The best compressor pedals can often take your tone from good to great. Simply stated, compressors reduce a signal’s dynamic range, which is just the difference in level between the loudest and softest parts of the sound.
Compressors are widely used in music as they produce smoother, louder, and more professional-sounding results. For guitar players, a good compressor pedal will make your tone sound balanced, more controlled, and even.
Quality hardware compressors have been used in studios for decades, yet it has only been in the last three decades that stompbox compressors have become quite popular on a guitar rig.
Although these fantastic tools are used together with overdrive and distortion, they truly shine for clean sounds, particularly with rhythm parts that are active. This is because said parts get evened out providing a more consistent sound and performance that can work wonders for many styles of music.
There are many types of compressor stompboxes out there, from simple to more complex ones, and they can go from affordable to pricey depending on what you get. With so many options out there, how do you make sense of it all? We’re here to help. Keep reading.
- Best Compressor Pedals: Top 3 Picks
- Best Compressor Pedals: Individual Reviews
- Keeley Compressor Plus LTD 4-Knob Compressor Pedal
- Behringer CL9 Compressor / Limiter
- PRS Mary Cries Optical Compressor
- Wampler Ego Compressor Pedal with Blend Control
- Xotic SP Compressor Mini Compressor Pedal
- J Rockett Audio Designs Squeegee Compressor Pedal
- Keeley Compressor Plus 4-Knob Compressor Pedal
- How To Choose The Best Compressor Pedal For You
- Final Thoughts on the Best Compressor Pedals
Best Compressor Pedals: Top 3 Picks
The Keeley Compressor Plus LTD 4-Knob Compressor Pedal is our Top Pick, as it offers versatility, quality, and natural tone. This pedal adds pristine clarity while balancing out volume differences between strings and comes in a unique color to spice up your pedal board.
The Behringer CL9 Compressor / Limiter is our Best Budget option. This is a simple and effective compression and sustain pedal with three knobs that allow you to dial in your sound in a straightforward way.
Finally, the PRS Mary Cries Optical Compressor is our Editor’s Choice. This is the first pedal ever made by PRS and is based on the legendary Teletronix LA2A compressor, providing musical compression in a sturdy stompbox.
Best Compressor Pedals: Individual Reviews
The Keeley Compressor Plus LTD 4-Knob Compressor Pedal gives you a natural tone while adding clarity and balancing out volume differences between strings. This particular model comes in a unique color that is quite lively.
One of its most beloved features is the Blend control. This control allows you to combine a bit of your dry signal with the compressed signal. The result is a tone that is dynamic and fatter at the same time.
We tried this pedal with our Fender Strat plugged into our Twin Reverb amp. We played with the controls and got everything from squished sound to a more natural yet controlled signal, and realized that this pedal is quite versatile.
We particularly liked it when playing some funk parts, with varying levels of the Blend knob. In short, we got a great and balanced guitar tone, at different levels of compressions, without adding any noise to the signal.
On the other hand, the Tone control lets you fine-tune your tone while the streamlined Attack switch allows you to get a nice tone rather quickly. In other words, you can tame the peaks on a bitey single coil guitar or fatten up your tone when need be.
This pedal also comes with metal film resistors and capacitors to provide ultra-clean operation at all times. Additionally, you get hand-matched transistors and overall great-quality parts in a fantastic compressor pedal.
Simply stated, this is a great compressor pedal that is very versatile. You can choose just how much you want to compress your tone, and this Keeley compressor will get it done in the most musical way possible.
Verdict: The Keeley Compressor Plus LTD 4-Knob Compressor Pedal is a great buy for anyone looking for a natural tone. This pedal adds clarity and balances volume differences and is truly flexible and great for a variety of styles and types of players.
The Behringer Compressor/Limiter CL9 pedal is an affordable compression solution to even out your sound while adding sustain to your tone. This unit comes with Attack, Sustain, and Level knobs that allow you to shape your sound in a simple and straightforward way.
It comes in the usual Behringer stompbox design with a LED indicator that lights up when the effect is engaged. On the right-hand side of the pedal, you get a 1/4″ in, and on the left side a 1/4″ out. In other words, it does not get any simpler than this.
We tried this pedal with our Gibson Les Paul paired with a Fender Twin Reverb. To begin our tests, we set the sustain at 12 o’ clock and started playing around with the Atack knob.
The attack setting essentially sets the reaction time of the compressor. We started with a slow attack time to bring out our signal a bit. At around 10 o’clock we got a bigger and more punchy tone that can work well in several contexts.
We then slowly increased the attack times until we got to about 2 o’clock. Here we got a nice control of our dynamics and a modern, processed sound that was good for very active rhythm guitar parts.
Next, we started playing with the sustain knob. This one is self-explanatory, and we particularly liked the sustain we got at 3 o’clock, especially with some distortion. We paired this pedal with our Tube Screamer and set the attack time to 11 o’clock, and got a nice tone for big rock leads.
In short, a well-built and good-sounding pedal for beginners and folks that are a bit short on cash.
Verdict: The Behringer Compressor/Limiter CL9 pedal is an affordable compression solution to even out your sound while adding sustain to your tone. This unit comes with Attack, Sustain, and Level knobs that allow you to shape your sound in a simple and straightforward way.
The PRS Mary Cries Optical Compressor is a stompbox compressor with only two knobs: Output Gain and Compression. There are no options for setting the Attack, Release, or Threshold, defying years of conventional compressor stompbox design.
On the other hand, there is a small LED designed to let you know when compression is happening. Built like a tank and in a sturdy enclosure, the Mary Cries Optical Compressor boasts a simplicity that is quite refreshing for such a quality pedal.
In our tests, we had to turn the Compression knob quite far to start noticing any compression happening, which in turn makes this pedal quite subtle and musical.
The sound it gave us was transparent, even after turning the Compression almost fully. We then dialed up a nicely articulated boost by cranking up the Output Gain while keeping the Compression low, great for soloing in both clean and distortion. In other words, you can use this pedal as a great boost or just as straight-up compression that is quite musical.
We then set the Compression knob at 3 o’clock and got a nice limiter type of effect that did wonders on our funk and other active rhythms. The inclusion of an LED for the Compression knob was quite useful, as we could monitor the exact point at which the compressor was engaged.
Another great feature of this pedal is the true hardwire bypass. This ensures that when the effect is not engaged there is no coloration to the tone.
In short, a superior compression pedal that boasts simplicity and is a great choice for professional musicians looking for quality.
Verdict: The PRS Mary Cries Optical Compressor is a stomp box compressor designed with the legendary Teletronix LA2A compressor in mind. It offers a very musical compression that is versatile and ideal for discerning musicians willing to pay for a fantastic stompbox compressor.
This pedal features Volume, Sustain, Tone, Attack, and Blend knobs, most of which are self-explanatory. The Tone control is used to bring back some of the higher frequencies that sometimes get lost when using high compression levels.
We tried this pedal with our Strat into a Fender Twin. First, we played around with the Sustain knob, controlling the amount of sustain and compression. We added more effect when turning it clockwise increasing the level of compression and lowering the threshold at which it’s triggered.
Despite the many knobs, this compressor was simple to use and had a nice low end. It gave us versatility for different compression needs. We particularly liked that it is punchy and doesn’t lose any low end without ever getting to be boomy or muddy.
This Wampler compressor is handmade in the USA and is powered via a 9 V battery or standard 9V power supply, which you have to purchase separately. It comes with a single LED to indicate whether the effect is engaged. In other words, you will have to use your ears to know just how much compression is happening at any given moment.
In short, a very well-built and nice-sounding compression and sustain pedal, great for smoothing out your tone at varying degrees. As good as it is, this unit is not ideal to be used as a limiter, and is strictly for compression and sustain.
Verdict: The Wampler Ego Compressor Pedal with Blend Control is a compressor and sustain pedal that offers true bypass and great build quality. It gives full control over compression parameters as well as a Blend knob that increases the versatility and potential uses of this great-sounding pedal.
The Xotic SP Compressor Mini Compressor Pedal offers transparent sound and features a 3-position compression switch (with Hi, Lo, and Mid), a variable blend control, and internal dip switches. All of these work in tandem to achieve very everything from crushing compression to very musical and balanced results.
Just like the classic Ross Compressor that it is based on, the Xotic SP uses a special kind of compression circuit known as an Operational Transconductance Amplifier. This type of compression delivers a more musical and smoother response that many discerning guitarists prefer.
This pedal is also quite simple to use, as it only has two knobs and a 3-way switch. You get controls for Blend and Volume and can set the amount of compression the switch. On top of that, internal DIP switches deliver access to attack and release options, as well as a hi-cut filter and an input pad.
Just like most compressors, the Xotic SP colors your sound slightly by flattening the dynamic range. However, in our tests, we found that it does this in a very musical way.
When paired with our Tube Screamer and the blend knob set at around 12 o’clock we got a beautiful sustain for soloing. The singing tone we got will surely cut through a busy mix.
Our favorite compression settings for the 3-way switch were Lo and Mid, as they gave us a range of musical tones with sustain. When we flipped the switch set to Hi, the noise was a little too high for clean playing, although it did work well for distorted solos.
The effect of the internal DIP switches is quite subtle but a nice addition to this pedal. Overall, the SP Compressor gave us a nice and evened-out tone with great sustain in various settings and is a very durable and well-built pedal. Although simple, this pedal may be best suited for guitarists that have solid criteria on compression and what it can do.
Verdict: The Xotic SP Compressor Mini Compressor Pedal is based on the design of the classic Ross Compressor, and offers musical compression with beautiful sustain. It is well built and comes with two knobs and a 3-way switch that result in simplicity and a small form factor.
The J Rockett Audio Designs Squeegee Compressor Pedal provides simplicity of use on a straightforward design that features a Volume knob and Compression knob as well as true bypass switching.
It comes in a relatively small stompbox form factor, especially for a compressor pedal. Well-built and dependable, this analog compressor works with a 9 V DC power supply that needs to be purchased separately.
We tried this pedal with our Fender Strat and Twin Reverb amp. We immediately liked how simple to use this pedal is, which is a plus for folks that have never owned a compression stompbox before but want a quality model.
The compressed sound we got was musical and noise-free even when the compression knob was turned way past 12 o’clock. We liked the sound we got with the compression control at 11 o clock, particularly for fast and clean rhythmic parts. This setting will work nicely for funk or any other similar contexts.
This pedal also pairs well with distortion. We tried it with our Tube Screamer and got a nice sustain with an evened-out tone at 1 o’clock. Even when pushed past the 3 o clock mark, we never felt that the tone lost too much of its identity, or was too squashed and noisy.
In short, a good-sounding compression pedal that is well-built and easy to use. Folks that like to have more options to further control their tone may want to consider another option.
Verdict: The J Rockett Audio Designs Squeegee Compressor Pedal comes in a simple design that will benefit folks looking for ease of use. It features a Volume knob and Compression knob in a durable chassis and a convenient form factor that will fit in most tight pedalboards.
The Keeley Compressor Plus 4-Knob Compressor Pedal offers a natural tone with clarity while evening out volume discrepancies between your strings. This model features a more sober finish and color when compared to the Compressor Plus LTD above.
A great part of the magic in this pedal happens in the Blend control. This knob allows you to mix some of your dry signal with the compressed signal. As a result, you get a wide variety of compression tones that can be used in many different contexts.
For our tests, we plugged our Fender Strat into our Twin Reverb amp. We started with the switch on the humbucker configuration, as our Strat features a humbucker on the bridge position.
We paired it with our Tube Screamer and got a fantastic tone for soloing, particularly with the Sustain knob at 12 o clock. Our notes were even and nicely balanced, and the compression remained musical even at higher settings.
We then moved to position 4 on our Strat to try out some funk parts. This pedal delivered killer sound for choppy rhythm parts while we channeled our interior Nile Rodgers. We particularly liked it with the blend control at 11 o’clock, and Sustain at 10 o’clock.
This pedal also features metal film resistors and capacitors so you get a very clean tone at all times. Add to that hand-matched transistor and what you get is a fantastic pedal with great sound and superior components.
In short, a versatile compressor stompbox can be used in a variety of contexts. It comes with Keeley’s superior sound and functionality while compressing your tone in a musical way.
Verdict: The Keeley Compressor Plus 4-Knob Compressor Pedal is a great choice for professionals looking for versatility and a natural tone. You also get clarity while evening out your tone with a well-built and durable unit.
How To Choose The Best Compressor Pedal For You
Compression is an essential part of modern music across many genres, styles, and instruments. Guitarists are no exception. However, it is important to understand what compression does before looking into what pedal to buy.
What does compression do?
Compressors push up softer signals and squash the loud ones in order to even out your sound in order to help you achieve more consistent performance. As a result, compressors will amplify a signal that is going through them. This is the reason you put them first on your chain, otherwise, you’d be amplifying any noisy pedals that were placed before your compressor.
That said, some guitarists prefer to place their compression pedals after their overdrive and distortion pedals. This will lessen the squashing but will still even out rhythm and lead tones.
It is important to keep in mind that the above are guidelines and that in the end, you have to try out what works best for you. A good way to approach it is to place your compressor before any other pedals and try it there, then move it around in your chain and see what results you get.
Controls On a Compressor
Different stompbox compressors have different control knobs. Whether you end up getting one with many or few knobs, it is important to know these compression parameters and how they affect your sound. Even for a pedal with just two knobs, there is a threshold, ratio, attack and release that are happening, whether you can control it or not.
This is the level at which your signal starts to be affected by compression. A high threshold will catch the peaks or jumps in volume. On the other hand, a low threshold setting will compress just about everything that goes through it.
This parameter sets the rate at which the signal above the threshold gets compressed. For instance, a ratio of 2:1 means that for every 2 dB of increased input gain, your signal will be increased by only 1 dB.
This parameter sets how fast your note gets compressed once it reaches the threshold. For instance, a fast attack is good for rhythmic parts to have a smooth and even feel. On the other hand, a slow attack often results in a more natural sound.
This parameter dictates how long it takes for the compressed note to come back to normal. Leaving this relatively low will provide a slightly longer tail which results in a natural sound.
Final Thoughts on the Best Compressor Pedals
Compressors are one of the most misunderstood tools by many guitarists. Besides reading about it, it is important that you spend time with a compressor to hear what it can do for your sound and truly learn how to use it.
All of the options in this article are good, so it is up to you to see what you need it for and how much you want to spend.
To recap our choices, the Keeley Compressor Plus LTD 4-Knob Compressor Pedal is our Top Pick, because of its versatility, quality, and natural tone. This pedal comes from one of the most respected pedal companies ever and allows you to balance out your volume differences in a musical manner.
The Behringer CL9 Compressor / Limiter is our Best Budget option with a straightforward and effective design that offers compression and sustain with the ability to tweak your sound on its three knobs.
Finally, the PRS Mary Cries Optical Compressor is our Editor’s Choice. A fantastic pedal made by PRS, based on the iconic Teletronix LA2A compressor, for musical compression for discerning musicians.