Compression on guitars is not uncommon. However, in my experience, the effect is often misunderstood. The thing about compression is that it’s not all that difficult to understand, though it can be difficult to apply.
Some guitars have too much dynamic range for their given mixes, allowing transients to pop out or crucial parts to get swallowed up in the mix. To help you better understand the ins and outs of using a compressor, continue reading our guitar compression guide!
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Should You Compress Clean Electric Guitars?
Compressing clean guitar sounds is a great idea, as clean guitars often have large dynamic ranges. Clean guitars are very transient-heavy. Compared to a piano, for example, which has a softer transient and long sustain, clean guitars often have quick transients with long sustain.
Even if you have a player with serious chops who is on top of their dynamics, clean guitars have natural transients that often stick out and require compression. Now, that’s not to say you can’t use a compressor to even out the dynamics of a guitarist that lacks finesse, but it’s often better to fix poor playing before you ever try to run a signal through a compressor.
Should You Compress Distorted Electric Guitars?
Distorted guitars are very common in modern music. From hot and heavy overdrive to wall-of-sound-style metal guitars, there are many types of distortion as well. However, one thing that all distorted electric guitars have in common is that they are already being compressed.
Whether you run a guitar through your favorite fuzz pedal or drive the input on your amplifier, you crush the signal. Often, applying more compression is unnecessary. However, that doesn’t mean inconsistencies can’t creep out every once in a while.
When it comes to distorted electric guitars, I typically only compress for one of two reasons:
- Gluing many guitars together
- Dealing with low-end inconsistencies
How You Should be Compressing Clean Electric Guitars
As I said before, clean electric guitars tend to be transient-heavy, which is why they sometimes need compression to be tamed. Plus, since clean guitars have not hit any form of overdrive or distortion, they are using their full dynamic range without any byproducts of compression.
The way in which you compress a clean electric guitar depends on what you’re going for. For example, a clean, funky, Nile Rodgers-style rhythm guitar might need a fair amount of compression to remain locked in place. However, a soft, open, Julian Lage-style jazz lick may not require any compression at all.
Before you compress your clean electric guitar, ask yourself why.
How Do You Compress Distorted Electric Guitars?
As I said before, there are two main reasons I’ll compress distorted electric guitars.
In some cases, if I’m working on a rock track, metal track, or any other track that has many stacks of guitars, I’ll use a bus compressor to glue them all together. You should only use anywhere from 1-3dB of glue compression with a slow attack and release to get your guitars sounding like a unit.
On the other hand, I’ll often use multi-band compression to deal with low-mid inconsistencies. For example, palm-muted distorted rhythm guitars often have inconsistencies as the guitarist moves from one note to the next. By focusing your compression on the low-mids, you can tame those dynamic changes to keep your rhythm guitars as consistent as possible.
Compressor Settings for Metal Guitars
Metal guitars often require consistency in the low-mids and glue all around. For dealing with inconsistency in the low-end, multi-band compression can be your best friend. I’ll often set it up with a band running from around 90Hz to 350Hz with a medium attack and medium release, then compress a few dBs to even out chugs as they move up and down the neck.
On my guitar bus, I’ll use a softer, opto-style compression to get around 2-3dB of gain reduction all-around, which will glue my guitars together and make the mix sound more cohesive.
Compressor Settings for Funk Guitars
When compressing funk guitars, it’s a good idea to use a fast attack and fast release with a 4:! Ratio. The fast attack will get rid of harsh transients, while the fast release will allow the compressor to return to full volume before the note hits, giving you dynamic control without squashing your tone.
It’s a good idea to start with around 3dB of gain reduction and only push it further if you really need to.
How Do You Compress a Guitar Solo?
The way in which you use compression on a guitar solo depends on the type of guitar solo. A clean jazz solo is much different than a raging hair metal solo. However, regardless of the type of solo, the job of a solo guitar compressor should be to keep it above the band and potentially enhance the sustain.
To do so, we want to use a medium attack time and a medium to slow release time. A 4:1 ratio is a great place to start. Then, pull down the threshold until you get the preferred amount of compression. Sometimes, it can be a good idea to use two compressors in tandem, splitting the amount of gain reduction between them, rather than making one do all the work.
Electric Guitar Compression Settings
The compression settings that you use for your electric guitar completely depend on the sound you’re going for. However, a general place to start is with:
- A fast attack
- A slow release
- A 4:1 ratio
A fast attack will help tame the transients that want to poke through your mix. Of course, this is less common on distorted guitars, as distortion ends up taming a fair portion of transients for you. If transients aren’t the problem, you can use a medium to slow attack to refrain from sucking the life out of your tone!
A slow release allows for more sustain. However, if your release is too slow, you could end up with unwanted pumping effects. Slow releases can also be detrimental with faster guitar parts, as your compressor could start clamping down on successive notes after it first hits.
It’s a good idea to time your release to the track. You can do this with the 60,000/*your bpm* equation to get the quarter note timing, though I feel it’s much better to listen to how long your release is taking to die out when making your decision.
Best Compressor Pedal for Electric Guitar - Keeley Compressor Plus
With an incredibly reasonable price, an easy-to-use interface, and tons of great tones, the Keeley Compressor Plus is one of the best compressor pedals on the market. You get four controls to mess around with, including Sustain, Blend, Tone, and Level, as well as a unique single-coil/humbucker switch depending on the type of guitar you're playing.
Whether you’re simply looking to control peaks or get a squashed, ultra-funky, Vulfpeck-style tone, the Keeley Compressor Plus can get the job done.
Best Compressor Plugin for Electric Guitar - CompFET 76
With ultra-fast attack times, four different ratio settings ranging from mild to aggressive, and a sound that is nothing short of classic, the CompFET-76 is my favorite compressor for electric guitar. The CompFET-76 is an emulation of the iconic 1176 compressor, offering an easy-to-use interface, a handy VU meter for visual reference, and a solid compression algorithm for taming fast guitar transients.
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