10 Best Distortion Pedals
When I was a kid, long before I ever picked up a guitar, I remember watching System Of A Down’s “Chop Suey” on TV. It was one of the songs that first got me into the world of lovely distorted sounds (it did that for a bunch of other people too, I guess).
And the thing that stuck out for me as a 12-year-old was how chill everyone was during the verses, and how much headbanging they were doing during the chorus. My genius brain at the time decided that they must really be wailing on those strings to produce the amount of distortion they did for the heavier parts of the song and I wondered how they weren’t getting tired from all that effort.
Luckily, you’re not as dumb as I was and you probably know that Daron Malakian was using a distortion pedal. As little boxes go, it is a quintessential one when it comes to just about any hard rock or metal. All those riffs and solos you’ve headbanged to (or cried during, ha) came from this little monster.
Looking to bring the “bang” in headbang? We’ve made a list of some of the best distortion pedals out there for your consideration and consumption to do just that, in no particular order.
Boss DS-1 Distortion
The Boss DS-1 Distortion pedal may be the most reliable and proven pedal on this list, or any list for that matter. It’s been out there forever (40 years and counting) and it’s also one of the most sold guitar pedals to date. Some of the notable users include Kurt Cobain, Chuck Schuldiner, and John Frusciante, all of them pioneers in their respective genres.
Although produced and sold in massive quantities, it still hasn’t lost even a tiny bit of its quality. Featuring a tone, distortion and level control knobs, as well as a rubberized footswitch. Made in the recognizable Boss fashion, meaning nearly indestructible – it’s a must-have companion for gigs of all genres.
If you’re starting out with electric guitars or pedals, this is the most proven distortion pedal out there and you should look no further. If on the other hand, i you’re an intermediate or advanced player and you haven’t even tried this legendary pedal – what are you waiting for?
Pro Co Rat 2
RAT pedals were first produced in 1978 and managed to achieve commercial success in just a few years – by the early ’80s they already caught the attention of some famous musicians.
Today, they RAT sound can be heard with Metallica, Foo Fighters and even Sunn O))), which already gives this little rodent quite some variety – it can be aggressive, warm, and it can also get dirty when required. Pro Co hasn’t made too many tweaks to RAT since they introduced it – and the few changes made it into the RAT 2. It features simple, yet elegant distortion, filter and volume knobs, and glow-in-the-dark graphics on a very sturdy metal case.
This vintage pedal can provide you with everything – it can boost your solos, make your aggressive thrash metal shreds bite, or it can accompany you through some thick and slow doom metal moments. You should definitely give it a try and see for yourself – it offers great value for a very modest price.
MXR M104 Distortion +
MXR pedals date back from the early ’70s and are currently owned by Dunlop, who keep reissuing some of their legendary pedals, as well as producing new lines. One of our top picks for this article is the MXR M104 Distortion + pedal, a reissue of a model from the early days of MXR.
It features only two knobs – for output and distortion. The simplified options and the soft-clipping germanium diodes crank out a recognizable light distortion tone. Not a really good choice for the heavier metal sounds, but – the exceptional quality of that retro, late 70s / early 80s distortion sound makes it perfect for any hard rock fan out there. Along with the sturdy casing it is something that makes this pedal stand out in its price range.
Definitely delivering more with less, the MXR M104 Distortion + pedal may surprise you, and if you love your authentic rock sounds , you should definitely try it out at some point during your musical endeavors.
Xotic Effects SL Drive
First started off in a small garage-based workshop, Xotic was all about making bass pedals and preamps. In the years since then, they came up with some top tier guitar pedals and the guitar world is better for it. This time we’ll chime in a bit on the awesomely versatile SL Drive Distortion.
It’s equipped with standard gain, volume and tone knobs that are very easy to use, but the more interesting part about this pedal are the internal dip switches. They will let you switch between the vintage Super Lead tone with more gain, or a smoother Super Bass with less gain (and more bass, duh). The switches are an ingenious feat of modern electronics, neatly hidden within a vintage-looking case.
Even though it doesn’t seem like a beginner’s distortion pedal at first glance, we actually do encourage you to pick one up if you fall into the newbie category. This is an awesome introduction pedal which will, due to its many options, let you figure out which type of distortion you’d like to go with in the future, and all that for a very good price.
Behringer Super Fuzz SF300
If you’d like to recreate the signature fuzz from the 60’s and 70’s, you’ll be in for a real treat with the Behringer SF300 Super Fuzz, coming from the kings of budget distortion pedals.
Looking at the extremely low price for what they tell you it delivers, you may think you’ll just end up with another pedal sounding like an old dirt bike. But worry not, you’ll be pleasantly surprised hearing the good old fuzz that we all know and love, while using this little guy. It features four knobs – level, treble, gain and bass – and three distinctive modes called Fuzz 1, Fuzz 2 and Boost, intended for old school fuzz, grunge, and an increase in gain, respectively.
With a very low price tag you only get a plastic casing, but treat her right and the Behringer SF300 Super Fuzz will provide you with quality fuzz for a long, long time.
Electro-Harmonix Nano Big Muff Pi
You must have heard about the Big Muff Pi. It’s been used by a great many of rock legends including Jimi Hendrix, Carlos Santana, and David Gilmour, all of them defining characters of the rock genre at some point in time. As the name suggests, it’s quite big in size and a bit heavy, so Electro Harmonix decided it was time to shed some weight and they gave us a Nano version of the pedal.
Now more suitable for the pedalboard, the Nano Big Muff Pi comes with three control knobs – volume, tone, and sustain, with which you can create a wide range of dynamic sounds. No matter what your sonic taste is, be it warm and fuzzy, or straight up aggressive, there’s not a lot that this small guy can’t handle. The Big Muff may have grown thinner, but its thickness of sound hasn’t changed one bit. And it’s also a favorite for many bass players out there!
TC Electronic Dark Matter Distortion
If you were looking for an affordable distortion pedal with amazing range and exceptional lead note definition for your solo – look no further then the TC Electronic Dark Matter Distortion.
Gain, level bass and treble knobs will provide you with the exact sound you’d like to achieve, and the voicing switch comes as a cherry on top, controlling that low-end bass response. Classic and hard rock, and even old school thrash metal, is where the Dark Matter excels, but give this pedal a little time, and play with the controls, and you will easily achieve sounds suitable for most genres.
With its versatility and and an awesome bang for your buck ratio, Dark Matter Distortion pedal will make any rock fan happy. So plug in your guitar, turn up the knobs, and let it roar!
MXR M116 Fullbore Metal
We were originally planning to go with another MXR pedal deserving to be at the top – the M75 Super Badass Distortion, but we realized that there just aren’t enough metal distortions on this list to suit our taste.
Enter another MXR pedal, this one may be the dirtiest one that we could think of. Exclusively tailored for all kinds of heavy metal, the MXR M116 Fullbore Metal will fulfill any metalhead’s dream, and we all know how needy they (and we) are when it comes to that perfect distortion flavor.
It comes with six configuration knobs – volume, freq, gain, low, mid, and high, and you quickly realize how much effort MXR spent to give the player options. But they didn’t just stop there, they also added a noise gate switch for those syncopated technical or prog riffs (and you can also control its sensitivity with an added internal gate switch). To top it all off, there’s a scoop switch to boost the highs and lows.
This stompbox is not for the impatient, or the faint of heart. It might take awhile to set up – but for all the metal players out there, it’s more than worth the investment.
KHDK Dark Blood
Best Metal Pick
KHDK stands for Kirk Hammett and David Karon, who founded this guitar pedal company back in 2012. Together, they have come up with and manufactured some kickass pedals, two of them being Kirk Hammett’s signature babies – Ghoul Screamer and Dark Blood. And we decided that the latter definitely deserved a place on this list.
This powerful black and red pedal features KHDK’s original circuit and, you know exactly what kind of distortion to expect from this thing – as it’s a pedal primarily intended for metal and literally used by Kirk in Metallica.
It’s equipped with 7 controls: gain, volume, treble, hi/lo (tied directly into the gain), gate and, of course, the footswitch. Yes, I intentionally skipped one – the doom knob. You gotta appreciate a knob that adds that much bottom-end power on a whim, even if you don’t like Kirk.
It’s like a mini tube amp packed up in a dark box, and the amount of diversity it offers really justifies the price tag – and on this occasion, we’d also like to give Kirk & Co. a shoutout for making this pedal affordable to the general public.
Landlord FX Whisky Chaser
For all the boozers out there, Landlord FX from Britain have come up with some super affordable and hilariously named effect pedals – Taproom, Happy Hour, Spinning Room, you get the point. Being a fairly new company, the first thing that caught our eye were their booze-themed pedals, but then we got to try some out and were surprised with the quality of sound. This time around, we present to you their Whisky Chaser distortion pedal.
It features a main distortion knob, with two smaller knobs for level and tone. What makes this pedal really special is its three modes, triggered by a three-way switch: Hooch (distortion with a bit of overdrive), Bourbon (high gain), and Scotch (vintage sound). Playing with the knobs and modes can give you a wide range of sound, from classic rock up to heavy metal.
Priced at an average cost of a decent whisky bottle, you can’t lose much by having a shot of this one, and it will be one to remember. However, a disclaimer – they only come with exclusive dealers and you can also check out their website for orders.
Seymour Duncan Palladium Gain Stage
For all the experienced guitarists looking to spend some serious cash on a distortion pedal, for this occasion, we’ve picked a very high-quality one. It’s the Seymour Duncan Palladium Gain Stage pedal, and it has “premium” written all over it.
For those of you who value aesthetics, it comes in two color variants, white and black. It features a whopping 9 control knobs: bass for low frequency, sweepable mid knobs (level and frequency), treble, presence, boost (which can be triggered on and off by a foot switch), level, gain, and finally resonance. You may think that this is too much to handle but with a little getting used to and playing around with the controls, you’ll be able to tame this beast to your exact needs. The quality of the sound is genuinely comparable to a high-gain amp.
Coming from manufacturers who mainly make quality guitar pickups for a living, they may have just made one of the best distortion pedals currently on the market. Although it comes with a hefty price tag, you’ll get full value for every hard earned buck, and even more.
How Does a Distortion Pedal Work?
When you’re looking to amp up the sound of your guitar and add some power and a harder edge to the sound, you can only go two ways – distortion and overdrive (ok, three, but how many people actually use fuzz pedals nowadays?). Both work on the same principle, but they’re just dissimilar enough to produce a different output.
Essentially, a distortion pedal takes the input of sound, scrambles it and gets it out the other end. Have you ever cranked up your speakers to a level where they can’t handle it and the sound starts distorting? Add a little bit to that and you get overdrive. Add a ton of steroids to that and you get distortion. The pedal does the same thing – just without the side effect of blowing out your ear drums. This is done through transistors and clipping diodes inside the pedal itself (distortion pedals use hard clipping diodes, overdrive is on the softer side), and can be done to varying degrees – and that is why we have different models with their own signature variations. You can find more on the distinction between overdrive and distortion in our top overdrive pedals article [insert article at bolded text]
How Does Your Guitar Relate to a Distortion Pedal
Since we’ve mostly covered how distortion pedals work in general, let’s talk about how they operate in conjunction with a guitar. If you’re a beginner and have yet to buy a guitar or a distortion pedal, you’re in luck, because matching these up will go a long way towards the sound you’re looking for, and if you already own one and find out it doesn’t match up…well – still go for the stompbox you want, and you’ll get a new guitar eventually.
Distortion doesn’t really jibe well with single coils, although it can be done and has been done (anyone heard of Iron Maiden?), humbuckers are still the way to go. Ideally, you’d want a set of humbuckers, and to take it further – an active humbucker would work even better then a passive one if you’re looking to get the most crisp of heavy sounds.
So in order – any humbucker is better then a single coil, and active humbuckers work better at high gain then their passive counterpart. With that cleared up, it really comes down to your own preference. Once you’ve figured out the music style you want to play, it becomes easy to pick out and match the gear to go along with it.
Types of Distortion Pedals
Well, this one is pretty much a no brainer. Distortion pedals are used in rock and metal and the sound they produce is on a spectrum from the softest sounds of rock distortion to the heaviest of metal sounds. To illustrate the difference, we’ll take a few stompboxes that are on the opposite sides of the spectrum.
The first of this is an all-time classic that can give you some old school Satriani and Steve Vai sounds, and the second one is a late 70s distortion flashback. These pedals can give you some gain range above an overdrive, but that’s about it. Even though they work well with tube amps, they are still intended for more classic rock/metal sounds.
Now we’re talking some real power, but as it is with all power – it comes at a cost. Metal stompboxes have their own category because they can crank out a ton of gain, and there’s plenty of options to control said gain. The cost comes in when you try to tone things down – you really can’t. You can crank these dists to real heavy, but they really thin out when you try to go a bit lighter.
Having trouble choosing between these two, or you simple like both equally? That’s alright, we know you can’t love both equally, but there is still a variety of stompboxes out there that can accomodate a wider spectrum like the Pro Co RAT2 or the TC Electronic Dark Matter Distortion. They don’t particularly excel at each style, but it’s going to be hard to notice.
Are Tube Amps Worth Considering?
I recently saw a Ferrari F50 on the street and thought to myself “Damn, I used to drive this car in a game like 15 years ago and it still looks awesome. Let me check Google and see if I can afford it”.
I checked and no, I still can’t. Tube amps are kinda like that. They are beasts that can push out amazing high gain distortion and do backflips at the same time (kinda like that Ferrari in a 0-60) but they cost a lot of money.
On the other hand we have a Tesla Model 3 (bear with me, not fanboying here – but I don’t know a lot of cars). It doesn’t look as nice, but it can go 0-60 in about the same time for a fraction of the cost. The best distortion pedals out there can give you the sound you want at an affordable price.
In the end, both tube amps and stompboxes are a means to an end – to give you that lovely guitar effect, and they both have their own places as different tools in the toolbox.
We’ve discussed some of the best distortion pedals out there right now, but as with all things – after you know what to expect, it comes down to personal preference. Hopefully we’ve helped you in picking out a stompbox for yourself. We’ll be posting regular updates to this list, so do feel free to come back from time to time.
Jason Swartz is CEO of Alliance Talent, he’s helped stars like 2 Chainz, Lil Jon, and Ludacris earn anywhere from $150 to $500K a year in passive income through this proven methodology.
Both guitars have been played by guitar legends such as Eric Clapton, David Gilmour, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Root, and Keith Richards.