The Ultimate Guide To Compressing Different Guitar Tones

A few weeks back, we took a look at some of the best ways to approach heavy guitar chugs in the mix. We walked through the guttural, bass-heavy sound of a low-tuned or extended range guitars, and made a few suggestions on the best way to get them to sit in your mix.

The discussions that followed made me realize just how many varying guitar tones there are, and more importantly, how much my compression technique changes with each and every one.

So I got to work pulling together this list of some of the most common guitar tones that I’ve compressed both individually and as a group in the past. My hope is that by sharing these with you, you can get a small look into my process and hopefully take something away that can be used in your own workflow.

Ready to get started?

Compressing Cleans

Clean guitars always seem to be a good place to start, regardless of the genre. While a lot of modern songs are ditching completely clean guitars for overdriven & downright distorted tones, the spatial effects of a clean guitar are nearly unparalleled in the right situation.

Clean guitars need to start at the source, and that means getting a clean DI take. If you’re tracking with effects, make sure to leave yourself enough headroom to continue processing in the box. A signal recorded too hot won’t just be hard to work with – it could completely destroy your overall guitar sound.

Clean guitars almost always benefit from some compression during tracking to clamp down on some of their dynamics. Especially with single-coil pickups, you’re going to want to take a bit more control over the sound from the start.

Clean compression doesn’t have to be aggressive, or even noticeable for that matter. You should be able to get away with a few dB of gain reduction at a low ratio for an instantly smoothed out performance.

Then, once recorded, feel free to push the compressor a bit harder and see what kind of sounds you can get out of it.

Compressing Overdriven Guitars

Depending on the tone you’re after, a bit of compression before and after the preamp stage can be life changing. An overdriven signal, by definition, will have a bit of compression just because it’s being “driven” too hard. How you choose to compress will influence your amp or overdrive’s capabilities with the signal.

If you choose to add a compressor before the overdrive stage, what’s being overdriven will share a lot of the characteristics of the clean tone. You’ll have fewer transient variations jumping through and pushing your overdrive harder, which is why pre-overdrive compression is best for a controlled-yet-gritty sound.

On the other hand, a bit of compression after the overdrive will let your overdrive stage go as crazy and dynamic as it wants before roping in the few stray spikes. This option gives the sound of a caged animal vs. the pre-overdrive compressor that’s more like a trained version of the same animal.

It’s not an either/or situation; you can apply an early compressor, a late one, or both. What matters is the sound you’re after and knowing the best way to get it.

Compressing Distorted Guitars

Distorted guitars round out the most common guitar tones we hear in modern music, outside of the crazy effect guitars that sometimes aren’t even recognizable as guitars at all. These guitars go way beyond the territory of many overdrives, and tend to come as part of a wall of sound/wave of guitars.

Metalheads rejoice! These are the high-gain amplifiers and pedals that squeal if you stomp them on without muting your strings. The tones that have punched listeners in the gut and have lead loud music to the forefront for decades now.

With metal guitars, compression is more important than ever when it comes to consistency and glue. While other guitars are susceptible to some large dynamic variations, a lot of these distorted guitars have already been crushed by the amp/amp sim far more than your standard compressor plugins ever could.

So what are we compressing then? 

In order to achieve that wall of sound that comes with layered, doubled distorted guitars, we need to glue them together as a common element in the mix. By routing them all to a guitar bus with a bus compressor like BG-Guitars applied to it, you can wrangle any stray dynamics and saturate your guitars making them lock in with each other sonically.

Bus compression is a strong recommendation for all guitars, but for heavily distorted guitars, it’s a necessity.

Other Guitar Tones

Are you struggling with other types of guitar tones I’ve overlooked here?

Come drop a note about it in the Joey Sturgis Tones Forum on Facebook. There, you’ll not only get feedback from me, but thousands of other engineers and producers that have struggled with the same things.

See you there!