The following is a guest post by Robert Kittleberger of GuitarChalk.com. If you are interested in guest posting, please contact me!
It might feel a lot like cheating to ever use your compressor pedal in any situation outside of a recording studio. After all, the compressor is a tool of the sound technician more so than that of the guitarist, despite the existence of a whole multitude of compressor guitar pedals.
During my younger playing years I always felt like using a compressor was sort of like cheating, even though I freely implemented every other kind of sound manipulating effect you could think without the same thoughts. I knew that a compressor basically did two things:
1. It boosted the volume of notes that were played too soft.
2. It reduced the volume of notes that were played too hard.
I also knew that it did this according to a knob set to control the output threshold which is a fancy way of determining how loud it was going to be. It all just seemed like a really cheap shortcut to me. I felt like I should be the one making sure I donâ€™t play to loud or too soft, and for a long time, thatâ€™s how I approached it.
Looking back Iâ€™m glad I didnâ€™t learn to play the guitar with a compressor always on (even though I owned one). However now that I would consider myself an accomplished player and seasoned guitar veteran of 16 years, I believe the unwritten rule has changed.
Just another Effect
When you consider the heavy manipulation put on your guitar by modulation effects, distortion and even delay pedals, the â€œcheatâ€ level of a compressor really starts to look less significant. Now I know we donâ€™t use those effects all the time, but we do use them a lot. If a guitarist is at the point where theyâ€™re perfectly capable of playing with touch and â€œtamingâ€ their instrument, I believe itâ€™s totally fine, and incredibly helpful to start have a compressor pedal on all the time.
Benefits of a Compressor
Now weâ€™ve already covered what the compressor actually does. It basically makes things smoother and more manageable in terms of volume and output. But what is the overall benefit of using one all the time?
First and foremost, it makes your playing a lot more consistent and reliable. You wonâ€™t have to worry as much about those loud obnoxious notes that come out way too obviously when you hit a string too hard. A compressor completely eliminates that problem, which is fine because you know that youâ€™re perfectly capable of playing a single note. Youâ€™re not learning that, you just had a hiccup, and it probably wonâ€™t happen very often.
The compressor will guarantee it never happens.
Secondly, itâ€™ll help take a little bit of the focus off volume and enable you to give that attention to dynamics and note correctness. If youâ€™re not worrying about overly loud or missed notes, youâ€™ll be more relaxed and therefore better equipped to work on other more important aspects of your playing.
Thirdly, a compressor pedal can be a useful tool when it comes to song dynamics. Like I said before, compressors will usually have an output option, which essentially equates to volume. If you dial that down, and only use it on the quieter verses, than turn it off to allow more volume coming out of your amplifier for the chorus, youâ€™ll vastly improve the dynamics of a song by boosting intensity at the right times.
If Ben Kasica Can Do Itâ€¦
Ex-Skillet guitar player Ben Kasica said in an interview that he always uses a compressor and that heâ€™s noticed a lot of other guitar players starting to do the same thing. If itâ€™s good enough for Kasica itâ€™s good enough for me.
The compressor pedal I used was a simple MXR Dyna Comp that I still own. Iâ€™ve since dusted it off and use it all the time now, and it has definitely made a difference in my playing. There are plenty of good compressors out there to choose from and Iâ€™m of the strong opinion that they make guitar playerâ€™s lives a lot easier.
Maybe some folks might still consider it kind of cheap to use one, but Iâ€™ll stick to my earlier stance, that if youâ€™ve already learned the ropes and know what youâ€™re doing, you owe it to yourself to get a little help improving your sound.
Volume and dynamics are a tough thing to conquer, and while attacking it head on is necessary the compressor will definitely help you flank it. If youâ€™ve got one, go ahead and use it.
Robert Kittleberger is the founder and editor of guitarchalk.com. You can follow him on Twitter @guitarchalk, or if youâ€™re interested in submitting a guest post to Guitar Chalk you can visit the Write for Us section and submit your article.
10 years ago
OK, I’ll dig out my DynaComp and give it another chance. The reason I took it off my pedalboard is that it overemphasized the pick attack, which gave everything a “plinky” sound that I associate with ’80s rock (when I guess everybody used one in the studio, with all the knobs dimed).
I assume you put it last in the chain, to smooth out the volume diffs when you turn in a pedal that isn’t at perfect unity gain?Reply
10 years ago
Thank you, Robert, for your intelligently expressed insights. Having gone in the electric direction later in life (after a long… LONG…) hiatus from playing, I came to a similar conclusion for my efforts as a solo singer/songwriter performer. I have no problems achieving dynamic expression and control in my playing; but as you suggest, getting your concentration into better focus on the really important aspects of, in my case, “putting across the SONG” (rather than putting across the ACT) can make a big difference in how effectively you “deliver the message”, as I heard Tony Bennett put it.
So, my choice? I looked for pretty much the quietest, most transparent and “musical” (rather than “effect-y”) compressor I could find; one which would not itself present any distraction to its “operator”… and ended up with the Rothwell [U.K.] Love Squeeze. For any less transparent sort of compression effect I might now & then need, I shelled out under $20 for a new Onerr TC-1 “Titanium” full-featured compressor (Brazilian, FYI) at auction from a dealer clearance sale. Maybe this will be helpful to a fellow gear-head or two out there.Reply
10 years ago
Although I am not really too familliar with Ben Kasica’s work or tone, I do know that a compressor is an industry standard box on most pro’s boards.Reply
For me, there are a lot of things a compressor can accomplish, but the most useful thing that I feel a compressor can accomplish that the fingers cannot (with practice and discipline) is sustain. Other than that, I would agree that it definitely is an effect. And has been a very inspiring effect! I try and look for guitar amps that contain a bit of their own natural compression to my ear. Vox AC15’s, Fender Hot Rod’s, Two Rocks, etc etc.
To each guitar player his own of course! Carlos Santana (in the Herbie Hanock Documentary “Possibilities”) said something to the effect that no two players will ever sound the same. You can have the same gear, play the same notes, but there is a quality to the fingers and to the soul that individualizes each player.
10 years ago
BusyHands — Thanks for the comment! Yes, I always keep it last in line, right before my amp.
Jake and Fred — Appreciate the insight fellas. I usually play through Line 6 modeling amps, that I’m fairly certain have a built in compressor as well, though it is somewhat weak and hard to notice.Reply