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 don’t play to loud or too soft, and for a long time, that’s how I approached it.
Looking back I’m glad I didn’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 “cheat” level of a compressor really starts to look less significant. Now I know we don’t use those effects all the time, but we do use them a lot. If a guitarist is at the point where they’re perfectly capable of playing with touch and “taming” their instrument, I believe it’s totally fine, and incredibly helpful to start have a compressor pedal on all the time.
Benefits of a Compressor
Now we’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 won’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 you’re perfectly capable of playing a single note. You’re not learning that, you just had a hiccup, and it probably won’t happen very often.
The compressor will guarantee it never happens.
Secondly, it’ll help take a little bit of the focus off volume and enable you to give that attention to dynamics and note correctness. If you’re not worrying about overly loud or missed notes, you’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, you’ll vastly improve the dynamics of a song by boosting intensity at the right times.
If Ben Kasica Can Do It…
Ex-Skillet guitar player Ben Kasica said in an interview that he always uses a compressor and that he’s noticed a lot of other guitar players starting to do the same thing. If it’s good enough for Kasica it’s good enough for me.
The compressor pedal I used was a simple MXR Dyna Comp that I still own. I’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 I’m of the strong opinion that they make guitar player’s lives a lot easier.
Maybe some folks might still consider it kind of cheap to use one, but I’ll stick to my earlier stance, that if you’ve already learned the ropes and know what you’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 you’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 you’re interested in submitting a guest post to Guitar Chalk you can visit the Write for Us section and submit your article.