For those of you who weren’t already aware, compression is arguably the secret weapon for gigging guitarists the world over. From Jack White to James Burton, compression is one of the few effects that’s equally viable for almost every genre.
But the question is: what makes a great compressor pedal? If you’ve always wondered which compressor is right for your needs, you’ve come to the right place! This article will give you a basic introduction as to the function of the effect, as well as a few great recommendations! If you just want to jump straight to our top picks, we've summarized them for you here (we encourage you to read on for our more in-depth reviews and impressions):
- Bottom Line:This MXR Dyna Comp clone does a remarkable job considering its budget friendly price. You sacrifice a bit of fit & finish, but the Joyo is perfect if you're totally new to compressor pedals, or simply need a great-sounding transparent compressor for well under $50. Best Bang for your Buck
- Bottom Line:The MXR Dyna Comp slots into our top 5, and is a bit of a legendary compressor pedal in its own right. It colors your tone just a bit, but given its sub-$100 price tag, pleasant compressed tone, and its inclusion on countless pro guitarist pedalboards, its easy to see why it's a top contender.
- What Does A Compressor Pedal Do?
- What Should I Look For In A Compressor?
- How Did We Come Up With This List?
- The 5 Best Guitar Compressor Pedals
So, What Does A Compressor Pedal Do?
Without getting too technical, compression normalizes the dynamic range of an instrument. So basically, it makes the output of your guitar more consistent. If you’re playing too quietly the pedal will boost the volume of your instrument, and if you’re playing too loudly it will dampen it. For instance, in live situations it can be a bit more difficult to control your dynamic range. It’s really easy to get a bit too pumped up and play your guitar louder than you should, drowning out the other members of your band. But with a compressor, you can set a control (generally called threshold) which will limit your output to a more reasonable level.
For guitarists, a compressor pedal is sort of a "secret weapon" type of effect. When talking about the most basic effects pedals a guitarist should own, it's easy to justify a tuner, and even easier to get excited about a much more tangible effect like overdrive, reverb, or delay. Compressor pedals are less understood, but those guitar players that know insist it should be one of the top 3 most necessary pedals on the pedalboard.
So the question is... why? It's because that aside from just evening out your playing dynamics (i.e. taming the notes you hit too loudly or too quietly), a compressor pedal can help you achieve more sustain on your clean signal; no overdrive pedal needed! Of course you can also use a compressor on an overdriven tone to still get a lot of sustain but use less overdrive. It’s one of the few ways that you can almost cheat as a guitar player! While the pedal shouldn’t be used as a crutch, it definitely can be.
Compressor pedals are used in all sorts of genres and styles of music, but they are particularly prevalent in country. This is likely because the sustained clean "twangy" tones almost make your electric guitar sound like a slide guitar. For you visual (and auditory) learners, this 4-minute video EFFECTS 101: Compressor by Roland is a great introduction. It's a bit of a commercial for the Boss CS-3 compressor pedal, but you can't really blame them for using one of their own products as the example:
What Should I Look For In A Compressor?
One of our Equipboard writers shared this story with us:
"Back when I was playing in an old-school country band, one of my mentors recommended I pick up a compressor. I was just getting into hybrid-picking (playing with both pick and fingers) and I didn’t quite have the hang of it yet. So, I drove down to my local Guitar Center to go and demo every compressor that I could get my hands on.
And in all honesty, I was actually kind of surprised by what I found. You see, pretty much every compressor pedal I tried actually worked out just fine. They all did a good job of taming the output of my hybrid picking, and I didn’t really notice any dramatic changes in the frequency response of the gear I was using.
However as I worked my way through more and more models, I started to notice a trend among the budget pedals. While the more expensive pedals had a pretty wide array of useable tones almost every one of the cheaper pedals I tried didn’t. The budget models might have done a pretty good job of adjusting the basic output, but they just didn’t handle the more intensive settings very well.
So what kind of compressor should you look for? I suppose that depends on what your needs are. If you’re looking for a pedal that will be able to tame the upper limits of your dynamic range almost any compressor should work for you. But if you’re looking for a compressor that’s a bit more flexible (for instance, if you use tapping) you’re going to have to invest a bit more."
How Did We Come Up With This List?
Our process for selecting the 5 best compressor pedals involves hours of research and demoing gear. Every compressor on this list was included based on the general buzz around different guitar forums and communities, our favorite instrument related publications, our own experiences as musicians, and user reviews from popular online stores.
We comb through dozens of forum threads and pages of user reviews, and tally up each time a compressor pedal receives a positive mention or endorsement from someone. We only count first-hand experience as a "vote" (we don't count statements like "I've heard such and such pedal is the best..."). The more we do this, over time some pedals gather more votes than others, and this gives us a good sense for what the guitar community as a whole thinks are the best pedals. We then take the top handful and head to our local music shops to test them out ourselves, which leads us to our ultimate 5 Best list.
And like every buying guide we do, it’s important to clarify what “best” means in this context. Sure a $800 rack-mounted compressor is going to have a lot of great features, but that’s not going to matter to someone who can only scrape up $60. We try to be very cognizant that the best option for you isn’t necessarily going to be the best option for your neighbor. We try our best to make sure our Top 5 list includes pedals at various price points, so look for our Best of the Best and Best Bang for your Buck winners.
The 5 Best Guitar Compressor Pedals
So without much further ado, here are the best compressor pedals!
Xotic Effects SP Compressor
One of the most fun parts of writing these reviews is researching what different communities around the internet are saying about a piece of gear. When we were tallying up the number of positive reviews and mentions of the Xotic Effects SP Compressor, the results were staggering - the SP flat out stole the show, coming in with three times the number of votes than the next compressor pedal on our list. To say that we were excited to take it for a test drive ourselves is an understatement, and - spoiler alert - we ended up being pretty blown away.
So, first, this is a small form-factor compressor pedal with a footswitch, two large knobs, and a tiny toggle switch. The Xotic SP is pretty beautiful to behold, and built very solid. It really has the feel and heft of a boutique pedal. The green LED lights up bright and looks great against the colors of the pedal. But beauty is only skin deep, as they say. Luckily, the SP has the personality to match.
Operation of the pedal is simple and straightforward, and it’s one of the things that everyone, including us, raves about. Save for maybe the MXR Dyna Comp, the Xotic SP has the simplest interface of all the other compressor pedals on this list. The toggle switch is responsible for amount of compression - low, mid, or high. After you’ve set that, the BLEND knob lets you dial in how much compressed signal you want blended with the dry input. And finally, set your VOLUME knob to maintain unity volume when you kick the compressor on, or you can use it boost your signal for solos... and ta-da, that’s it, you’re now in a world of compressed goodness.
Aside from its no-nonsense usability, where the Xotic Effects SP Compressor truly shines is how it sounds. The sound quality is absolutely sublime, particularly for a pedal at this price point. It’s very transparent, and the amount of noise is extremely low. Check out a few of our favorite quotes from some of the more thoughtful reviews and comments we found:
"There weren't any of those weird dips you sometimes get with compression pedals either, where the tone/volume kind of wah a little bit while trying to boost the signal to hold the note. It gives you a subtle _pop_ especially when raking muted strings too that helps cut through a mix, but nothing overpowering."
"...this compressor has more gain on tap than any Ross style compressor I've used."
"This compressor gives just the right amount of softness to the attack. It never sounds "thumpy" or unnatural - but always musical."
The amount of high praise this extremely versatile pedal receives is unmatched. Xotic hit a home run with such a good pedal at such an attainable price point, meaning more guitarists can afford to add it to their rig and experience its greatness for themselves.
No piece of gear is flat out perfect, so here are some of the potential downsides of the SP. For starters, while its small size may allow you to fit more pedals on your pedalboard, it’s not the sturdiest pedal. The weight of your cables is enough to tip it over, so we recommend some velcro (particularly this one which we highly recommend in our pedalboards buying guide). Also, hidden inside are four dip switches to further customize your sound - fast/slow attack and release, and low and high cut for frequencies which you can utilize to brighten or darken the tone. It’s fantastic that this much control exists inside of this small pedal, but some people might not love the fact that they have to crack it open to adjust these parameters. Still, we feel like it’s better to have these controls hidden than not have them at all. Finally, while the price is great per what you get, it still might be stretching the budget of some guitarists. It’s not the best bang for the buck on our list, but it is certainly close (for the budget option, read on)!
Bottom Line: Xotic Effects really outdid themselves with the SP Compressor pedal. Considering its simplicity of use, fantastic sound, and versatility, you simply won’t find much else out there in this price range. If you’re looking for a compressor that colors your sound you might want to look at something else, but for a transparent compressor pedal this is an amazing little package. Based on the opinions of dozens of guitarists around the web as well as our own testing, we’re confident calling the Xotic Effects SP Compressor Pedal the Best of the Best.
Coming in second to the Xotic SP in our best compressor pedal shootout is the Diamond Compressor. Take the second place finish with a grain of salt, however. The Diamond Compressor carries a hefty price tag, and might simply not be as widely owned as the SP. And with both Mike McCready of Pearl Jam fame and Johnny Marr making room for this yellow pedal on their board, we were VERY excited to try it out.
Diamond is known for making very solid, great sounding pedals with spartan aesthetics and solid colors, and the Diamond Compressor is no exception. This is a true bypass pedal, meaning it won’t affect the signal of your guitar when it’s switched off but in a minute you’ll see why we liked this bad boy so much, that we don’t ever want to turn it off! For the tone nerd in you, the Diamond Compressor uses an optical isolator for its compression, which is the same type of circuit found in high-end studio rackmount compressors. That higher price tag is beginning to make a little more sense...
The fit and finish is fantastic, it just feels like it’s great quality and durable, and it has a very no-nonsense layout. You have three knobs at your fingertips (or toes rather) - COMP which is the amount of compression, EQ, and VOLUME. A stomp switch turns the pedal on and off. The LED light lights up green when the pedal is on, and flashes when gain reduction is being applied to your signal - a very neat indicator that this pedal is doing work.
So, getting right down to it, the Diamond Compressor sounds extremely nice. It simply has this musical quality to it, does not overly “squash” your sound even at more extreme settings, and there’s just a clarity to it that has to be heard to be believed. We tested it out with a Telecaster, and everything from the pick attack, to the wonderful sustain, to the decay of notes sounded wonderful. “Subtle” and “transparent” is one way a lot owners of the pedal describe it, though don’t let that fool you; if you crank the COMP knob up the effect can be much more in-your-face (but still very smooth). The Diamond Compressor truly does nothing but improve your tone.
The COMP knob behaves as you expect it. Dial it to the right for more compression, left for less. Even on minimum compression settings (COMP knob rolled all the way back) it adds nice clarity and a smooth compression to your tone, which makes a great case for keeping this pedal on all the time.
The EQ knob is particularly nice. It’s a “tilt” EQ, meaning that it’s flat at 12 o’clock, rolling it to the left decreases the highs and boosts the lows, and rolling it right does the opposite. It’s really quite fantastic for smoothing out your tone and fixing any imbalances in your signal chain. Oh, and the VOLUME knob works great too and has plenty of volume on tap, though we didn’t really push it.
You might be wondering about the Diamond Compressor’s weaknesses. Well, the attack and release of the compression are not adjustable, but truthfully we didn’t feel the need (and it’s also not that uncommon for guitar pedal compressors). Also, there are a couple switches which you have to access inside of the pedal - one removes the EQ completely from the compressor, and one adds a 4.8 kHz cutoff which can help clean things up if you use the Diamond Compressor alongside a distortion pedal. And of course there’s that matter of the hefty price tag (of our best compressors rundown, this is the priciest one).
Bottom Line: Sonically, this might be the best compressor we’ve had the pleasure of testing out, even edging out the Xotic SP in terms of clarity. Its price tag is really the Achilles heel here, and we can totally see it driving people to opt for the SP instead. A pro guitarist we respect very much by the name of Johnny Marr says this about it:
“There’s also the Diamond Compressor that’s important to my sound. It really works with my Jag. It’s the best.”
That’s pretty high praise from Mr. Marr. If you can afford to splurge on your compressor, we definitely recommend looking very, very closely at the Diamond.
Keeley 4 Knob Compressor
One of the highest recommended and highly reviewed compression pedals out there is the Keeley 4 Knob Compressor. This is the big brother to the Keeley 2-knob; they are sonically identical, except the 4 Knob version adds more control with the attack speed and clipping knobs (at time of writing it doesn’t seem like the Keeley 2-knob version is as widely available). Keeley has made a name for itself making some fantastic pedals and pedal modifications, and their compressor offering lives up to the brand’s reputation. Let’s dig in.
The thing feels like it could withstand some serious abuse, and we dig its attractive design. For the control freaks, you’ve got - yep, you guessed it - four knobs to play with: Sustain, Level, Attack, and Clipping. The latter two are knobs that not all guitar compressor pedals have, and oftentimes exist as switches on the inside of the pedal. The fact that they are readily accessible knobs on the front of this unit is definitely one of the selling points.
The Sustain knob sets the amount of compression, the Level knob is the volume, the Attack knob controls how quickly the compression happens, and the Clipping knob clips the input so you can adjust the signal before it gets to the compressor, which is handy if you plug in various guitars or other instruments into this pedal.
The most stand-out aspect of the Keeley 4 Knob Compressor is how quiet it is, especially at higher compression settings. The sustain you get sings for days, and yet it still has a very clean and musical sound, not too much unlike the Diamond Compressor. Sustain aside, with the four knobs we could really spend some time fine tuning it, to achieve a very subtle compression. We can see the Attack knob coming in handy to adjust for various styles of picking. If for any reason you don’t want to always keep this pedal on, rest easy knowing it’s true bypass and will leave your tone unaltered. We really like the Level knob as well, since with a pedal of this caliber with such low noise, it makes for a great clean boost, regardless of how much compression you have dialed in.
Bottom Line: There’s really not much to dislike here, aside from the steep price tag. It’s justifiable, though; this is definitely not your beginner budget compressor. In terms of sheer number of mentions from users and reviews, the Diamond Compressor just edges out the Keeley 4 Knob. In our play testing, it’s too close to call. We say go for the Keeley if the Attack and Clipping knobs are important for you to have handy on the front of the pedal. And in case it helps you with making a decision, Neon Trees guitarist Chris Allen favors the Keeley 4 Knob. Whichever you choose, if you’ve got the cash for it, the Keeley 4 Knob will cover all your compression and clean boost needs with astounding results.
Joyo JF-10 Dyna Compressor
The Joyo JF-10 Dyna Compressor is a surprisingly nice pedal, and received the highest number of recommendations in the more budget-centric ”best cheap compressor pedal” and ”best compressor pedal under $100” discussions we came across. It racked up so many recommendations that it slotted right into our top 5, which is great because we love including a budget option - after all, not everyone can (or should) spend $100+ on a pedal.
Joyo pedals are known for cloning the circuitry of iconic guitar pedals, and they’ve garnered a generally good reputation with guitarists because their pedals are more or less faithful reproductions, yet come in at very budget-friendly price points. Joyo pedals can sound so good that some people have repainted them to look “more boutique” and have fooled buyers into paying many times their price! But enough about the company. Let’s talk about the JF-10 Dyna Compressor.
At its heart this pedal is a clone of the well-known and well-revered MXR Dyna Comp, but you probably could have guessed that due to its name being Dyna Compressor (though some people claim it’s a clone of the MXR M-132 Super Comp). Handling the pedal, we can’t help but notice it’s not quite as solid in the fit and finish department as other higher-end offerings. For its price it’s perhaps unsurprising that the build quality is not the greatest, and while we can’t speak to long term durability the reviews we’ve read mention it’s not quite tank-like - for some users things tend to go wrong with the Joyo a little too soon. Aesthetics are subjective, but for us this one elicits a bit of a “meh” - it’s not ugly, but we don’t love the green color and the scorpion design feels arbitrary.
The Joyo JF-10 Dyna Compressor offers three knobs - SUSTAIN, LEVEL, and ATTACK. If you’ve read our guide up to this point you should be familiar with how they affect the sound. To recap, SUSTAIN is amount of compression, LEVEL is the output volume, and ATTACK is how quickly after you hit a note the compression kicks in. The inclusion of the Attack knob is nice if you care to have it, since that’s one missing from the Xotic SP, Diamond Compressor, and MXR Dyna Comp. Tweak the knobs and the Joyo JF-10 respond well - surprisingly well, actually. This thing definitely over-delivers in the tone department. While not quite as pristine and quiet as the Xotic SP, Diamond, or Keeley, it still is nowhere near cheap sounding.
The Joyo doesn’t have as much character as the MXR Dyna Comp, and it’s more subtle - this is perhaps favorable if you’re looking for an always-on compressor pedal. A couple of owners out there went as far as to say the Joyo outperforms the Dyna Comp. We didn't find this to be the case ourselves, but wanted to let you know these types of claims are out there:
"...the Joyo compressor does a better job than an MXR Dyna-Comp. Less hiss, and more versatility."
Bottom Line: The price/performance ratio of the Joyo JF-10 Dyna-Compressor is outstanding; for the price, it just can’t be beat. Our suggestion is to go for the Joyo if you’re new to guitar pedals, aren’t convinced if a compressor is something you need, or you simply need some subtle compression without adversely affecting your tone and don’t want to drop $100+ on one. A no brainer for the Best Bang for your Buck.
MXR M102 Dyna Comp
The MXR M102 Dyna Comp is probably the pedal most guitarists think of when compressor pedals are brought up, and for good reason; it originally came out in 1976 and continues to go strong today. The MXR Dyna Comp is found on more pro pedalboards than any of the other compressors on our top compressor pedals rundown by quite a large margin. When it comes to value for the money, the Dyna Comp hits quite the sweet spot, but it definitely has its quirks! Let’s dig in.
This little red box looks and feels fantastic. It’s an MXR pedal after all, so there’s just a certain standard of quality and durability you know you’re going to get from it. With only two large knobs to worry about, the Dyna Comp gets very high marks in the ease of use department. You’ve got OUTPUT on the left which is just the output volume, and SENSITIVITY on the right, which is yet another way of saying amount of compression. Like other MXR pedals, we love the fact that it comes with fat rubber caps that go over the kobs, to ease adjusting them with your feet as you’re playing live, if you’re so inclined (the knobs are also very easy to read, which is a plus for live situations). Also, it’s true bypass, so expect zero coloration of your signal when you have it switched off.
Operation is dead simple, and you can dial in your desired compression setting arguably more easily than any other pedal on our list! Now, you’ll have to bear with us when we describe how it sounds, because compression is an effect that’s not as easy to discern as reverb or distortion. The MXR Dyna Comp compresses beautifully, but it has more tonal character than the other pedals on this list. There’s just something to it that doesn’t make it as transparent as, say, a Diamond Compressor or Keeley. As you crank the SENSITIVITY knob past 3 o’clock the Dyna Comp gives you a very “squished” sound, which is a term a lot of people use to describe a sound that has been so compressed it loses most of its dynamic range. All compressor pedals do this, but the MXR has it’s own little nuances. It’s also worth mentioning that with the OUTPUT knob cranked all the way to the right and the SENSITIVITY all the way down this box gives you a nice clean boost, albeit one that colors your tone ever so slightly.
Several reviewers pointed out that at high compression settings, the Dyna Comp was a bit noisier than some other compressors. We found this to be true, but it is nowhere near debilitating, and increased noise is something to be expected from any compressor. Depending on your needs, another down side of the MXR Dyna Comp is the omission of an Attack knob.
Bottom Line: This classic pedal from MXR has found a home on countless pedalboards, for good reason. Looking at our Equipboard data we can see it’s the compressor pedal of choice of Caleb Followill of Kings of Leon, Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong, Two Door Cinema Club’s Sam Halliday, and Noel Gallagher, all of whom have very different playing styles which speaks to the versatility and staying power of the Dyna Comp. It’s not the purest guitar compressor pedal out there in that there is a slight coloration of tone, but given its sub-$100 price tag and pleasant compressed tone, we can see why it receives so many recommendations.
We sincerely hope this was helpful whether you're new to guitar compressor pedals and just wanted to learn about compression, are looking to buy your first one, or are an experienced guitarist looking for a new one. If you have any thoughts, experiences, or personal anecdotes you’d like to share, please tell us all about it in the comments section below!