How to Compress your Tone without a Compression Pedal

Compression is one of the most misunderstood effects for guitarists. It also happens to be one of the most important effects.

This week we'll clear up the confusion about compression and look at some ways to compress your tone without a compression pedal.

Guitarists have 2 primary uses for compressors. The first is similar to how a mix engineer uses compression - to smooth out levels on a track, or in the guitarist's case to smooth out levels coming from the amp. A compressor accomplishes this by boosting the softest notes and limiting or "squashing" the loudest notes. This is typically a subtle effect that you wouldn't necessarily hear until it's gone.

The second way guitarists use compression is as a more drastic "squashing" effect, where the compressor is behaving as a limiter. This means the threshold (the level at which compression kicks in) is set fairly low so that just about every note that is played gets squashed. Most stompbox compressors exist for this purpose. Think Eric Johnson's chimey clean tone, Albert Lee's spanky chicken pickin' sounds, or David Gilmour's sweet singing sustain. All this and more made possible by a compression pedal!

Now that we've covered the 2 ways guitarists use compression, let's get on with the Tusday Tip.

Let's say you don't have a compression pedal but you need more compression in your sound. Here are 3 tips you can start using today.

1. For a natural, studio-like compression effect, roll your guitar's tone knob back. Rather than setting it and forgetting it at 10, try rolling it back about half way. This will tame the high frequencies that cause spikes in volume when you play, which in turn makes your playing sound more even and cleaner. If you don't like the high end loss, compensate with your amp or drive pedals.

2. Crank your amp! Three words we all love to hear, right? The fact is, the harder you push your amp's power amp section, the more compressed your tone will be.

3. Use/Stack overdrive pedals. Every time you introduce a gain pedal (boost/drive/distortion/fuzz) to your signal chain, you add some compression. When you start stacking them you can really find some nice compressor-like sustain. Here's my favorite recipe for this type of tone - set your amp's volume/gain to the edge of breakup, add a mid-gain drive pedal, then put a clean boost in front of the drive pedal. Tweak to taste.

Give these tips a try. You won't completely eliminate your need for a compression pedal, but you will learn how to survive without one!

Did I miss anything? Let me know how you get a more compressed sound without a compression pedal. I'd love to hear your thoughts!

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