Guitar distortion pedals are quite magical things. When it comes to their use, I like to draw a comparison to cooking the perfect fillet of fish. Think of your precious guitar as pristine cut of raw, Alaskan salmon (stick with me here). Your amplifier is heat; perhaps it’s a smoker. Now, of course you can take your salmon and simply just smoke it on its own and, by golly, it would be extremely delicious. But unless you want to live on bagels and lox all your life, you’re going to need some extra ingredients: spices, marinades, or rubs, if you will. That’s where guitar distortion pedals come in. They work as secret, unique ingredients that with a little creativity can propel your creations to a new level.
Alright, food allegories aside, distortion pedals much like any piece of accompanying hardware come in thousands of shapes, sizes, and varieties. And choosing the best guitar distortion pedals can be daunting, trial-and-error process. Luckily, we’ve made it simple with this handy, all-inclusive guide. But before we get to our amazing list of ear crunching and pitch screaming distortion and overdrive pedals, let’s get a few things out of the way.
Should you go for a guitar distortion stomp box or guitar multi effects pedal?
You’ll see quite an array of pedals on this list. When it comes to which you should go for, it all depends on personal preference. Multi-effect pedals tend to be priced higher, due to their addition of multiple effects, built in tuners, and in some cases, built in wah pedals. While a multi-effect pedal may seem like a no-brainer, a tried and true standalone distortion stompbox will nine times out of ten provide a better sound due in part to the fact they are mostly analogue-based vs. digital based. This guide covers the essential guitar pedals you should have but again, it all comes down to what you are in need of. Do you want a Swiss army knife, or one long, really sharp bowie knife?
The Best Distortion Pedals
For this list we pulled together our favorite distortion and overdrive in an all-in-one guide. Each item was handpicked based on the reviews and, in some cases, personal use. Like all of our guides this shouldn’t be taken as gospel, so you can spare us from a comment section flame war. We’ll begin with lower-priced pedals and work our way up to some of the more expensive offerings. Ready? Let’s rock.
If you were in a rock band in the late ‘90s to early 2000s, it was likely that this very pedal once graced the beer-stained carpeting of your drummer’s basement. Used by everyone from Mustaine to Cobain, Boss pedals have always been renowned for their durability, craftsmanship, and sound, which is why nearly every guitar virtuoso has used one at one point in their respective careers. The Distortion DS-1 is a workhorse, it makes it in the list of must have guitar pedals. It’s meaty, metal casing and hinged footpad provide instant, stompable distortion for even the most clumsiest guitarist. If simplicity is your game, then this introductory distortion pedal might just be for you. Like most pedals it contains the three essential knobs for distortion: Tone, which adjusts your sound to a wide range of frequencies; Level, which makes your sound louder or softer; and DIST (distortion), the knob used for that seminal crunch found across all genres of rock.
For beginner’s and those on a budget, let the Boss DS-1 serve as a gateway drug to your future trip through various, more potent distortion pedals.
Pro Co’s RAT2 is our next contender for budget distortion pedals. This chunky pedal’s real beauty lies in its versatility. Good for electric guitar and electric bass, it’s used primarily as a distortion pedal, but it excels in hitting that arena rock rhythm tone and for soaring leads that comes with a chorus pedal. This RAT pedal excels at nailing that sweet spot where tube amp goes from squeaky clean to sizzling overdrive. It has a vibrant top-end sound that doesn’t come across too hairy or frizzy when pushed to its limits, while its low end provides a nice “chuck ‘n chug” for heavy rhythmic riffing. But be wary. Upon reading most recent reviews, the RAT2’s craftsmanship seems to have dipped as of late. Many users point out that their pedals output a tremendous hum and static when attached to their signal chain, and that many physical features arrived damaged. Sadly, ordering the Pro Co RAT2 online these days seems to be a roll of the dice.
It’s bright. It’s yellow. It’s flashy. It’s MXR M104 Distortion +. Don’t let it’s lurid finish fool you, the M104 can pack a deep dark punch when pushed to its limits. If Randy Rhoads is one of the guitar Gods you worship, then this pedal should look and sound familiar. This stompbox is known to deliver that classic, hard-rock, early-metal, vibe that painted the airwaves of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. Remade with modern tone values, the M104 can be used today for a more contemporary sound. It’s simple, two-knob system of output and distortion eliminates any guesswork, and allows for players to simply stomp and rock at a moment’s notice. The tone of the M104 can be described as crunchy and tube-like on par with much more expensive hardware. It also plays well with others, adapting with other stompboxes and devices on your board, allowing anyone to emulate the tone of many guitar legends, while simultaneously opening up avenues for your own sound experimentation. For these reasons, I’d say the MXR M104 Distortion + gets my nod for the best beginner’s distortion pedal.
Legend has it, EHX engineer Mike Matthews cooked up the famous Soul Food overdrive to serve the starving musicians who were growing frustrated with the exorbitant prices of quality distortion pedals on the market. Right out of the box, the EHX Soul Food won’t pump out that biting, sawtooth distortion sound heard from the likes of Nirvana and the Smashing Pumpkins. Instead, it’s designed for those who crave that classic tube amp sound. The Soul Food pedal booms when used simply as a clean boost, giving you the natural tube distortion from your amp, not off the pedal alone. It delivers a clear, transparent overdrive with a simple touch and go response. The circuitry within contains boosted power rails that provide increased definition and an abundance of overdrive. Best of all, this rockstar device comes at an indie musician’s budget!
If Boss’ DS-1 is a table saw, the MT-2 is a chainsaw. For those who want to literally put their pedal to the metal, this entry-level distortion stompbox may be the right option for you. Built with the same physical design of the DS-1, this pedal touts the ability to transform your sound into the realm of Metallica, Megadeath, Anthrax, and more. But the tonal realities of the Boss MT-2 is the focal point of a highly contentious debate among critics, as it’s often written off as a cheap pedal that sounds flat. However, the MT-2 can be an absolute behemoth of crunch when used with the right gear. Using the MT-2 as a preamp, paired with guitars with active pickups will truly give you that deep, low, metal crunch. Putting it infront of your amp, with say a Fender Strat, will do nothing but give you that staticy messy metal sound that many claim this pedal can only do. So, in short, when used correctly the Boss MT-2 is absolutely a fantastic choice for anyone looking for a quality metal distortion pedal.
With a name like “Super Badass” you already have a lot to live up to right out of the box. Luckily this distortion pedal covers a wide range of distortion tones; everything from roots-rock crunch to piercing metal leads can be achieved by the M75. It covers all bases. So much so, that a more apt name would be the MXR M75 Super Versatile Badass Distortion. The EQ found within the Badass allows the pedal flex to whatever you’re rocking on especially if you’re into high distortion: single-coils, humbuckers, high-gain amps, high-headroom, clean amps, and more. It’s 3-band EQ is perfect for those looking to turn up the output and kill the gain for a bigger, boosty sound. And for just around $100 too, it’s definitely a quality pedal to add to any intermediate guitarists’ arsenal.
EHX’s next entry onto the list is a slightly smaller take on what might be their most iconic pedal ever released. The Nano Big Muff has long been renowned for its ability to emulate the classic Pink Floyd/Gilmour sound, while also malleable enough to create and explore more modern, crunchier tones. With three knobs for volume, tone, and sustain, Electro-Harmonix essentially took their more iconic Big Muff Pi circuitry, and shrunk it down without altering its rich, creamy, and violin-like sustain. The Nano Big Muff Pi works and sounds nearly identical to EHX’ s classic NYC Big Muff Pi, but at a fraction of the price. Do yourself a favor and get a piece of the pi for yourself!
Fender is known for many things, and distortion pedals is certainly not one of them. Until now. The Fender Pugilist distortion pedal is a tinkerer’s dream. With six adjustable knobs that allow you to adjust everything from your gains, to your blends, to your tones, this distortion pedal is perfect for carving out your own, unique frequency. It’s a pedal that can do anything, from light overdrive, to warm distortion, to dark and gritty fuzz. My favorite feature, and what really makes this pedal special, has to be the series/blend switch, which allows you to stack channels for thick, cascading distortion.The backlit LEDs are a nice, modern touch too.
Xotic, a brand considered to be on the more boutique side of distortion guitar pedals, delivers a unique pedal to a copycat market. It’s tiny, SL drive, stompable amp-in-a-box design unleashes the signature sound of a cranked up British stack amp into any amplifier. It’s internal voicing dip switches allow you to adjust the pedal from Super Lead to Super Bass, and reacts to your playing in realtime, which makes it perfect for both modern and hard rock. Best of all, it’s true bypass switching keeps your tone pure and free from any static or hum. Combined with it’s slim, streamlined design you can surely find a home for it on the most crowded pedal boards.
If there’s one thing I can say I truly hate about the Fulltone OCD pedal, is that it uses a f*#@-ing Comic Sans as its font of choice. Other than that, this baby is a beauty. The OCD is easily up there with the best overdrive pedals and is one of the best Fulltone pedals you can get. If you’re looking to add some life to your tone, this pedal will certainly spawn multiple new dimensions to your sound. The dynamic range and adjustable sensitivity are a unique, second to none feature that makes you feel like you’ve added a custom mod to your amp. The moment you push the drive knob past 3 o’clock is the moment of no return – because no other pedal can burn like the Fulltone OCD. Used by the likes of Satriani, Hammet, Petty, and Gary Clark Jr.
A slimmed-down version of their pro series, the Amptweaker Tightmetal Jr is the ultimate metal distortion pedal. The tight control and Fat switches were rejiggered into an easy, 3-position switch for a seamless transition from aggressive to chunky distortion. Alongside the gain, tone, and volume controls, the Tightmetal Jr. includes a manually adjustable noise gate which can silence notes at a moment’s notice. For metalheads who are into the sounds of players like Synyster Gates, Steve Stevens, and Robert Alverez, this pedal is probably one of the best metal distortion pedals that you can get for this price range.
Earthquaker Devices Hoof V2, or “THE HOOF” as I will be referring to it, features a hybrid Germanium and silicon design that combines maximum tone with temperature stability. Handcrafted transistors breed a consistent tone of smooth, natural, and harmonically rich sustains. THE HOOF can be used to dial in everything from a simple overdrive to a behemoth fuzz. If you’re a fan of Sonic Youth, Smashing Pumpkins, Black Sabbath, QOTSA, Mogwai, and Pink Floyd, you can easily match those tones with a few simple twists on the legendary HOOF.
The spectrum of sounds that can be achieved by the Catapulp cover everyone from Page to Slipknot. Meant to replicate the iconic British Orange tube amps, you can expect it to achieve everything–from the pristine cleans of 70s rock, all the way to the edgy, aggressive distortion of contemporary metal. It’s five adjustable knobs work together in harmony to find nearly any tone you’ve been searching for. If an Orange amp is out of your price range, the CataPulp is a fantastic substitute. Its active EQ will have you dialing up that famous British dirt for days.
Numerous metal distortion pedals promise they pack the signature tones of Metallica, GnR, and other founding fathers of metal and hard rock from the 80s. But perhaps the only pedal that can live up to that promise is the Diezel VH4. It’s brash, it’s bulky, it’s got the look of the Sunset Strip, and what’s within, it certainly lives up to its aesthetic. Unlike regular overdrive stompers, the VH4 is a true preamp. It’s signal architecture embodies the original with its bass, mid, treble and variable deep and presence controls – allowing you to mold your own take on tone that defined a generation. Crank it up boys: this one’s my favorite, it’s definitely the best distortion pedal for metal!
Rounding out our list is a pedal that needs no introduction, as its iconic drinking glass logo carries the same amount of brand recognition as the Macintosh apple, or the Nike swoosh. The JHS Sweet Tea is beyond the hype. A pedal for those who expect nothing less than perfection in their pursuit of fuzz. Versatile and aesthetically pleasing, Sweet Tea takes all your favorite features of every overdrive pedals and combines it into one. I’m not even going to bother rattling off its features – it’s got everything everyone else claims to have, but better. If you’re an experienced player, and you’ve got the cash to blow: buy this now.
What types of guitar pedals should every guitarist have?
Naive guitarists will claim that era of the pedal is over. And while it’s true that numerous amplifiers now come with thousands of digital effects pre-loaded within, they can be hard to switch to at a drop of the hat, or in this case: a stomp of the foot. The truth is, for beginners and intermediate electric guitar players alike, guitar pedals will always be a necessity. I remember starting out, all I wanted to do was focus on playing. I had no desire to learn the ins-and-outs of a signal chain, or to sift through thousands of product descriptions and in-depth product reviews of distortion pedals on the market.
For pedestrian pedal users, two distinct and necessary pedals come to mind. The first, a decent cry or wah pedal. I always recommend the Dunlop GCB95, aka “the crybaby.” This stomping staple has manipulated the sounds of Hendrix, Clapton, Gilmour, and hundreds of other legends. When people talk about wah pedals, they’re most likely talking about the Crybaby. By simply rocking your foot back and forth upon the Crybaby, you can instantly alter the tone of your instrument. Toe down will give you more treble, heel down will give you more bass. The speed and amount of effect you use depends on your style of playing. The Crybaby is one of the few essential guitar pedals that you need to include in your pedal chain.
The second, and the topic of this particular article, is a quality distortion pedal. Be it punk, metal, or the foundational sound of rock ‘n roll, distortion is at the heart of these genres, and is arguably the most important pedal in any rock guitarists’ arsenal. The introduction of distortion to the election guitar was like the introduction of whisky into the Coca-Cola; fuses into powderkegs; apple into pie. Remember my food salmon analogy I teed this article off with? Think of your cry pedal and your distortion pedal as salt and pepper. Two essential ingredients for a higher level of creativity. Now, what’s the best distortion pedal for your specific needs? Keep reading.
How does a distortion pedal work?
The origin of distortion in electric guitar playing that ushered in the era of rock ‘n roll is just as rebellious as the music itself. Legend has it, frustrated guitarists (some say it was Dave Davies of the Kinks) would take to slashing their amplifier speakers with a razor blade in an effort to achieve a fuzzier, grittier sound. Regardless of the truth of the myth, the dawn of distortion was born from a need to play harder and louder.
The true nature behind distortion can be laid out by analyzing sound charts, but to spare you the science, simply put: Distortion pedals pump up the normal signal of a guitar by boosting levels and altering waveforms. By distilling this action into a pedal you stomp on to activate, you can achieve this tone without any interruption.
Overdrive vs distortion, what is the difference?
Overdrive and distortion are often used interchangeably, and thereby incorrectly, as they are two different and distinct ways to alter an electric guitar’s tone. While both provide a hefty boost toward a dirtier sound, they do so in very different ways.
The origins of overdrive occurred when electric blues guitarists who played through vacuum-tube amplifiers fatefully achieved the sound in a desperate attempt to turn up louder in order to reach the larger crowds they played for, which created the tone more naturally and less violently than the origins of distortion. Overdrive pedals, either boost a guitar’s gain by sending the player’s tube amplifier into an overdriven state (i.e. “cranking it to 11), or they manipulate the sound of an overdriven tube amp either digitally or through analogue.
While overdrive takes your original tone and pushes it harder, as I mentioned before, a distortion pedal changes the sound completely and saturates the signal before it reaches the amplifier. In terms of my cooking ingredient analogy, think of overdrive as high fructose corn syrup (a stronger more highly concentrated form of sugar), and think of distortion as Splenda (a completely artificial version of sugar, that tastes like the real thing, but isn’t).
As we’ve seen in this article, there’s literally a distortion or overdrive pedal fit for every player. While some excel at covering all the bases, others shine when it comes to doing one thing the best way possible. But always remember, your gear is only as good as the player behind it. There’s no distortion pedal that can hide bad playing.