Compression Pedals: What’s the Big Deal? (Part 1)

By Stefan Vos
In May 13, 2010
Compression Pedals

Compression Pedals

During the course of our lives as guitar players and enthusiasts, many of us have developed a particularly dire malady. I guess it may be traced back to the hours spent drooling over the latest cool guitar/amp/effect pedals that arrive at our local music store, or perhaps the sense of awe and intimidation that overcomes us when we see the live or studio rigs of professional session players and international rock stars. It may even be a result of the array of publications dedicated to our ‘weapon of choice’, which every month seem to be overflowing with new bits of gear and sonic gadgets that promise to be the ‘holy grail’ in our quest for ‘ultimate tone’. Whatever the cause, I have to confess that I am a long time sufferer of what I fear may be an incurable condition: Gear Geek.

Another Pedal

I mention this perhaps to explain why I have for so long been inordinately interested in the contents of guitarist’s pedalboards, and also perhaps to serve as an introduction to a somewhat misunderstood pedal: the compression pedal. A few years ago, as I spent more and more time looking into effects pedals, signal paths, brands and makes, and so forth, I kept seeing a particular pedal in the rigs of some of my favourite and exceptionally accomplished guitar players: a compression pedal.

I tried one out at my local music store but must confess that it left me a bit under-awed. I understood the allure of Delay pedals, Distortion pedals, Phasers, Tremolos, and Wah Wahs – these were all dramatic effects. You simply stomped on the little box and your guitar suddenly became a new beast entirely. The compressor seemed to make very little difference to my ears as I switched it on and off. What’s the big deal?

Compression Pedals Squeeze Me

Well, in order to answer that question, let’s begin by discovering what compression pedals do. In its simplest form, compression “squeezes” a guitar’s tone.  The analog tone from a guitar consists of a great many frequencies. A compression pedal simply addresses and squeezes the range to even out the tone.  This makes the resulting tone more consistent and level. Compression pedals even out the loud parts and beef up the quiet parts and, this not only levels off the tone but also yields greater sustain. So there you go, the loudest parts are evened out and the quiet parts brought up, resulting in a more consistent tone and a greater sustain. A byproduct of this is that the guitar actually sounds louder, while in fact remaining at the same volume – all the frequencies are coming through more evenly.

So why would this be necessary? What are the pros and cons? As with all things sonic that have to do with our favourite musical instrument and coaxing ‘tone’ from it, the answer is not a simple one. I will, however, say this: if used correctly, and in the correct context, I believe that a compression pedal can be an almost magical ‘secret weapon’ that can make all the difference in a guitarist’s rig. If used in ignorance or incorrectly, it can suck big time!

Tone Is In The Ears Of The Beer Holder

Once again we come to the point that a guitarist’s sound, or ‘tone’, is a very subjective thing. There are general guidelines and rules of thumb, but, of course, these have been broken to great and unique effect. My best advice is: never stop experimenting and let your ears guide you. In terms of the compression pedal, some guitarists will say “Why would I want to diminish the natural dynamics (variations in volume) in my playing, it’s a building block of my tone”, and in a sense I would wholeheartedly endorse that sentiment. However, a compression pedal need not detract from your natural dynamics. There are so many variables at play here: types of pickup (humbucker or single coil), predominant sound in terms of clean versus overdrive, position in the signal chain of effects, etc. All these things need to be taken into consideration.

I will say this: I LOVE my compression pedal, a 2-knob Keeley Compressor. It’s an absolutely integral part of my rig and is the only pedal that I leave switched on all the time. In part two of this feature, I will attempt to explain why. Stay tuned!

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* Has played in the UK with the band Lightning Type on stages like the Camden Barfly, Dublin Castle and The London Astoria * Has recorded at Beethoven Street Studios, previously owned by Seal, through a mixing desk once used by David Bowie, with one of Brian May's amps * Has played with local rock superstars Cassette * Has been teaching for the last 10 years to all ages and levels * Listens to and enjoys playing ALL styles of music * Has spent years refining the POWER STANCE for maximum on-stage rocking * Has dedicated himself to the lifelong pursuit of ULTIMATE TONE: The Way of the TONE Master * Has never played "Guitar Hero"

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