Best Distortion Pedals – Buyer’s Guide and Reviews

It’s rare that an effect is so genre-defining, but it’s no exaggeration to say there would be no hard rock or metal without distortion. It’s that important.

In this article, we went on the hunt for the best distortion pedals on the market. The good news is that there are some superb options out there that won’t blow a hole in your bank account (but the sound of them might, lol).

Best Distortion Pedals: Product Guide

Pro Co Rat 2

We all love that sweet spot where a tube amp goes from sparkly clean to warm overdrive.

Well, the Pro 2 delivers that sound in a box.

The Rat has its own legion of fans, too. Guitarists such as Peter Buck, Mike Campbell, Robert Fripp, and James Hetfield are fans. Radioheads’ Thom Yorke is a fan, as was the late, great Kurt Cobain.

It uses a pair of silicon diodes to produce an aggressive but smooth distortion with a touch of fuzz.

It sounds great for heavy metal styles of guitar as well as classic rock and grunge. It can be used to enhance both rhythm and lead guitar parts.

What we like:

  • Nails sweet spot where a tube amp goes from sparkly clean to warm overdrive
  • Produces ‘arena rock’ rhythm tones and soaring leads
  • Boost for solos

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Boss DS-1

The Boss DS-1 is a classic distortion pedal and has remained a popular choice since it was first released in 1978.

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, its sweet spot is grunge or hard rock rather than blues or more extreme metal.

Its three-knob interface lets you dial in practically every rock sound imaginable, so even if this is your first effects pedal, you’ll be able to work out the three controls.

What we like:

  • Iconic pedal
  • Produces tight, hard-edged gain
  • The sweet spot is grunge or hard rock

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MXR M75 Super Badass

The aptly named Super Badass from MXR produces some gnarly tones.

It’s actually a great all-rounder and can recreate everything from wide-open blues tones to scooped metal.

Its EQ section is very good too.

What we like:

  • Great all-rounder, can handle blues, hard rock, and metal equally well
  • Decent EQ section

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EarthQuaker 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 the king of the heavy, stoner rock sound.

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!

Even better, there is only one effect dial to control it all. 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 who aren’t too fussed about having loads of tone control to play about with, and who specifically want to play doom, sludge, or stoner types of metal.

What we like:

  • Specifically designed to recreate bass-heavy, fuzz-tones—perfect for stoner rock
  • Simple to operate (probably a good thing)

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Electro-Harmonix Nano Big Muff

If you’re after a vintage, fat-sounding fuzz distortion, the Nano Big Muff 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 give you a warm, creamy fuzz effect with scope for sculpting a rich, growling tone.

What we like:

  • Produces a high-quality distortion, best suited to those looking for a dark, warm heavy sound.
  • Controlled by three dials

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Wampler Sovereign

Another versatile distortion pedal with some great tone-shaping features.

Two gain stages, a mid-contour, a bright switch, and tone control allow you to shape your tone the way you want.

You can dial in a wide range of sounds, from modern distortion all the way back to classic OD tones.

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.

Thanks to its small, compact design the Sovereign can fit onto any good pedalboard with ease and will fit into your gig bag without taking up too much room.

What we like:

  • Two gain stages
  • Mid-contour, bright switch, and tone control for exceptional tone sculpting

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Walrus Audio Iron Horse V2

If you’re looking for thick and sludgy tones with plenty of low-end and warmth – e.g., like a ’70s-style Sabbath riff—then the Iron Horse V2 is worth checking out.

The toggle switch lets you flick between a trio of clipping diodes to offer different distortion tones.

A true bypass system ensures that it won’t drain any of your signal when it’s not in use.

What we like:

  • ’70s-style distortion tones
  • Uses classic LM308 chip
  • 3 x distortion tones

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Fender Pugilist

Fender’s Pugilist features two channels and a blend/series switch, allowing 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.

What we like:

  • Very good all-rounder, perfectly suited to classic rock and blues styles.
  • Two channels let you create a diverse array of sounds, and the bass boost option helps to complement different types of guitar too.

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Ged is editor-in-chief and founder of Zing Instruments. He's a multi-instrumentalist and loves researching, writing, and geeking out about music. He's also got an unhealthy obsession with vintage VW Campervans.