What Does A Compressor Pedal Do: Everything You Need To Know About Compression In The Guitar

what does a compressor pedal do

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Have you been learning the guitar and heard the word “compression” thrown around, but you don’t know what it means? Don’t worry, by the time you’re done reading this blog, you’ll know all about compression and compressor pedals.

A compressor does a great job boosting the output and making quiet sounds much more audible. It is a stompbox pedal that’ll sit in the signal chain and influence the dynamics of the guitar performance.

In this article, you’ll get to know all about compression in music, what does a compressor pedal do, what is a compressor pedal good for, and fun ways to use compressor pedals among others.

What is compression and how does it work

Compression is one of the most commonly used effects in recorded music. By using compression, you can even out the dynamics of the musical performance and make the soft parts louder. While compression isn’t for everyone, it’ll be perfect for certain styles of guitar such as electric guitars.

Compression will serve many functions and come in different forms.  However, at the basic level, a compressor will do exactly what the name implies – it compresses sound. Specifically, the compressor effect will decrease the overall dynamic range of the audio signal. By decreasing the dynamic range of a sound, compression will cause the peaks and values of the sound to become closer. Moreover, the overall effect will result in a smoother and more balanced sound.

The initial compression part of the effect will only affect the loudest parts of the audio signal. The actual level at which the compressor works will be set by the user through the threshold control. The compressor will not just clip the loud parts. Instead, it’ll shape the loud parts and make them quieter, while also allowing the original nuances to remain. 

After making the loud parts of the audio signal quieter, the compressor pedal will bring up the sound’s volume. This will result in a higher average volume. This will also have the effect of making quieter parts of the sound (i.e. the sustain of the guitar note) louder and far more noticeable.

What does a compressor pedal do?

A compressor pedal is essentially a stompbox pedal that sits in the signal chain and levels the dynamics of the guitar performance. When you’re playing something quietly, a compressor will boost the output and make it more audible. Moreover, when you’re striking a note too forcefully, the compressor dulls the sound of the pick attack, resulting in a smoother overall sound.

By harnessing the dynamic range of the audio signal, here is what does a compressor pedal do –

Boost the clean tone

If you’re looking for a clean guitar sound but getting buried in the band’s mix, a compressor pedal will amplify your signal while also making you more audible. Of course, you’ll be able to adjust your overall tone on your amp. However, many players appreciate the subtle effects brought to their guitar tone by the compressor pedals.

Provide the funk and chicken-pickin’ tones

A guitar is conventionally a treble-focused instrument. When you’re boosting the guitar’s audio signal, you’ll be boosting the high-end sound. This will be ideal for funk lines. For a better understanding, think of the guitar solo on “Billie Jean” by Michael Jackson.

Add much-needed sustain to the lead guitar

Apart from compressing your input signal, a compressor pedal will also add sustain to the output signal. Many compression-focused guitar pedals will feature knobs for adjusting sustain (also known as release).

Why use compressor pedal?

Compression is essential as it helps the quiet, finger-picked parts to be heard in the mix. It’ll ensure two-handed tapping, legato-style Hammer On/Pull Off and harp harmonics don’t disappear between hard strumming on electric/acoustic guitars. When playing staccato chords, a compressor pedal will be ideal to get the classic funk guitar tone.

For blues or rock leads, a compressor pedal will allow you to have more sustain without having to use that much distortion that you end up losing articulation. Bassists will also benefit from using a compressor, especially as lower frequencies can suffer from greater amplitude spikes. This will be especially noticeable when you’re switching back and forth between fingerstyle and slapping. A compressor on a bass guitar is great for sustain when you’re playing long, even whole notes at slower tempos.

A compressor pedal will also act as a clean boost, driving the front of your amplifier harder. If you have a clean boost on the board, or you’re considering one, you should try a compressor. Having the level knob turned up and the sustain knob being turned out, a compressor is essentially a boost pedal. A compressor pedal will also give the option of adding sustain during a solo or helping your fingerpicked part stand out. 

Five fun ways you can incorporate compressor pedals into your music

Who doesn’t love using a compressor pedal? What a compressor pedal does is it’ll boost the audio and make your part more audible. There are many fun ways you can use compressor pedals in your music. Here are some of the most fun ones.

Highlights your chicken-pickin’ part with compression

Starting with the classic chicken-picking playing style, it has become a staple of 90s country music. However, if it is competing with distorted or dirty guitars or a bassist with a good amp, then it can easily get lost in the mix. This is where a compressor pedal will come in handy to save the day.

Many professionals have used the compressor pedal in that context as more of a limiter. The difference here is that a limiter will have a high compression ratio. It’ll be very easy to achieve this. Essentially, you can crank the sustain all the way up while turning the blending up as well. While this technique is rarely used, if you want to get the traditional 90s sound, then you must use it.

It’s important to understand that this method will require a lot of compression. You will hear the noise come up while everything else will be squashed down. Meanwhile, a traditional compressor is simply a downward compressor that will keep the peaks down. This style of compression will achieve the effect both upwards and downwards. It’ll bring up the low, soft notes while taking the loud notes and squashing them down. What a compressor pedal does here is to eliminate the naturally occurring dynamics from the guitar while highlighting the chicken picking.

If you want to add in a bit of those dynamics, there is an easy fix to this. With a compressor pedal, simply blend in a clean tone with it while reducing a bit of sustain. While the resulting tone might not be exactly chicken-picking, it’ll still sound good.

Using a compressor pedal with humbuckers or single coils

Another answer to what does a compressor pedal do is that it’ll fatten the tone by using it with a single-coil pickup. All you need to do is add some compression and dial back on the sustain. Then, you should add a bit of fatness while not doing anything drastic.

Now, you’ll probably be thinking about what to do if you’re using this sort of tune with a guitar with humbuckers? Will the humbuckers also work similarly? By adding in compression, turning the sustain slightly, and backing off the blend, you will hear a noticeable difference. It will squash the sound more in the humbucker pickup as compared to the sound on the single-coil pickup. This happens because the strength of the signal coming from humbuckers will be greater than that of a single coil.

Essentially, this will act very similarly to an input gain adjustment. You may need to back off to sustain a tad bit and then add a bit more blend to it. It is done as it’ll be more squashed, and it’ll be compressing the transit each time. It isn’t going to mess up anything or sound different if you’re using humbuckers pickup instead of a single-coil. However, there are some differences. Keep it in mind and dial back the controls a bit on the compression, and you’ll be fine.

Use dirt with the compressor pedal

Another fun way of using a compressor pedal would be of using it with dirt. In this situation, you’ll be compressing the whole note. If you run compression before the distortion pedal, the result will be that you’re compressing the note and then distorting the same note. It might sound obvious. However, if you think about what the sound here is doing, you’ll understand why it can go from being very transient to being clamped down and then distorted. It’ll help explain why this affects the sound and then distorts as compared to the straight-up distortion. This will compress the signal very differently.

Ultimately, the order will be the key difference. If you’re stacking the compressor pedal with distortion first and then compression, the guitar will respond very differently. Luckily for you, you can try it out either way and both setups will be great.

If you’re running compression before distortion, you will hear quite a bit of a difference. Although the blend can have a clean signal to it, the sustain of the note is what will carry it through. You will notice something similar once the compression has been used after the distortion. However, the response will be slightly different. When you’re hitting the notes, it’ll feel a bit different to have the compression afterward.

Clean up the slop with a compressor pedal

You can easily use a compressor pedal to hide any sloppy playing. There are some guitarists, especially beginners who are bad at shredding. It isn’t their thing, and they cannot get better at it. Fortunately for such people, they can use a compressor pedal to save the day.

A compressor pedal will do an amazing job of hiding that issue. If you’re hitting solo spots on any complex song, your distortion should be on. With the right distortion and with the help of a compressor pedal, you can deliver a rocking performance. Just kick in the compression with the sustain a bit, and you can kick the sloppiness out the window. 

This would be a great fallback if you’re looking to play any 80s rock hit with shredding licks. You can do this cleanly, or at least play well enough to gain respect in front of experts. Kick on and use a compressor pedal, and you’ll be good to go.

Use compression after delay or reverb

Another fun way of using a compressor pedal would be to use it after any effect like delay or reverb. It’ll give an entirely different effect and a different tonality. The final result will depend on how you’ve set it up.

compressor pedals

It’ll give you the sound of more repeats or a bit louder compression. Either way, you’ll have an incredibly cool feature at your disposal. When you’re setting it up on your compressor pedal, you can have the sustain all the way up. Then, you can set the tone a little past noon and have the blend all the way down. It’ll be important to strike the right balance, as you wouldn’t want the sound to be fully compressed. Otherwise, it’ll squash everything, and you won’t get the warmth and that important punch.

Use a compressor pedal for controlling the volume

The practical use of a compressor pedal would be to use it as a limiting device to control the volume. The compressor will allow influence the volume throughout the chain. Say that you’re using two different pedals set at different levels. Normally, this will cause an issue with the mix. Similarly, if you’re playing with a band, the kicks may be too loud, or it might not be loud enough. The compressor will fix all these problems. 

Similar to the chicken-picking use earlier, the compressor pedal will bring up the quieter parts while compressing the louder ones. This will help even out everything in your mix. This will allow you to blend some clean signals back with parallel compression. This can be done as the compression will be squashing things quite a bit. For achieving this, you can start with the blend all the way off. Then, add it back in until you can notice that you’re not losing the levels. Moreover, allow the ability of the compressor to level out the different effects.


Thank you for reading. Hopefully, now you know a lot more about compressors, what is a compressor pedal, what does a compressor pedal do, fun ways to use a compressor pedal in your mix, and more. A compressor pedal will sit in the signal chain and level the dynamics of your guitar. If you’re playing something quietly, it’ll boost the output and make the sound more audible. Meanwhile, if you’re playing too high, the compressor pedal will dull the sound, giving a smoother overall sound.

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Rick is the founder of All Stringed. He started playing with a classical guitar when he was 10, but changed soon to electric guitar and later also to an acoustic. You can find more about him here.