Even the best compressor pedals are overshadowed by their more exciting cousins, overdrive and delay. This humble addition to your pedalboard is seen by many as one of the most mundane pedals you can own, right behind guitar tuners. We feel this opinion may be a little harsh, as the compressor might just be the secret weapon you need to achieve tonal enlightenment.
The compressor may not have the most transformative effect on your tone, especially compared to the dramatic difference chorus pedals or phaser pedals have on your sound. Very basically, a compressor reduces the dynamic range of your guitar - making the loud parts quieter and the quiet parts louder. This results in a smoother, more balanced sound and has the added benefit of giving you more sustain.
Whether you choose to use it as a subtle always-on tonal sweetener or crank the effect up to achieve those classic Nashville country tones, the compressor is a must-have pedal. It may not seem like it, but it's the sort of pedal that once you have one, you'll question how you ever lived without it. On that note, let us help you track down the best compressor to tame those dynamics.
Best compressor pedals: Guitar World’s choice
Just as with electric guitars, there are so many high-quality compressor pedals on the market it can get a little overwhelming. It goes without saying but, any entry in our best compressor pedals list has something to offer and is worth checking out.
If we're forced to only pick one, then we'd have to go for the Keeley Compress Plus.
This extremely versatile compressor is an updated version of Robert Keeley's bestselling stompbox, which could probably be classed as a modern classic at this point. Featuring a humbucker/singlecoil switch and blend control, this pedal really does allow you to dial in the exact level of compression you need for any situation.
For a multi-band option, the Boss CP-X1 is hard to beat. There's a lot of processing magic going on inside the trademark Boss enclosure. The proprietary MDP tech allows you to retain the fundamentals while the compressor, well... compresses.
Best compressor pedals: Product guide
Robert Keeley’s most popular stompbox has been updated to make it all the more tweakable. Mercifully, it’s still intuitively laid out. There’s now a release switch to set the appropriate attack for humbucker and single-coil pickups.
A blend control dials in how much of the compressed signal you want – fully counter-clockwise you’ve got a half-and-half blend, and turned fully clockwise it is all squashed quack.
It puts you in control of the peaks in your guitar playing. A tone control lets you compensate for the high-end and harmonic response you sometimes lose with compression. Tone-wise, the Compressor Plus is exceptional, and it’s insanely good value for money, making it our top pick for best compressor pedal.
Boss has always made excellent compressors, but the CP-1X takes their stompbox squash further with the use of Multi-Dimensional Processing (MDP) to preserve your fundamental tone. It only compresses overtones so that your signal remains as transparent as possible.
The control panel, meanwhile, is typically well laid out, with controls for compression, ratio and attack enabling you to dial in exactly what you want from the unit, and a level knob for controlling your output.
There’s even a Knight Rider-esque gain-reduction indicator to let you know how much compression you’re running at any given time. It is also low noise, and runs on 9V that internally converted to 18V, giving it plenty of headroom.
The fourth generation of Josh Scott’s Pulp ’n’ Peel compressor welcomes a dirt switch to the enclosure that toggles on and off a parallel overdrive circuit. This introduces a little overdrive to proceedings, with a trim pot on the side of the pedal lets you control how much gain. That’s a nice option to have.
Elsewhere, there’s a blend control for finding the right balance of attack and clarity, and a tilt EQ that can darken or brighten your processed tone. Set it at noon and it’s bypassed. As you’d expect from JHS, the Pulp ’n’ Peel has a meticulous build, with little touches such as switchable buffered/true-bypass and balanced XLR output with ground lift to kill.
The Ego Compressor belongs to that select band of compression units you can set and leave always on as a tonal sweetener and one-pedal support group for your playing. The layout gives you complete control over your compression, with the all-important blend control on hand to dial in the level of squash you need.
Brian Wampler says the Ego was designed to compress and do all the things compressor pedals do, but also to keep your tone uncolored, transparent and ultimately dynamic. Five knobs may seem like overkill, but once you’ve set the Ego you can forget about it, and you might never switch it off.
If the very idea of Fender building your go-to stompbox compressor is kinda novel, and if the controls on offer feel a little unfamiliar – with drive and recovery knobs joining the wet/dry blend control – then the tones should sound reassure you… The Bends offers OTA-based circuitry that places it in the lineage of the MXR Dyna Comp et al.
Backlit LEDs on the control knobs let you know what’s what on a darkened stage. Recovery sets the release time of the compression – ie, how long it takes before the compression relaxes – and in conjunction with the drive control enables you to dial in the compression and sustain you want. Blend ensures you have control over how much of your original uncompressed signal is in the mix.
Fender The Bends pedal is built like a tank, with dual audio paths keeping noise to a minimum. The enclosure’s Fender amp jewel light is pretty darn cool too.
One of the OG OTA compressor pedals to make itself a ubiquitous presence on pedalboards worldwide, the Dyna Comp has had a multitude of releases through the years. The Dyna Comp Deluxe retains the classic CA3080 ‘metal can’ integrated circuit, but updates the pedal with a number of smart features that put you in control of the squash and sustain.
Here, the clean control acts as a blend, while an on/off attack button offers a binary choice between vintage slow and more modern fast attack times. The tone control is on-hand in case your signal loses a little brightness.
Whether you’re chasing old-school squish for playing through the Nashville songbook or want something a little more subtle, the Dyna Comp has got you covered.
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The HyperGravity Multiband features a three-way switch that lets you select three different modes of compression. You can have a super-transparent Spectra compression, a more squishy Vintage compression to go with your Brad Paisley tab book, or you can upload one from TC Electronic’s extensive TonePrint library. You can also do this wirelessly via your phone.
Elsewhere, this is just an excellent compressor, operating at the nexus between digital and analogue. You can switch between true- or buffered bypass, there is a familiar menu of controls for dialing in your compression and it is built tough.
Like the Pulp ’N’ Peel, the OB-1 is a good option for those who find the idea of a simple compression pedal a little too boring. While most compressors can give your signal a little jump-start in the boost department, the OB-1 has a dedicated boost that can be set for bass, middle or treble.
The layout is super-simple. Dial in your compression and the level of boost and then set the output how you like it. There are internal DIP switches for fine-tuning the bass, middle and treble frequencies you’d like to boost, and there’s an all-analog signal path.
The Fat General has two settings: Juicy and Blend. These are selected by a two-way toggle switch and have an assigned control that performs differently in each mode. In Blend mode you can turn the knob fully counterclockwise so that only your dry signal is passing through the unit. Then you can dial in how much of the compressed signal you need over the top of that.
You can keep all the dynamics and articulation you want, but with added sustain. Juicy mode is more extreme with a fixed ratio of 90:10 of compression to dry, with the Juicy/Blend knob now acting as a volume control.
This has all the quack and plunk you could need. Telecaster heaven! Most players won’t need that much but it’s nice to have it on-tap.
Compressor pedals can be a little noisy, but not the Cali176. Its transistors are biased for high-current operation and make for a hiss-free studio-quality stompbox that houses a ’60s-style FET compressor in a compact enclosure.
Inspired by the Universal Audio 1176 Compressor/Limiter, the Cali176 has a discrete Class A circuit that delivers a highly musical compression that does the job of a compressor without killing dynamics. This is transparent, boosting sustain and saucing your tone with a little studio magic.
Under the hood you’ve got premium components such as MELF resistors and film and tantalum capacitors. The build is such that there’s no space for a battery, but that’s a welcome trade-off.
Best compressor pedals: Buying advice
There are some situations where a compressor is essential - think rhythmically complex funk or the twangy licks of country. A compressor can also be beneficial if you're a metal player who has a penchant for legato shred - I mean, who doesn't?
Some people find these pedals challenging to use, so let's go through some standard controls found on the best compressor pedals. It should be noted that not every pedal has all of these controls, this is just a general guide to what these terms mean.
This is probably the most crucial control and the easiest to explain. Sometimes labeled as sustain, compression, or simply comp, this knob controls the overall level of compression your signal receives. The higher the dial, usually the more sustain you will get. Be warned, though, sometimes the more compression you add, the more noise you can add to your signal as well.
The attack knob simply adjusts how quickly the compressor kicks in. A slower attack will allow a portion of your note to be unaffected. In contrast, a fast attack means the compression is immediate. The Dyna Comp has this as a fast/slow binary choice, while Wampler's Ego and the CP-1X have dials. If your compressor has this control, it's worth playing around with it to get the exact sound you want.
Some pedals will have controls for recovery. This is for adjusting the length of time before your compressed signal relaxes back to normal.
This control you see more on studio compressors. Still, it can be found on high-end pedals such as the Origin Effects Cali76 Compact Deluxe. Basically, this control adjusts the amount the volume will dip once the compressor kicks in.
One feature to look out for is a blend control, enabling you to control the mix between your dry, uncompressed signal and the compressed signal. After you've set your compression – how fast the attack, the level of sustain, and so on – adjusting the blend is a convenient way of keeping on top of your squish.
Compressors like the Boss CP-1X are a multi-band effects pedal, meaning they process different frequencies in your signal independently. These can be set up so that your signal is as transparent as possible. Others, such as the Dyna Comp, are primarily voiced after the more squishy late '60s and early '70s compressor, yet are revised to offer a more transparent performance for today's guitarist.
Lastly, compressors work great with overdrive pedals and valve guitar amps, with the capability of hitting both with some extra decibels, encouraging some sweet breakup. Some, such as JHS's Pulp' N' Peel v4, have a dedicated dirt switch for this purpose.
There you have it, that's what we believe are the best compressor pedals on the market right now. So if you haven't tried one out, we urge you to have a go. We'd bet good money that once you introduce compression to your pedalboard, it's there to stay.