The Best Way To Learn How To Use A Compressor Pedal

How To Use A Compressor Pedal

There’s a mind-boggling range of effects pedals available on the market today.  From flangers to delays, fuzzes to wah-wahs – most of these pedals do as you would expect them to. For the most part, they’re all pretty self-explanatory.  But the compressor is different. 

The compressor is a subtle effect, one that you might not even notice at first if you don’t know what to listen out for.  Well, we’re here to explain to you what a compressor is, how it sounds, how you can use it, and how to dial in that sweet tone you’ve been searching for.

To put it simply, a compressor reduces the dynamic range of an audio signal, so that the loud parts are quieter and the quiet parts are louder. The result of this effect is increased sustain and evenness, and it can be used in more subtle or more dramatic ways, depending on how you set up the compressor. 

Compressor pedals for electric guitars differ from the compressors you might find in the studio or in your digital audio workstation because they are made with fewer controls. This makes them more simple to use with your electric guitar and allows you more freedom to experiment with the different controls to find a sound that works for you, your guitar, and the amplifier that you’re using.  

A typical compressor pedal, such as the Keeley Compressor Plus, will feature these controls:

  • Sustain
  • Level
  • Blend
  • Tone

Some will also have a switch to choose between a single-coil or humbucker pickup mode.  A Fender Stratocaster, for instance, typically has single-coil pickups and therefore has a lower output level. 

This will work better in single-coil mode on the compressor pedal. Adversely, a guitar such as the Gibson Les Paul will have humbucker pickups, so a higher output level and would sound more effective in humbucker mode.  

The “sustain” control is effectively the amount of compression. Turn it up and the audio signal from your electric guitar will be more compressed. 

As mentioned before, a compressor takes the loud parts of a sound and makes them quieter, and takes the quiet parts of a sound and makes them louder. As you strum a chord, the initial attack as you strum the strings is the loudest part. 

As you turn the sustain control up, this initial attack will become quieter. The quiet part as you strum a chord is when the chord trails off and dies out. Because the compressor makes the quiet sounds more amplified, it will sustain out more audibly and for longer.  

The “level” control is the overall output level, which is set relative to the sustain control. Remember, as you add compression, the loudest parts of the audio signal are brought down, so you can compensate for this by boosting the level control. 

The blend control allows you to add in some of your original, unaffected guitar sound along with the compressed sound.  Blending these two signals together allows you to get back some of the loudness in the attack as you strum the strings. 

Additionally, blending your unaffected sound back into the mix makes the overall effect more subtle. On most compressor pedals, including the Keeley Compressor Plus, when the blend control is all the way down, that means the signal is 50/50 compressed and uncompressed. 

As you turn it up, you’ll hear more of the compressed signal.   When this control is all the way up, you’ll hear 100% of the compressed sound. 

The tone control affects the high end of the compressed sound, meaning the upper frequencies of your guitar signal.  Because the compressor lowers the volume ceiling of the louder parts of your sound, this can make the perceived sound of your guitar duller. 

To compensate for this, you can brighten your sound by boosting the tone control, to add in more of those higher frequencies.  

Now that we’ve gone through the basic idea behind the compressor pedal, let’s take a look at some applications for it.  Here are a few things you can do with your compressor pedal:

Use It As A Clean Boost

Instead of using your compressor as a compressor, you can turn the sustain level all the way down, and the blend level down and use it to boost your clean tone.  This is great if you want some extra dynamic range when playing a song, or if you want your guitar solo to really cut through the mix when playing live on stage.   

Play Some Funky Rhythm Parts

The compressor pedal really lends itself to playing funk guitar.  With the compressor’s sustain turned up a little, and the tone boosted so you get more high end, it works great for choppy funk riffs that really slice through the mix.  Think Chic’s Nile Rodgers – that’s the sound!

Play Some Chicken-Pickin’ Country And Western Lead Lines 

The same goes for some fast country licks.  The bright, plucky sound created by the compressor pedal when paired with a guitar such as the Fender Telecaster will give you that classic sound.  Don Rich is a great example of this style of playing.  The compressor accentuates the percussive elements of this style of guitar playing.

Add Sustain To Your Lead Playing

For soaring guitar solos, combining your compressor with an overdrive or distortion pedal will give you tonnes of sustain, making those long, drawn-out notes really fly.  David Gilmour is a perfect example of this sound. 

He would use the compressor pedal for plucky clean tones in addition to searing distorted tones, particularly for his guitar solos. You should place your compressor pedal ideally before your overdrive or distortion pedals, or any other effects pedals. This is because you want to compress the dry signal from your guitar, and not compress any of your other effects.

One Last Thing…

We hope that this article has given you a clearer understanding of what a compressor pedal does and how you could use one.  There are countless compressor pedals on the market from brands such as Strymon, TC Electronic, Empress, and many more. 

They are a fantastic tool to use and find that perfect guitar tone that’s unique to you and your playing style, so why not give one a try? Play around with one and most importantly, have fun doing so. 

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