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The 10 best compressor pedals 2020: how to make your clean tones really stand out

The 10 best compressor pedals 2020: how to make your clean tones really stand out
(Image credit: Future)

Though there are some guitarists out there who will happily use compression on their crunch or overdrive channels, the most classic use of the effect is on a clean guitar signal. The best compressor pedals will make the quieter noises coming out of your instrument that much louder and, in more extreme cases, just as fat-sounding as parts played with uncompromising aggression.

A boutique hand-wired guitar amp retailing for two grand plus may have all the natural compression you need, but for the large majority of us guitarists, a pedal to squash and sustain your clean tone can be the difference between a decent guitar sound and a seriously great one. For touring musicians who are provided with local backlines, it’s even more important – and the only way of guaranteeing the same kind of response and attack night after night.

The best compressor pedals right now

If there’s one effect Robert Keeley is arguably most associated with, it’s compression. He started out as one of the original pedal tweakers, modding mass-produced stompboxes by companies like Boss and Ibanez to increase tone and decrease noise. Eventually he started his own company and the Keeley Compressor Plus remains one of his best-sellers today. One of its best features is the humbucker/single coil release switch to suit whichever kind of electric guitar pickups are fitted on your guitar.

Handmade to strict design criteria in California, using only the finest components, Xotic’s mini pedals are renowned for their top-tier tonal warmth, with the SL Drive, EP Booster and BB Preamp being seen on custom professional floorboards all around the world. The Xotic SP compressor pedal lives up to the hallmark of the brand – delivering world-class tones in a tiny, user-friendly package. Looks can be deceiving, however, inside you’ll find DIP switches to further shape your tone.

Best compressor pedals: buying advice

Different players will have different needs, but in general, compressor pedals are ideal for anyone who will spend most of their time on an amp’s clean channel. For country players – a more aggressive compression ‘suck’ that boosts in treble (plus a healthy dollop of slapback delay) will get you right into Albert Lee and Brent Mason territory, perfectly suited to all those double-stops and hybrid picking licks.

For funk – a more subtle and transparent compression that retains more warmth a la Nile Rodgers would be ideal, especially considering a lot of funk players stick to the triads and dyads on the higher strings as opposed to fully voiced chords across all six. Ultimately, however, it’s down to each player – follow your ears to find the right pedal for you.

Thankfully there’s a massive range of compressor pedals to choose from – some being more simple and staying true to the tone of the amp they’re going into and others which offer boosts across the EQ bandwidth and even boost or distortion for more growl. 

If you’re the kind of player who likes an extra push into an overdrive channel, with any changes in tone, a compressor pedal can also act like a boost – provided the attack and sustain knobs are kept low. 

So, if it sounds like a compressor should be the next upgrade to your rig, take a look at our pick of the best compressor pedals you can buy today.

The best compressor pedals available today

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1. Keeley Compressor Plus

An updated take on the most popular boutique compressor pedal

Launch price: $129/£129/€155 | Controls: Sustain, level, blend, tone, single coil/humbucker switch | Sockets: Input, output, power | Bypass: True bypass | Power requirements: 9V power supply, 9V battery

Simple to use
Industry-standard compressor sounds
Single coil/humbucker switch
May not be fully featured enough for compression obsessives

This update to the most popular boutique compressor pedal in the world strips things back to basics; simplicity is the focus of the Compressor Plus, with a humbucker/single coil release switch that automatically adjusts attack and release for a guitar’s pickup type. 

Elsewhere, the tone control emphasises sensitive harmonics that can be lost in compression, while sustain and blend function exactly as you’d expect. Top-quality compression doesn't get much easier than this.

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2. Xotic SP compressor pedal

The best mini compressor pedal out there

Launch price: $165/£130/€159 | Controls: Volume, blend, hi/low/mid switch | Sockets: Input, output, power | Bypass: True bypass | Power requirements: 9V power supply, 9V battery

Mini-pedal format
Sounds excellent
Boost and compression options
Not the most fully featured compressor

The Xotic SP features the same OTA (operational transconductance amplifier) technology as the Ross Compressor, so it provides the sort of squash familiar to many guitarists. A three-way switch sets the strength of the compression, and there are internal DIP switches, giving access to four attack/release options that add snap to the start of your note, a hi-cut filter and an input pad for high-powered humbuckers. 

The best thing, though, is what you can dial in with the two knobs: an output volume knob with up to +15dB of boost and a blend knob to give you dry sound mixed with the compressed. With the combination of boost and compression offering loads of options, this is a versatile addition to any 'board.

Read the full Xotic SP Compressor review

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3. Boss CP-1X compressor pedal

The best-value multi-band compressor pedal

Launch price: $149/£125/€145 | Controls: Level, attack, ratio, comp | Sockets: Input, output, power | Bypass: Buffered | Power requirements: 9V power supply, 9V battery

Transparent multi-band compression
Easy to use
Handy visual indicator
Short battery life

The CP-1X is a digital multi-band compressor, with Boss's cunning Multi-Dimensional Processing. With an internal charge pump to 18 volts, a normal nine-volt power supply will suffice for optimal operation and allow for more headroom. 

The ubiquity of Boss units means that the layout is intuitive, moreover, there are simply so many decent sounds available in this pedal that it’s hard to come unstuck. There's even a handy gain-reduction indicator to show your current compression amount.

Read the full Boss CP-1X Compressor review

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4. Fender The Bends compressor pedal

An affordable newcomer to the compression crown

Launch price: $149/£89/€95 | Controls: Blend, drive, recovery, level | Sockets: Input, output, power | Bypass: True bypass | Power requirements: 9V power supply, 9V battery

Flexible
Great price
Quiet compression
Not the most compact pedal

The Bends is an OTA (operational transconductance amplifier) based compressor, and follows in a long line of classic guitar compressors that have used similar technology (Ross, Dyna Comp etc), but has a blend control so you don’t have to compress the whole signal. The drive knob turns up the compression with the LED glowing pink rather than white when you are compressing the signal. 

There are also knobs for release time for the compression (recovery) and output volume. The pedal has little hiss, adds a nice snap to your note envelope without being too obtrusive and, via the Blend knob, can add compression effects, such as increased sustain, without totally squashing your core sound.

Read the full Fender The Bends Compressor review

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5. Wampler Ego Compressor

One of the best always-on compressor pedals

Launch price: $149/£172/€198 | Controls: Sustain, tone, attack, volume, blend | Sockets: Input, output, power | Bypass: True bypass | Power requirements: 9V power supply, 9V battery

Versatile tones via blend knob
Solid build
Useful tone knob
Simpler compressors are available

A lot of guitar compressors are based on variations of the classic Ross Compressor/MXR Dyna Comp circuitry, and the Ego is no exception - but it adds some extra features that greatly increase its versatility, most notably blend and tone knobs. You get a sustain control to effectively increase the amount of compression, and an attack knob, which tweaks the start of your note envelope to give it the sort of 'snap' that works so well for country picking. 

But it's actually the blend knob that gives you loads more options for a natural but compressed sound, allowing some of your unprocessed tone through in parallel with the compressed. Whatever you need a compressor for, this should deliver it for you. There's a mini version available now, too.

Read the full Wampler Ego Compressor review

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6. TC Electronic HyperGravity Compressor

This TonePrint-enabled comp is seriously versatile

Launch price: $119/£85/€89 | Controls: Sustain, level, attack, blend, Spectra/TonePrint/Vintage switch | Sockets: Input, output, power | Bypass: Switchable true or buffered bypass | Power requirements: 9V power supply, 9V battery

Versatile
TonePrint facility
Considerable level of boost on hand
Takes time to find your desired compression sound

The HyperGravity features a blend facility as well as a range of different types of compression. A three-way switch enables you to select Vintage or Spectra, representing respectively the sort of squashy tone typical of the most-copied of stompbox compressor designs and multi-band compression that offers a more transparent signal control. 

Both do a decent job, but the jewel in the crown is the TonePrint option, where you can load the pedal with compression programmed by TC, one of its roster of guitarists, or create your own with the software editor. There's plenty of extra gain, too, so you can use the pedal to drive an amp.

Read the full TC Electronic HyperGravity Compressor review

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7. MXR Dyna Comp Mini

An oldie, but a goodie, now in mini-pedal form

Launch price: $99/£103/€124 | Controls: Output, sensitivity | Sockets: Input, output, power | Bypass: True bypass | Power requirements: 9V power supply

Mini-pedal format
Classic Dyna Comp squash
Attack toggle switch
Not hugely flexible

We'd be remiss to put together a round-up of the best compressor pedals and not include the much-copied Dyna Comp. This mini version of the larger original adds a welcome toggle switch for attack, in addition to its output and sensitivity controls. 

Although pinning down more subtle compression tones isn't that straightforward, that famous Dyna Comp squash is here in abundance, now in a handy mini-pedal format.

Read the full MXR Dyna Comp Mini review

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8. Origin Effects Cali76 Compact Deluxe

Low-noise FET studio compression in a compact stompbox

Launch price: $329/£269 | Controls: Dry, out, in, ratio, attack, release | Sockets: Input, output, power | Bypass: True bypass | Power requirements: 9-18V power supply

Solid build quality
Incredible compression tones
Impressive flexibility
It's pricey, but you get what you pay for

Origin's Cali76 is a 1960s-style FET compressor inspired by the UREI 1176 with the topology of the design faithful to the original, but with the circuitry condensed to fit into a floor pedal. The Compact Deluxe downsizes the format further, and features a parallel mix control, plus separate knobs for attack, release and ratio. 

The Cali76 is incredibly quiet – some stompbox compressors can get a bit noisy, but this one is well-mannered and more like a rackmount unit. Another thing is its tonal character. There's a subtle but distinct sense that what comes out sounds better than what went in, with a perceived increase in presence. If you're looking for quality low-noise FET studio compression in a pedal, this is the answer.

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9. Orange Kongpressor compressor pedal

Blockbuster analogue compression from the legendary amp maker

Launch price: $155/£109/€149 | Controls: Volume, chime, squash, release, attack | Sockets: Input, output, power | Bypass: Buffered bypass | Power requirements: 9V power supply

Clean, natural compression
Chime knob adds sparkle
Works as a boost
Not the smallest compressor pedal

For the Kongpressor, Orange has employed an optical design with an innovative floating sidechain – plus the addition of a reissue Vactrol VTL5C3 octupler, used in certain vintage compressors, notably the LA-2A. The Kongpressor features an internal charge pump, which doubles the operating voltage to 18 volts, increasing the headroom. The volume knob offers up to 12dB of clean boost, and you can also get some tonal shift at the same time courtesy of the chime knob, an active treble control that can add some useful zing or, alternatively, calm the top-end for a smoother vibe. 

As compressors go, the Kongpressor is very natural-sounding. It doesn’t exhibit the overly obvious audible squash with radical reshaping of the envelope that some models provide, yet the compression is there, bolstering your tone with a solid consistency and adding sustain when needed.

Read the full Orange Kongpressor review

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10. Pigtronix Philosopher’s Tone Micro compressor pedal

A mini compressor with a big range of tones

Launch price: $119/£139/€179 | Controls: Volume, sustain, treble, blend | Sockets: Input, output, power | Bypass: True bypass | Power requirements: 9V power supply

Mini-pedal format
Natural compression tones
Useful EQ option
Not as squashy as some

While losing the grit knob of the original, this mini-pedal version of the Philosopher's Tone still possesses a blend knob, which means you can add in gradual amounts of compression in parallel with your dry signal, right up to a fully compressed signal. There’s also a treble control with cut or boost at 2kHz, which is useful if you want an EQ shift with no compression, and really helpful for dialling in an altered tone with compression. 

The compression here doesn’t get as full-on squashy as some but is a natural for clean sustain, and there’s loads of headroom via the volume knob to drive your amp harder. With that combination of boost, compression and extra top-end, this pedal has a role to play beyond just a compressor.

Read the full Pigtronix Philosopher’s Tone Micro review

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