Premier Guitar

Going for More Natural Tone Without Compression

October 20, 2010
For many years, I’ve been running compression on my guitars. It’s never a right or wrong choice, as long as you take care in your settings and create a sound that works for the type of music you’re playing. In the hunt for more tonal improvements, I recently removed the compression from my signal path and found some surprising results.

I used my old compressor subtly—it was always more of a sustainer than a compressor. It allowed me to hold notes longer without having to dig in and wiggle a little extra sustain out of them, while also using vibrato. One of the problems with the compression in my Roland GP-8 multi-effects processor was that it also added a bit of distortion to the signal. Naturally this is not true of all compressors, but it was a constant issue for me. Another issue was that because I was running my amp’s master volume wide open and setting the individual channel gains to the volume level I wanted, I was practically obligated to use the compressor. I couldn’t run any of my patches without it—my amp sounded thin and flat without the compressor engaged.

A prime example of this can be found on the Toby Keith mega-hit “Should Have Been a Cowboy.” The settings I use on that song are basic—just some chorus and compression. I always felt like the compression was too heavy on that song, but when I would remove the compressor from the chain, it sounded like I was no longer plugged into an amp at all, but rather plugged straight into a direct box going into the PA. It was an unbearable sound, so I had to deal with the song having too much drive and too much compression. Another drawback of that particular song setting was that it wasn’t a very natural drive tone. It would break up the signal a bit, but not give it any of the warmth or fatness that you want from a tube amp. I just had to accept that the world isn’t a perfect place and that the song’s tone would just have to suffer for the sake of the rest of the night.

Before embarking on this past summer’s tour, I took some time to reassess my rig, its wiring, and my amp settings. Ultimately, I wanted to improve my tone and be happier with my sounds. I knew deep down that overusing the compressor, as I had been, was not ideal for my tone. So one of the first things I did was change my amp settings from 100 percent clean to natural, tube-driven grit.

It was an easy adjustment: I cranked the channel gains up to about 3 o’clock, or roughly 75 percent of their total volume, and used the master volume to set my output level. By doing so, I was not only able to disengage the compressors on each setting, but I was able to remove the slight overdrive boost I previously had on my clean settings. I was now, for the first time in 15 years, using real tube drive for my clean tone.

I was shocked at the difference in my sound. It was not only warmer, but bigger and chunkier. I couldn’t believe I was happy with my old tone for so long. I was under-using my tubes—this is what these amps were made to do. Don’t get me wrong: My old tone was always good and I loved the way it sounded, but my Kustom Coupes were suddenly giving me that chunk, chunk, chunk we all kill for. “Should Have Been a Cowboy” now has every bit of the quality tone that the rest of the set has. I’m now using pure tube drive and a little bit of chorus on that song—no compression needed!

One unexpected reward to come from this change has been the increased dynamic range. As you probably know, compressors even out your signal by lowering your loud notes and raising your soft ones, leveling out your volume in the process. Without the compressor, I got the opposite effect. When I dug in and played louder, my signal got louder. The biggest difference was when I laid back and played softer, my rig responded without squeezing the signal and my dynamics increased tenfold. I always felt that my use of compression was understated, but even that little bit added a tremendous amount of difference to the overall sound.

Now on a lot of songs (particularly the “country” stuff), I’ll work my guitar’s volume knob to control the amount of drive I can get from my Joe Barden pickups. I’ll pull the guitar volume back about 50 percent when playing rhythm, which allows me to deliver a strong rhythm without overpowering the vocalist. Then, when I’m ready to step out front for a lead, I open the volume back up and get a killer tube distortion using nothing but pure amp and guitar— the way the guitar gods intended.

The one thing to remember before attacking your existing rig is that you need to figure out what will work best for you. For years I was happy using a compressor to help me get super sustain. I hated playing without one. Now I’ve refined my judgment and feel that going sans compression works better, giving me greater dynamic range and a much fatter tone. There may come a day when I want that compressed sound again, but for now it’s a change for the better, and once again I’ve grown and learned something new in my personal pursuit of ultimate tone.

Until next month, keep jammin’!


Rich Eckhardt

A sought-after Nashville guitarist who has performed with singers ranging from Steven Tyler to Shania Twain, Rich Eckhardt currently plays lead guitar for Toby Keith, and also works as a spokesperson for the Soles4Souls charity (soles4souls.org). His new album, Cottage City Firehouse, is available at richeckhardt.com and CDBaby.com.