Compression is not the flashiest effect for your pedalboard. It doesn’t send your guitar signal into distorted mayhem, or modulate it into dreamy echos and tonal sweeps. Rather, a compressor will boost quiet notes up to a certain level while reducing loud notes down the same way, “compressing” your signal into a more narrow dynamic range, while adding sustain to notes that may otherwise fade away too quickly.
While this may not seem like an effect you absolutely need, anyone who has tried to play Nashville-style chicken pickin’ with a Telecaster straight into a Twin Reverb knows how essential a compressor is for music styles that demand a plucky clarity and uniformity. Whether with clean country, funk, or jazz sounds, or adding to the singing sustain of an overdriven solo, a compressor is a great addition to the front end of your pedalboard. Check out all the best below.
1. Boss CS-3 Compression Sustainer
The CS-3 Compression Sustainer has been a reliable part of BOSS’s lineup for decades and is a great, no-frills compressor, adding a great little “punch” to single notes and strummed chords. It’s not a transparent effect, because the single tone knob is great for tweaking your overall signal’s EQ to just the right setting.
The remaining two controls on the CS-3 are “attack” and “sustain.” Attack basically controls the amount of time that passes before the boost or limit of the compressor kicks in. Shorter attack results in tighter, more compressed sound, and a longer attack time will let the natural dynamics of your signal sing a bit more before being compressed. The “sustain” control is not exactly what one would expect a sustainer to be. Rather, it acts more like a wet/dry mix for the compressor effect. Set it right along with the attack, however, and you’ll have beautifully sustained, compressed sounds.
2. Electro-Harmonix Soul Preacher Compressor/Sustainer
Electro-Harmonix (EHX) may be best known for their fuzzboxes, but their lineup of effects is broad and usually comes at excellent prices. The Soul Preacher Compressor/Sustainer fits right in, and you can easily find a no-frills compressor online for under $100.
With only two knobs—volume and sustain—the Soul Preacher’s most useful control is a three-way toggle that sets your attack at fast, medium, or slow. Combined with the blending controls of the sustain knob, this gives you a lot of variety for tight, punchy sounds from funk to country. This compressor is a decently priced, easy-to-use pedal in a nano chassis.
3. JHS Pulp’n’Peel v4 Compressor/Preamp/DI Box
JHS has been tweaking and improving on their Pulp’n’Peel Compressor through four versions now. Their latest model has some interesting tweaks to it, and it’s a great compressor that excels at transparent compression. It alters the tone of your instrument very little, even when you’ve switched it off, thanks to JHS’s “always on” buffered bypass. If you want to add a bit of tonal variety, you’ve got your choice of a very subtle EQ knob and a “dirt” toggle, which adds a bit of gritty boost to your signal.
Separate from compression, the Pulp’n’Peel also serves as a DI box for bassists or even guitarists who are plugging directly into a PA or mixing board. It’s even got an XLR output, a rarity for any stompbox.
4. Keeley Compressor Plus Compressor/Sustainer/Expander
Dating back to 2001, Robert Keeley’s original 2-knob compressor was one of the first of today’s booming boutique pedal market. The most recent version of his compressor, the “Plus,” has four knobs and has added sustain and expansion to its bag of tricks.
Like the BOSS, the Keeley features controls for sustain and tone, though the tone control is a just bit more of a treble-boost. Also like the BOSS, the sustain control is more of a wet-dry blend. So what does the blend knob do, then? This is where the Keeley gets really cool. The blend knob controls a special expansion circuit, which increases the gain of the signal right in proportion to its compression. On top of all this is a single coil/humbucker toggle, which adjusts the decay time of the signal in ways that compromise their respective pickups.
The Compressor Plus is a big step up from Keeley’s original classic, and it gives you a lot of options from subtle to over-the-top, at a great price.
5. MXR M228 Dyna Comp Deluxe
Like the Keeley, MXR’s Dyna Comp Deluxe is a 4-knob upgrade to a 2-knob classic. The original Dyna Comp is arguably the most iconic and classic compressor ever, and the updated Deluxe retains its same 3080 IC circuit.
The unit’s controls allow for a lot of headroom for iconic compressed country-style single note runs, and its tone knob is very responsive, with a much wider range than many compressors’ treble-focused EQ’s. Instead of an attack knob, the Dyna Comp features a two-way attack switch, which will give you a short or longer attack time. If you’re looking for a great pedal with the most venerable pedigree of all compressors, this is the unit for you.
6. Strymon Compadre Dual Voice Compressor & Boost
Strymon has been killing it lately with high-end combined digital/analog pedals, but until now they’ve mostly remained in the realms of modulation. New for 2020, however, Strymon has unveiled their version of a compressor: the Compadre. This pedal has two adjustable modes of compression. There’s “squeeze,” which will give you the more upfront, blatantly compressed sounds of a Nashville Tele or a Funky Strat. And there’s also “studio,” a more subtle, less “effected” compression that evens out your sounds almost like you’re in an actual studio.
On top of the compressor, the Compadre has a boost feature that you can switch from clean to dirty. It also has an expression pedal input for subtle volume control with no loss of signal. Even if you swear that nothing goes between your guitar and amp expect a cable, this unit will add to your sound without blatantly “effecting” it.
While it’s not the most brazen or glamorous effect—actually, it’s arguable whether compression is an “effect” at all—when your playing needs compression, it really needs compression. With that in mind, most players will benefit from having a compressor unit on their board, ready to go.
- If you’re just getting into compression, and play mostly clean funk or country styles, you can easily stick below $200. The BOSS and MXR are all classics in their own right, and the EHX definitely gives you the most bang for your buck.
Tone snobs and audiophiles will love the boosting options—clean and dirty—in the JHS and especially the Strymon, but you’ll pay more for it.
- If you’re on a budget but still want just a bit of boost/gain with your compressor, the Keeley is a clear winner.