranty should anything go wrong with the pedal. If you’re looking for a reliable pedal that can stand up to the rigors of the road, give the CS-3 a test drive.

What Customers Like

  • Smooth and rich sustain
  • Runs on batteries or with a power supply
  • Built to last

What Customers Dislike

  • Not true bypass
  • Attack knob could be more sensitive

Donner Ultimate Comp Compressor

Best for Beginners & Students

What Makes It Special?

Incredibly easy to use, affordable, and the perfect size for packing away in a gig bag for lessons or band practice, the Ultimate Comp is a wise choice for beginners and students alike. A mini switch allows you to toggle between normal and treble modes, so you’re covered whether you play single coils or humbuckers.

  • Level, tone, and compression controls
  • Two compression modes
  • True bypass wiring
  • Aluminum-alloy housing

The tiny Ultimate Comp from Donner proves that big tone can come in small packages, and at less than half of most of the higher-end compressors on the market, the Ultimate Comp is a great choice for budget-minded players and beginners.

This pedal features controls for level to control the overall volume, tone to control the midrange frequencies, and a compression knob while controls the compression ratio. A normal and treble switch allows you to tailor the compression for single coil or humbucker guitars. This pedal is also surprisingly useful for bassists, too.

What Customers Like

  • Affordable
  • Easy to use
  • True bypass wiring

What Customers Dislike

  • Doesn’t run on batteries
  • Doesn’t include a power adapter

Joyo JF-10 Dyna Compressor

Best on a Budget

What Makes It Special?

This utilitarian compressor is based off the iconic MXR Super Comp; available for less than half the price of the genuine article. For players on a tight budget that don’t want to settle for a mediocre quality compressor, the JF-10 should be perfect.

  • Sustain, level, and attack controls
  • True bypass wiring

The Dyna Compressor from Joyo proves that you can achieve rockstar tone without having a rockstar’s pedal budget. Although it’s one of the most affordable compressors on the market, you’d swear the JF-10 cost two or three times the price when you hear it.

This pedal provides familiar controls for sustain, attack, and level, making it easy for players to dial in a broad range of tones. The attack knob seems to work especially well for guitars with active pickups, making this a wise choice for modern metal players who rely on active humbuckers for their tone.

What Customers Like

  • Great price
  • Tight, punchy compression

What Customers Dislike

  • Doesn’t run on batteries
  • Noisy

6 More Really Good Compressor Pedals

Earthquaker Devices The Warden V2 Compressor

The brainchild of former record label owner Jamie Stillman, Earthquaker Devices has only been producing pedals for a little over a decade, but they’ve quickly become some of the most innovative and sought-after effects on the market. Their Warden V2 compressor is a must try for players seeking the warm, smooth sound of an optical compressor.

The Warden V2 offers controls for tone, attack, release, level, ratio, and sustain, so you’ll have no trouble dialing in an ideal tone for absolutely any style of music. From vintage punch to leads with endless sustain, The Warden V2 is one of the most responsive and musical sounding compressors available, and you should definitely take one for a spin before deciding on your next compression pedal.

Walrus Audio Deep Six V3 Compressor

Walrus Audio is a boutique pedal manufacturer who has been making waves recently in the pedal world with their incredible sounding line of different effects. A work of art thanks to their hand-built quality, Walrus Audio pedals also feature some of the most beautiful graphics you’ll ever find on an effects pedal.

Their Deep Six V3 compressor is one of the most popular options around, and it’s easy to see why. With a comprehensive range of controls for level, tone, sustain, blend, and attack, you’ll be able to dial in an incredibly broad range of tones that are suitable for virtually any kind of music.

MXR Dyna Comp Compressor

Arguably the most iconic compressor of all time, the MXR Dyna Comp has been heard on countless hit records over its four decades of existence. With simple controls and an unmistakable tone, you’ll want to be sure to try out a Dyna Comp before making your decision.

This pedal offers dead-simple controls for output level and sensitivity. The sensitivity control controls the compression ratio, allowing you to dial in everything from some slight punch to the patented “click” that the Dyna Comp is so well known for.

TC Electronic Hyper Gravity Compressor

TC Electronic produces some of the most sought after effects on the market, and they seamlessly blend vintage sensibility with modern technology with each pedal they make.

From punchy cleans to soaring leads, this compressor is well-suited to virtually every style of guitar playing. The Hyper Gravity compressor provides controls for attack, sustain, level, and blend, allowing guitarists to take advantage of a full assortment of different parameters. The pedal also features a mini switch that allows you to toggle between vintage and modern compression models, and TonePrint.

The innovative TonePrint function allows you to access a full complement of different compressor models as well as great tones from a growing community of TC Electronic users. Simply sync your pedal with the TonePrint app on your smartphone, and you’re off to the races.

Fender The Bends Compressor

Fender is arguably the most notable guitar and amp manufacturer in the world, and their gear has been favored by some of the best players in the history of modern music. From Stevie Ray Vaughan to Eric Clapton to Yngwie Malmsteen, countless guitarists have relied on Fender for their signature tone for almost 70 years.

While their best known for their guitars, they’re seeking to put their pedals on the map with their recent line of high-end quality geared towards players who demand the most from their equipment.

The Bends compressor provides controls for blend, level, drive, and recovery, which makes it easy to dial in a lead tone that seems to sustain endlessly, or a punchy and responsive rhythm tone that’s perfect for everything from funk to modern metal.

Add to that high-end appointments like a brushed aluminum case, LED indicator knobs, and a magnetic-hinged battery door help to make this pedal a winner for any guitarist.

Behringer CS400 Compressor/Sustainer

Behringer is one of the most well-known manufacturers of quality pro audio equipment, and they also make a full line of different guitar effects. Their effects are budget-priced and are all based on the effects made by Boss, which are among the most popular on the market.

The CS400 Compressor/Sustainer pedal is essentially a copy of the Boss CS-3, and it provides impression compression and a healthy infusion of sustain that players on a budget have been relying on for decades. With familiar controls for volume, tone, attack, and sustain, players should have no trouble dialing in a great tone with this affordable pedal.

5 FAQ’s About Compressor Pedals

How to use a compressor pedal?

Compressors are among the easiest pedals in the world to use. It truly is as simple as dialing in a sound that works for you and forgetting about it. But, how do you know what sound will work for you? While a compressor will improve the tone of both your rhythm and lead playing, it can be helpful to dial in a tone on your compressor with just one of those types of playing in mind.

For lead players, a compressor will be most useful for you when you dial up the sustain and level of the pedal. The result will be an incredibly musical sound with notes that seem to sustain forever.

For rhythm players, sustain is less important. Too much sustain can be undesirable, and cause your tone to muddy up a bit. Dialing back the sustain and level will provide you with a more natural sound that sounds just like your guitar usually does, only better.

If your compressor allows you to set the compression ratio, this can be an especially useful control to play around with. Lower compression ratios (2:1, 4:1) tend to sound more natural and less processed, while higher compression ratios can be awesome for certain styles, especially blues and country.

One thing is for sure, compressors reward knob noodling. You’ll be surprised by the variety of tones you’re able to coax out of your compressor if you spend enough time with it. The best place to start is usually the owner’s manual since most manufacturers usually include some recommended settings for you to use as a starting point.

Start with the recommended setting that most closely reflects your playing style, and use that as the basis to dial in your signature tone.

Where do you place a compressor pedal (in the chain)?

When guitarists run into issues with their tone such as unwanted noise, feedback, or muddiness, it’s usually because their pedal chain is out of whack. While there are no hard and fast rules to how you set up your pedals, there are some best practices that will ensure that your pedals are optimally configured while helping you avoid noise and other unpleasantries.

It can be helpful to think of guitar effects in four groups: filters and dynamics, gain effects, modulation effects, and time-based effects.

When setting up your pedalboard, you’ll start with filters and dynamics. This group includes pedals like a wah, envelope filter, instrument emulator, pitch shifter or harmonizer and dynamic effects such as a volume pedal, compressor, or EQ.

Next comes your gain effects, such as overdrive, distortion, or fuzz. From there you should place modulation effects, like chorus, flanger, or phaser. Finally, time-based effects such as reverb or delay are placed.

Feel free to get creative with exactly where you place each pedal, so long as you keep the different groups in the right order (filters and dynamics → gain effects → modulation effects → time-based effects); you may find that you can achieve a better tone by placing your pedals in a certain order.

Keep in mind; there may be some instances where you can break these general rules. For example, some players love the dirty and expressive tone they get by placing a wah pedal after their distortion. You may also find you can achieve some unique tones by altering the placement of a graphic EQ pedal.

What are the top compressor pedal brands?

Keeley Electronics has produced some of the hottest and most coveted guitar effects on the market since Robert Keeley first got the company off the ground in 2001. While the company has grown exponentially, it’s still run like a family business, and they do a great job of taking care of their customers. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that their Compressor Plus is one of the best compressor pedals on the market.

Boss has been the go-to pedal brand for many guitarists over the past four decades and counting. Arguably the most reliable pedals on the market, Boss backs everything they sell with a rock solid 5-year warranty, and their pedals are considered the benchmark of quality. Priced competitively, their CS-3 and CP-1X compressors are two of the most popular on the market.

MXR is another popular brand that’s now a subsidiary of Jim Dunlop. Founded in 1972 in Rochester, New York, MXR has produced some of the most noteworthy pedals in rock and roll history, including the Dyna Comp, which is one of the first compressor pedals ever available. Today, it’s still a favorite, especially among funk, blues, and country players.

If you’re in the market for a boutique quality compressor, brands like Empress, Earthquaker Devices, and Walrus Audio have quickly developed a reputation for producing studio-quality compressor pedals that provide an unparalleled level of control.

How much does a good compressor pedal typically cost?

A good compressor typically runs somewhere in the range of $100-200. However, there are compressors available across a range of different price points, including some surprisingly high-quality options available for less than $50.

Many of the most popular compressors fall in the $80-120 range, so that’s a good baseline as far as what you can expect to pay for a compressor. High-end boutique-quality compressors can run as high as $300.

While you may have a budget in your head already, it’s worth considering pedals across every price point. You may find that a cheaper compressor is perfectly adequate for your needs. Or, you may find that a top of the line compressor is well worth the $200+ price tag.

Where can I learn more about compressor pedals?

Sam Ash is a popular guitar-focused instrument store that also has an informative blog that features plenty of information on all things guitar. The article above is a great crash course in compression for beginners.

Sweetwater is another music store, but they’re worth noting because of the incredible job they do with their product pages. Virtually all of their product pages feature demo videos and audio to give you a better idea of how a particular pedal sounds, which can make your research much easier.

Ovni Labs is one of the coolest and most useful sites you’ll find for info and reviews on different compressors. While the site doesn’t receive regular updates, there’s an encyclopedia’s worth of information on compressors here, including this really useful article about the different types and styles of compressor pedals.

Conclusion

A compression pedal is one of the quickest and easiest ways to beef up your tone. With such a wide variety of great compressors on the market, you should have no problem finding a pedal that’s ideal for your style of playing.

Is a compressor the unsung hero of your pedal board? What’s your favorite compressor? Sound off in the comments with your tips!

When shopping for a compressor, guitarists often consider other effects, such as:

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