How to Use a Compression Pedal — and Why You Might Want To

A picture of rows of guitar pedals

The first rule of Guitar Club is there are no rules.

Okay, that might be a bit melodramatic, but there is an element of truth to it. When you play an instrument like the electric guitar, there is a bit of rebellion and innovation baked in.

Rebellion and innovation don’t preclude a good foundation — they require one

Yes, there are “rules” to follow, but often they are more like guidelines. And that’s the beauty of the guitar, and rock music in general: you can try anything.

That being said, it takes a special person to start with nothing and make something magical. Most of us have to have a baseline understanding of things like music theory, how the neck is laid out, and how pedals and amps work before we try to get our inner Eddie Van Halen on.

So today that I want to help you understand — without being dogmatic about it — how a compressor pedal works, why you may want one, and how to use it.

The mystery of compression demystified

I don’t know about you, but I’ve always thought that compressor pedals were a bit mysterious. They “compress” the sound — okay, what does that really mean? And why do so many people use them?

But rather than go into a technical, “sciencey” explanation, it’s much easier to think of it as if there were a very tiny person living inside of your compression pedal. This little guy — let’s call him Carl — is pretty finicky about music. He doesn’t like things too loud (it gives him a headache) or too soft (he’s had some hearing loss over the years). Thankfully, Carl is sitting next to a big volume knob.

Whenever you play your guitar, Carl listens. If you play a little too loud, Carl reaches up and turns the volume down. And if you play a little too soft, he turns the volume up.

This is essentially what a compressor pedal does. It evens out the dynamics, or volume, of your playing.

What can I do with a compression pedal?

A compression pedal can help you out in a couple of different ways. For one, it can add a little bit of a “professional” feel to your playing if, like me, you occasionally mess up and play a string or chord a bit too loudly (or softly). Or it can boost your clean tone to help you stand out in the mix without having to crank your amp. (But let’s be honest, who among us has ever been concerned we were playing too loud?)

It can also help to add sustain to lead guitar parts. Since compression pedals adjust volume, it makes sense that they can increase sustain by dialing up the volume of a note as it begins to die, thus prolonging the sound to our ears.

This kind of pedal can also help ramp up your high end, which means you can use one to give you a more funky or country-western tone.

How do I dial in a compression pedal?

Most compression pedals have the same or similar controls.

The Attack dial focuses on the start of the notes you play. The more you turn this knob up, the more you will hear the pluck of the strings.

The Sustain or Release dial is going to control the end of the notes you play. This is the dial to crank if you want that epic bend to ring out long enough for you to go have a bite to eat.

The Level knob, as is the case with most pedals, just controls the overall volume of the pedal. Usually, you would want to find the setting that matches the same volume as when the pedal is off.

It’s hard to say how you ought to set the dials on your pedal because there are too many variables to consider. You have a different guitar than I do, with different pickups, playing into a different signal chain and amp. You also no doubt have different sonic preferences than I do.

Your best bet is to just set all the dials at noon and adjust them one by one, using the guidance above, until you get something you are happy with. And if you’re looking for a specific sound or effect, it’s very likely there’s a YouTube video dedicated to your exact scenario.

Where should I put the pedal in my signal chain?

Signal chains (i.e., what order you put your pedals in on your pedal board) are great fodder for internet arguments, and experimentation is usually encouraged. Generally speaking, however, the compressor is going to be among the first pedal in your chain — before overdrives, delays, or reverbs. On my pedal board, it’s first in line.

You don’t usually want to compress effects, because it can change the sound in ways you may not like. But then again, you might find a combination that gives you a unique sound you love!

Do I need a compression pedal to sound good?

In the end, I’ve played plenty with a compression pedal and plenty without one. I think it made the biggest difference in sound when I was playing a cheap guitar into a cheap solid-state amp. It really did make the whole setup sound more professional.

As I upgraded guitars and amps, I started to use my compression pedal less and less. I just no longer needed it for the reason I initially did (to compensate for crappy gear). But I did just put it back on my board after several years, and I’m excited to see how it responds to my latest rig.

So, no — I don’t believe anyone needs a compression pedal to sound good, but it is a tool that may help you achieve a certain sound more easily, and it’s been my experience that it can help low-end gear sound better.

So how about you — do you have experience with compressor pedals? What advice would you give your fellow guitarists on them? Let us know in the comments!

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Jon Clemence

Jon Clemence

Medium needs more guitar-related content. I. Am. That. Hero!