Distortion is the bedrock of blues, rock, and heavy metal music. There are few sounds more iconic than the roar of a distorted guitar. But as you’ve probably realized there’s a bewildering number of effects pedals to choose from.
In this article, we look for the best distortion pedal on the market to help you find the right one for.
AT A GLANCE: OUR PICK OF THE BEST DISTORTION PEDALS AVAILABLE
- Boss DS-1
- Boss MT-2 Metal Zone
- RAT 2
- The Big Muff π – Electro-Harmonix
- MXR M75 Super Badass
- Wampler Sovereign
- TC Electronic Dark Matter
- Earth Quaker Devices Acapulco Gold V2
- Maxon Nine Series ST-9 Pro+
- Fender Pugilist
- Walrus Audio Iron Horse LM308 V2
- Bogner Uberschall
Note: Clicking the above links will take you to further information, current prices and customer reviews on Amazon.
Here’s what we’re going to cover.
- What is Distortion?
- Buying Guide – Key Considerations
- Product Round-up & Mini Reviews – Best Distortion Pedal
- So, Which Should I Buy?
What is Distortion?
Distortion is the heart and soul of every hard rock and metal sound and is essential for meaty riffs and screaming solos. Without this effect, you’re limited when it comes to the kinds of music you can play. It belongs to the family of gain based pedals (along with fuzz and overdrive) and is the most aggressive sounding of the lot; more intense, less controllable and generally more extreme. Distortion pedals are designed to dramatically alter your guitar’s signal so it outputs a heavy, chunky metal sound. Remember, also certain guitars are better than others at creating these kinds of high gain tones.
Their hard clipping circuity helps guitarists achieve larger gain ranges for really extreme tones too. Hard clipping also helps to compress the guitar sound, resulting in increased sustain and feedback at high volumes; this is great if you’re going to be playing live. These pedals often incorporate three-band EQs that essentially acts as an additional channel for your amp for increased tone control.
Buying Guide – Key Considerations
Digital vs. Analog
Analog distortion tends to sound more warm, thick and natural in comparison its digital counterpart, which produces a harsher, more cutting tone. Some modern digital pedals do a pretty good job of recreating classic analog sounds and can cost a little less too.
Your guitar pickups will significantly affect the overall sound the pedal produces. Humbuckers test to work best (especially active humbuckers) and will channel a higher quality gain signal which makes them better suited for heavy metal genres. That’s not to put down single coil pickups. Some pedals are even designed to work around your guitar’s pickup by adding or removing high- and low-end tones.
Product Round-up & Mini Reviews – Best Distortion Pedal
The Boss DS-1 is a classic distortion pedal and has remained a popular choice since it was first released in 1978. Considering the DS-1 is pretty low cost in comparison to other products out there, it’s been used by some very famous guitarists including Eddie Van Halen, Jimmy Page, Kurt Cobain, Joe Satriani, and Steve Vai.
It’s capable of working in most genres of rock and metal; however, it’s sweet spot is grunge or hard rock rather than blues or more extreme metal. The coolest thing about this one has to be its simplicity. Even if this is your first FX pedal, you’ll be able to work out the three controls.
Thanks to its affordability and ease of use, it’s an excellent option for first-time players or those shopping on a budget. Additionally, you’ll be able to play gigs with the DS-1 as it’s built like a small tank.
- Price –Affordable price for the quality of tone; others are way more expensive and may not offer much higher quality.
- Versatile – The DS-1 can be used in most genres of heavy music – from blues to grunge to heavy metal.
- Sounds tinny – On high settings, it sounds a bit sharp.
- Not the best for heavier genres – If you want to play extreme metal like thrash, doom or death metal the DS-1 may not quite provide the high distortion settings you need
Boss MT-2 Metal Zone
If you don’t think the Boss DS-1 is metal enough for your style, look no further. This one takes gain to the extreme. In particular, it will let you recreate tones similar to those used by Metallica, Slayer, and Pantera.
So of course, the MT-2’s best feature is how it adds high levels of gain to your sound but, more importantly, also offers all the control you need to set the tone right. It achieves this control thanks to its two EQ dials which affect the level of middle, bass and treble coming through the mix.
In all honesty, this won’t work for you if you need a general-purpose pedal, say for blues and classic rock tones. But as long as you want a thrash metal sound, you won’t be disappointed. It’s suitable for guitarists of any skill level but works exceptionally well if you’re into this style of music and shopping on a mid-range budget. Once again thanks to its sturdy Boss shell, it’ll withstand being stomped on and carted to gigs with ease.
- Heavy tone – Will recreate thrash and heavy metal tones well at high volumes.
- Simple to use – Only has four controls, so will not confuse even novice guitarists.
- At low volumes, it can sound rather thin, hence why it’s best suited for loud, aggressive styles of playing.
- Not so versatile – Isn’t cut out for playing other styles of rock n roll or blues as it’s gain setting works in a sort of all or nothing response.
The Rat 2 has been pretty popular since the 80s, thanks to it being used by guitarists like Joe Perry, Jeff Beck, Kurt Cobain and James Hetfield for its fantastic all-round distortion. The best thing about the RAT 2 has to be the versatility. This pedal sounds great in heavy metal styles of guitar as well as classic rock and grunge and can be used to enhance both rhythm and lead guitar parts. Another great aspect is that it is straightforward to control, and includes just three standard dials. Overall it will suit any player looking for versatility in guitar or bass distortion, on a mid-range budget. The RAT 2 will not disappoint you when used in any style of rock or metal music.
- Great tone – It’s remained popular for decades for a reason – an extremely high-quality product that is easy to tweak.
- Versatile – The RAT 2 will sound great no matter what style of rock or metal you play, thanks to its well-designed circuitry.
- Power supply – Please be aware that the RAT’s AC connection is not a standard 9v connection so you’ll need to purchase the appropriate adapter is to use a standard power supply.
- Weight – Slightly heavier than both the previously mentioned Boss units, which may not be a problem if you’re only carrying it around.
The Big Muff π – Electro-Harmonix
If you’re after a kind of vintage fat sounding fuzz distortion, the Big Muff Pi is your best friend. This pedal is designed to mimic retro tones used by Hendrix, Santana and Pink Floyd but, also works well when used in very heavy stoner rock riffs too. Once again, the Big Muff is simple to use, featuring two standard control dials as well as an extra Sustain control. The sustain dial is probably the coolest thing about it, as it lets your rich, meaty notes ring out for longer.
So, while you may not get tons of control with it, the Big Muff will bring you a warm, creamy fuzz type effect with scope for sculpting a rich, growling tone. It’s the king of heavy blues and stoner doom genres and is simple enough for all abilities of guitarist to use. So if you’re set on that kind of sound, at this mid-range price you can’t lose out.
- Rich tone – The Big Muff Pi produces a high-quality distortion, best suited to those looking for a dark, warm heavy sound.
- Simple controls – All controlled by three dials, so you won’t be left scratching your head for hours trying to figure out how to use it.
- Size – The Big Muff is (surprise, surprise) rather large!
- Not so versatile – Compared to say the RAT 2 we previously mentioned, it’s not as versatile at creating sharper thrash metal tones – it’s designed for dirtier, low-end heavy riffing.
MXR M75 Super Badass
The aptly named Super Badass produces some awesome tones and can recreate early ’70s low gain overdrive, to modern scooped effects used in heavy metal, and plenty of others in between. Another good thing is its highly tweakable EQ settings. Additionally, it uses true bypass circuitry so it will never drain your tone, and comes encased in a tough shell to withstand heavy use and plenty of gigs.
Due to it being slightly more expensive than others on this list, and to it having five controls in total, it may be more suitable for guitarists with some previous experience looking for a durable pedal to use live.
- Great tone – The Super Badass is as diverse as you can get – can handle blues, hard rock, and metal equally well.
- Durable – Its sturdy casing makes this pretty tough – It’ll withstand going on tour and being stomped on a lot.
- Slightly more complex than others on the list – Some of the other products we mentioned earlier only have three control settings; therefore this may take some extra time for complete novices to work out.
- Hot output – It’s very loud compared to others, and due to the output dial being small, it can be hard to fine tune it to match up with your other gear exactly
The Wampler’s Sovereign is slightly more expensive than others we’ve already mentioned; however, for your buck, you get a very versatile product with a pretty decent classic rock distortion tone. The Sovereign is built to sound great with different amplifiers and achieves great flexibility thanks to it’s two extra switches (the boost/gain switch and the modern/vintage switch). The boost setting gives you some extra sustain and volume, which is great for lead playing, while the modern-vintage switch lets you adjust the brightness. So, depending on what sort of amp you’re using, you’ll be able to adjust its settings so that your riffs cut through and sound awesome.
Thanks to it’s small, compact design the Sovereign can fit onto any pedalboard with ease and will fit into your gig bag without taking up too much room. Because it’s got more tone variation to get your head around, it’s best suited to more experienced players, looking for plenty of control.
- Sounds excellent on different amps – Will allow you to achieve a superb sound on practically any type of amp.
- Portable – Nice and compact, making it easy to transport to rehearsals and live shows
- Quiet – When not in boost mode, can be quiet compared to other pedals you have in your loop.
- Not so great for extreme metal – Produces nice classic rock and blues distortion; however, it’s not quite as intense or cutting as say the Super Badass or the MT-2.
TC Electronic Dark Matter
TC’s Dark Matter works best for extreme metal and bluesy distortion rather than darker fuzz tones. The best thing about it has to be its active treble and bass controls, which are sensitive and work well at noticeably boosting these effects. There’s also a ‘voice’ switch, which lets the distortion cut through your band’s mix more easily. Overall, thanks to its low price, TC’s Dark Matter is a great option for beginners looking to explore metal and blues genres, or for those guitarists that like plenty of mids in their mix – maybe for a thrash or death metal style
- Price – One of the most affordable on the market, many more expensive models don’t offer as much.
- Versatile – Perfect for heavy metal and blues.
- Not great for fuzz – This pedal’s clipping doesn’t allow it to recreate fuzz so well (go for the Big Muff Pi if you want that).
- Hum – Has a slight hum when it’s on but not in use, but this isn’t a huge issue if you’re quick at stomping it off.
Earth Quaker Devices Acapulco Gold V2
Earthquaker’s Acapulco Gold is more expensive compared to most of the models we’ve already mentioned, but it’s pretty much king of the heavy, stoner rock sound and by far the easiest to use out of everything we’ve included so far. Its sound is based on a distorting Model T amplifier and, as a consequence, its best feature is its incredibly loud, growling tone. It’ll be hard for you to find a pedal that does fuzzy, stoner doom more convincingly! And even better still, all this is controlled by one single effects dial – that’s as simple as it gets. The single dial controls the level of distortion in your mix so that you can go from a warm, crunchy blues tone to a dirty, doom-laden boom. As the dial is so large, it also helps with fine adjustments.
Due to it being quite specific, it suits those that aren’t too fussed about having loads of tone control to play about with, and that specifically want to play doom, sludge or stoner types of metal.
- Unique – The Acapulco is specifically designed to recreate bass heavy, fuzz tones.
- Simple – There’s no way you can be confused by one control dial (is there?!).
- Specific – Simply isn’t designed for thrash or death metal, so avoid it if you’re looking for something that suits those music genres.
- Price – Make sure you want this particular sound before you buy, as it isn’t cheap.
Maxon Nine Series ST-9 Pro+
The Maxon ST-9 Pro+ is a recreation of the famous 1980’s Tube Screamer and includes circuitry based on classic OD-9/OD808 technology. Tube Screamers have been used by famous guitarists such as Jerry Cantrell of Alice in Chains, as well as Kirk Hammett (Metallica) and Noel Gallagher (Oasis), to name a few. This one features the controls you’d expect to find, but the best addition to this unit is the extra midrange boost dial. This extra boost setting means you can get a powerful, rich and cutting distortion, similar to that produced by a stack tube amplifier.
Another cool addition is the low boost switch, which lets you set it for optimum use with single coils/humbuckers pickups. It’s also pretty diverse as you can produce a classic rock crunch, right through to thrash and death metal madness. The only gripe is that it’s not so great for fuzz or stoner rock genres, as the sound it produces is very saturated and defined. Overall the ST-9 Pro + suits guitarists shopping on a higher budget, looking to get the hottest rock n roll or thrashy tones out there.
- Great for Classic Rock – Sounds like a real stack amp and produces amazing classic rock and heavy metal.
- Low Boost – Works around your guitar’s pickups (whether they’re active or passive).
- Eats up batteries – The ST-9 drains batteries quickly, so you’ll need to get a power supply if you’re going to use it frequently.
- Not great for fuzz – Too saturated and bright sounding to recreate vintage fuzz and stoner doom well.
The Pugilist by Fender is a good option for the mid-range price point. For a start, it’s unique in that it features two distortion channels and a blend/series switch which allows you to combine the two or leave them stacked up as a series of effects for a beefy tone. It also has a bass boost switch to make your tone rich and warm, which is handy if you’re going to be using guitars with different pickups (as it can complement their tone).
Thanks to having loads of control, the Pugilist is quite diverse and therefore suitable for more experienced players looking for versatility. All this control may be a little too much to take in if you’re entirely new to all this.
- Versatile – Very good all-rounder, perfectly suited to classic rock and blues styles.
- Plenty of control – It’s two channels let you create a diverse array of sounds, and the bass boost option helps to complement different types of guitar too.
- Jack of all trades – Pretty good at everything, however, it doesn’t cater for any particular genre, like say the Big Muff or the MT-2.
- Large – Bigger than most, so make sure you have room for it.
Walrus Audio Iron Horse LM308 V2
The Iron Horse by Walrus is more expensive than most we’ve reviewed but is fierce in its tone production thanks to its genuine LM308 IC circuitry (based on real Op-Amp clipping). It’s fairly good at producing blues and classic rock sounds but really excels when it comes to stoner rock and heavy doom genres. It’s rich, darkness acts as more of a dirty fuzz than a cutting gain distortion you’d use for heavy metal. All this power is easily controlled by three standard dials and a true bypass system to ensure that it won’t drain any of your signal when it’s not in use.
Overall, it suits guitarists with a bit of extra cash to spend on a dedicated fuzz type distortion. Its effect is so specific; it won’t suit genres other than stoner doom or blues.
- Great fuzz effect – The Iron Horse produces a beastly, heavy doom distortion, perfect for stoner rock.
- Simple control – All this power is controlled by three easy to handle dials, so you won’t be left reading the instruction manual for hours trying to figure it out.
- Price – More expensive than several of the other units we’ve mentioned.
- Not great for heavy metal – It’s specifically designed to replicate stoner doom, so not going to work if you want a saturated Metallica style sound.
The Uberschall by Bogner is best for recreating those classic rock distortion tones (think Brian May from Queen) but is capable of diving into the extreme metal realm too. It features all the standard EQ settings you’d expect to find on one of these boxes but is unique in that it offers an adjustable gain boost dial, with a convenient footswitch to turn this effect on or off. This means your solo can be boosted to cut through a loud band, or you can create roaring heavy metal riffs at the click of a switch.
It’s worth mentioning that the Uberschall’s controls are split into middle, treble, bass, gain, and volume options so that you can fine-tune it. Due to its high gain boost and excellent tuneable control range, it’s best suited for guitarists looking to create a realistic amplifier style distortion used in rock n roll or extreme metal.
- Realistic amplifier distortion – Sounds almost like a stack amplifier.
- Versatile – Controls can be used to produce bluesy, rock and metal sounds, and the boost setting will let your solos rip through any mix.
- Size – The Uberschall is extremely large.
- Price – Its high quality comes at a price.
So, Which Should I Buy?
With all this tonal diversity and vast array of products out there, comparing distortion products is a difficult task. Really, the only thing it’s going to come down to is which one can you afford, and which one suits your style of music the best.
Ged is Founder and Editor-in-chief at Zing Instruments. He’s a guitarist for London based gypsy jazz band ‘Django Mango’ and a lover of all things music. When he’s not ripping up and down the fretboard, he’s tinkering with his ’79 Campervan.