Top distortion pedals – Guide & Comparison
If you’re searching for the best distortion pedal but have no idea which one to choose from the plethora of options available, then read on. We’ve looked at some of the most appreciated pedals by experienced guitarists and amateurs alike and chosen the ones that offer the highest quality distortion for the price. After analyzing dozens of models, we’ve concluded that the BOSS DS-1 is the one you should consider. This legendary pedal comes with a unique design, an intuitive interface with just three knobs, and it can make your guitar sound amazing. In case this product is sold out, you could look at the Pro Co RAT2 as well.
Our Top Choice
This distortion pedal has quite the reputation, as it is and has been used by famous guitarists all over the world. The controls are versatile, and that makes the pedal suitable for a large variety of music genres, such as folk, blues, and rock. When you turn the volume up, the sound will maintain its hard edge and crispiness, while when you turn it down, it will still be free of muddiness.
Some customers say that it is not as loud as they expected the pedal to be.
An easy-to-use distortion pedal, versatile and offering superior performance.
You can use this pedal to obtain the primary distortion, but it is not impossible to use in various combinations, which is a plus. The three knobs are for adjusting distortion, volume, and filter. There is nothing fancy about it, but that is what makes it so cool and straightforward to use. The luminescent graphics allow you to see the controls on a dark stage, and they have a cool effect.
The power supply is not standard, and that seems to be a sore point for some.
A straightforward model that does exactly what’s expected, and it’s quite handy.
A high dynamic range is the first thing that makes this particular model stand out from the crowd. You will love the easy-to-adjust controls that offer you the power to nail the distortion effect you are after. You control gain, level, bass, and treble, which is why musicians playing various genres so commonly use this pedal. The sound produced is crunchy, yet warm, so ideal for various setups.
It does not seem to be a good fit for heavy treble effects, according to some.
A solid distortion pedal with a full dynamic coverage, suitable for different genres.
Highly Recommended Choices – Reviews & Comparison
Whether you are looking for a hard-core distortion pedal or a versatile unit that’s meant to give you the right sound in any situation, you’re in the right place. Here is a list of the top distortion pedals reviews complete with specifications so you get to choose a model that offers the highest quality sound for the money.
This pedal can be used for a variety of musical genres, from blues to folk to hard rock, and that’s thanks to its simple yet versatile controls. While playing your guitar at a low volume, you won’t get your sound affected by muddiness. With this pedal, you can shape the sound so that it suits a rhythm guitar as well as crazy solos with smooth sustain even at high volume.
Its three-knob interface is easy to use and you can tweak your settings even while performing so you can choose the right sound at the right time.
Buy from Amazon.com for ($49.98)
Pro Co RAT2
You get a simple interface with three knobs that give you control over distortion, volume, and filter. This pedal is able to give your guitar a sound that’s right in the middle between clean and warm overdrive. You get an extra punchy sound and controls with luminescent graphics which help you make adjustments in a fly even on dark stages.
The true bypass mode ensures that you don’t lose any power or clarity by making use of input and output passive switching. You also get a no-tools battery compartment and a battery that should keep you powered for a long time.
Buy from Amazon.com for ($69.99)
TC Electronic Dark Matter
You can shape the sound by using the intuitive controls until you get the distortion you’re looking for, whether it’s that dirty and warm fuzz or a growling distortion that will electrify your solo performance. You get four large knobs for gain, level, bass, and treble so you don’t just benefit from quality distortion, but also from complete control over it for every occasion.
The pedal also features voicing switch which allows you to choose between a frequency response which stays true to the input signal and boosting the low-end frequencies, the latter being great in certain setups such as rhythm in a multi-guitar setup.
Buy from Amazon.com for ($48.99)
MXR M75 Super Badass
The distortion should allow you to play anything from 70s smooth overdrive to down-and-dirty metal sounds. The EQ control allows you to sculpt your sound by adjusting the Bass, Mid, and Treble knobs so you get the results you want. This analog pedal allows you to enjoy decades’ worth of experience from a legacy brand such as MXR.
You also get a sturdy device with a resistant housing that’s meant to withstand the wear and tear associated with being on the road for weeks on end. The pedal also has true bypass switching which is great for alternating between clean and distortion sounds during complex performances the easy way.
Buy from Amazon.com for ($99.99)
Wampler Pedals Sovereign V2
This pedal comes with a high dynamic range for an amazing array of sounds that could make even your inexpensive beginner electric guitar sound awesome. You get top-mounted input and output jacks for easy and uncluttered wiring. This flexible pedal has a tweakable EQ which gives you a large degree of customization so you get precisely the sound you want.
The gain knob gives you the distortion level, while the volume changes the output with a lot of headroom. The tone gives you control over the frequency. There’s also a Mid knob which allows you to adjust the behavior of your notes and give you plenty of choices for jaw-dropping performances.
Buy from Amazon.com for ($199.97)
Electro-Harmonix Big Muff Pi
You benefit from a sustained grind that will make your guitar come alive. You also get three knobs to adjust the volume, tone and sustain so you can tweak your settings in a jiffy and make sure you obtain the sound you want for every tune you play. This unit also comes with true bypass switching which allows you to go from heavy distortion to clean guitar effortlessly.
The pedal also comes with a solid design that can withstand the rigors of touring, and you also get a 9V battery that can help you perform even when there’s no power outlet nearby.
Click to see the price on Amazon!
Ibanez TS-9 Tube Screamer
This classic stompbox is manufactured in the same location and with the same high-quality parts as the original TS9 which means that you benefit from a professional build for a more than reasonable price. You get a standard interface, with three knobs that allow you to adjust tone, level, and drive.
The classic tone of this pedal won’t cause hard clipping so you get to enjoy that muddy rock/blues sound without overdoing it. This unit comes with two patch cables so you get to save money on your next pedal. You also get a true bypass for extra convenience, while the plug-and-play design allows you to start playing and adding distortion in no time.
Buy from Amazon.com for ($99.99)
Boss BD-2 Blues
With the BD-2, you get that rugged bluesy sound that many guitarists are after. The warm distortion simulates the sound created by the original tube amplifiers so you get to enjoy a timeless sound in an instant without having to spend a fortune on 30-year vintage tube amps.
The pedal has the usual design, with a knob for gain which allows you to change your sound from mild overdrive to heavy distortion, as well as tone and level knobs for even more customization. This product also comes with a 9V battery, a power adapter, as well as four Blucoil guitar picks.
Buy from Amazon.com for ($99.99)
Suhr Riot Reloaded
The pedal comes with a tone control which enables you to adjust mid to upper frequencies so you obtain a tone that’s both cutting and sweet. You also get the distortion and level knobs, as well as a voice switch that can be adjusted in three positions for Modern, Classic, and Scooped settings.
This pedal comes with a power adapter and a long cord which ensures you won’t have problems connecting it to a power socket. The durable construction will keep this pedal working and providing your guitar with awesome effects for a long time.
Buy from Amazon.com for ($186.66)
Weehbo Guitar Morbid Drive
This pedal gives you gain control so you can go from soft overdrive to heavy distortion. With the EQ, you can adjust the bass, treble, middle, as well as depth so you can customize your sound and ensure you get the right one for every job.
This unit comes with two footswitches: one allows you to switch from lead to rhythm modes, while the other is for bypassing so you can always go from a fuzzy sound to a clean and crystal-clear sound via the true bypass function. This unit is compact and lightweight so it’s a great touring partner.
Click to see the price on Amazon!
Yearly Guide & Report
Finding a good distortion pedal can be quite tough, especially when you don’t know what you’re looking for. There are tons of models on the market, each with its pros and cons and specific uses. Whether this is your first effects pedal or distortion model you’re after, you should be glad to learn that we’ve prepared a comprehensive guide which should help you out.
We have tried to cover the most important aspects of these devices and present the main features so that you will have the information required to make the right choice. So here are some things you should have in mind before going for one of the distortion pedals for sale.
Distortion and overdrive pedals
First of all, you might want to make sure that you read some reviews of distortion pedals to make sure you are getting the right model for your style and preferences. There are lots of pedals out there, with each particular pedal being capable of offering a range of distortion choices and sounds that may suit a particular music genre.
For example, getting the best overdrive pedal is a great idea for all sorts of styles, from blues to rock, hard rock, and even metal. You’d get a down and dirty sound for blues, as well as a punchy and growling distortion for rock or jazz. Such a pedal will also cause soft clipping and stay a bit closer to the original sound unless you crank up the gain and volume too much.
However, there are cases when you might want some heavier distortion, in which case a conventional distortion pedal with high gain might be warranted. This is not just for heavy metal and other genres requiring more aggressive distortion, but also for cases where you might need a crunchier sound that an overdrive pedal couldn’t offer without a lot of tweaking.
There are also several models that come with multiple effects so you may be able to use one of these for a variety of performances without having to rely on more than just one pedal.
Durability and design
Getting a distortion pedal should also imply that you look at its design. Is it made of quality components? Is it durable? These are highly important, especially if you plan on using the pedal for touring. You should probably opt for a compact pedal, especially if you’re traveling with a small band, given that pedals aren’t the only things you’d need to carry.
More important than its size, the pedal should be made with quality components such as high-grade capacitors, resistors, and diodes. Having a hard case to protect all these is to be desired, as you want the pedal to be able to withstand the wear and tear of touring the country with your reliable travel guitars.
Controls and versatility
You can find pedals with a simple design and 1 to 3 control knobs as well as complex units that offer lots of options when it comes to shaping your guitar’s sound. The standard design usually implies a knob for gain adjustments, which is the main control for distortion, as well as knobs for tone and level or volume.
You’ll find variations and even different names under the knobs, depending on the make and model. Some distortion pedals also come with controls that allow you to adjust bass, treble, and mid tones so you can shape the sound and get the result you’re looking for.
Voice switching is yet another feature you’ll find often, and so is true bypass switching, which allows you to bypass the effects of the pedal and get a clean sound through your amp. Soft relay switching can be great when you need to alternate between clean and crisp sounds with heavily distorted riffs.
You might also want a versatile effects pedal that can work with one of your classic cheap acoustic guitars. Just don’t forget that you need a pick-up and possibly a pre-amp installed in order to be able to use distortion. And since amplifying and adding distortion to an acoustic guitar may beat its purpose in the first place, you might want to just stick with an electric guitar.
Another seemingly minor but important thing to have in mind is that the pedal comes with input and output jacks that are placed in an easy-to-reach spot, such as on the sides or on top of the pedal. This way, you avoid cluttered cables and an entire mess to clean up after every performance.
Speaking of cables, you might also want to make sure that the pedal you’re getting comes with input and output cables so you don’t have to buy your own. You should also receive a power adapter with a long-enough cable. A pedal that comes with a 9V battery might also help since you won’t necessarily need a power source next to you, which is great for street busking.
Other things you might want to get is an accurate guitar tuner pedal which can make things a lot easier in terms of keeping your guitar in tune, and a pedal board so you can keep your pedals organized, just as you can store your guitars on stable music stands between playing sessions.
If you aren’t set on a specific model, then it would probably be a good idea to set a budget first and then go looking for pedals. This is because we tend to be vulnerable to impulse buying, especially when it comes to our passion.
Besides the obvious problem that you risk spending a lot more than you should or could afford, not having a budget in mind can cause you to wander aimlessly and purchase a pedal that may not be the best for your style and needs.
You don’t have to spend a fortune on the shiniest model when you can find a cheap distortion pedal. In this context, cheap does not mean poor quality and cheap components, but a device that’s affordable while offering everything you could possibly need. You’d be surprised to learn that some of the legendary pedals you’ve been hearing about only cost a few bucks.
What you need to know about distortion
If you’re looking for the best guitar distortion pedal on the market but don’t know much, if anything, about this device or about distortion, then you need to do some reading first. Buying a pedal without knowing what distortion is, what it does, and how it can help your sound means that you risk blindly going for a product which may not be perfectly suited to your needs.
You’ll probably also misuse the pedal without a proper understanding of how distortion works. So without further ado, here are some things you need to know about distortion.
What is it?
In uncomplicated terms, distortion is any change or altering in a sound of an amplified musical instrument such as an electric guitar. While distortion can be obtained just by turning up the volume of an amplifier, this article deals with distortion as the audio signal processing which is produced with the help of specialized equipment in the form of effects pedals.
Other equipment capable of distortion, such as pre-amps and power amplifiers will not be discussed here. Distortion can usually be achieved by increasing the gain of the amplified sound which results in a fuzzy or crunchy sound (due to clipping and compressing the signal).
You might have wondered why heavy metal guitars have that harsh sound and bite: it’s because of distortion. However, guitar distortion is not only limited to heavy metal, as many musicians playing blues, jazz, folk, pop, as well as other genres, employ distortion effects, adding a growliness or grittiness to their guitars.
You can find notable examples in many music genres, from Muddy Waters, Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page and Frank Zappa to Stevie Ray Vaughan, Steve Vai, Slash, The Edge, Jack White, James “Munky” Shaffer, Kirk Hammett, and many more.
A bit of history and background
In the early days of the electric guitar, musicians achieved distortion by cranking up the volume of their vacuum tube amplifiers. This distorted the signal and produced a muddy sound. In 1945, guitarist Junior Barnard came up with the idea of playing with a humbucker pickup and a small amplifier.
His ‘low-down and dirty’ bluesy sound became successful and many players of that era, especially in the blues music scene, began copying it. Goree Carter, a musician considered one of the forerunners of the rock genre, featured an over-driven electric guitar on his 1949 single “Rock Awhile”, a style that would reappear several years later with Chuck Berry.
In the 50s, Howlin’ Wolf′s Willie Johnson obtained his distorted warm sound by increasing gain beyond normal limits. By the 1960s, distortion became popular, with Keith Richards’ use of a Gibson Maestro FZ-1 Fuzz-Tone on the recording of “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” and the song’s popularity boosting the sales of the device until it was sold out.
By late 60s and 70s, fuzzboxes were mainstream, with many legendary models paving the way to the modern effects pedals used today.
Some sound theory
When you’re talking about distortion, you refer to any modification made on a signal’s waveform. Increasing volume or especially gain creates a signal that’s more powerful than what the amplifier’s power source can handle.
The amplifier is pushed beyond its normal capacity, and since it doesn’t have enough headroom to amplify the signal cleanly, it ends up compressing the signal and clipping it (shearing off the edges of the sine waves). Since clipping isn’t a linear process, it produces frequencies, usually harmonic or inharmonic overtones, that didn’t exist in the original input signal.
There are two types of clipping: soft clipping and hard clipping. Soft clipping produces milder effects by flattening the peaks gradually and producing harmonics closer to the original ones. Hard clipping results in harsher or more abrupt flattening of the peaks, with high tone input forcing the waves into square-like forms.
Distortion and overdrive pedals
If you’re still unclear about what the difference between distortion and overdrive is, you should know that these two words refer to the same process, as both clip the original signal and alter it. When there needs to be a distinction made between them, distortion is considered a more aggressive form of overdrive
Distortion and overdrive pedals work very much like amplifiers by using transistors or diodes (as opposed to vacuum tubes in amps) to create clipping which can be symmetrical or asymmetrical, both forms capable of producing the characteristic dirty, crunchy, and warm sound.
Frequently asked questions about distortion pedals
Can I use a guitar distortion pedal on a bass guitar?
The simple answer is yes, you can. Many effects pedals aren’t necessarily meant only for electric guitars, as they can work just fine on a bass guitar. In fact, these pedals can work on just about any instrument since they don’t know or care where the signal that needs to be processed comes from.
The only problem here is that a bass has richer sounds in the bottom end, sounds that are actually its main characteristic. Since distortion compresses the signal, a guitar pedal might dampen these sounds and make your bass sound muddier. This can result in some cool sounds, although you might want to get a bass pedal instead.
Which distortion pedal does Metallica use?
Metallica is a band that needs no introduction. With a unique sound and powerful performances, the band achieved wide critical acclaim in the 80s. The band’s guitarists, James Hetfield and Kirk Hammett, have inspired generations of musicians with their amazing guitar playing as well as jaw-dropping effects.
James Hetfield used distortion pedals such as the Pro Co Rat on ‘Kill ‘em All’, and an overdrive Ibanez TS9 Tube Screamer. He apparently quit using distortion pedals after switching to a Mesa Boogie/Marshall combo. Kirk Hammett uses an Ibanez TS9 Tube Screamer as well, along with a KHDK Electronics Ghoul Screamer and a high-gain KHDK Dark Blood Distortion.
Which distortion pedal does Slash use?
Slash is a musician who needs no introduction. He’s the lead guitarist of the legendary hard rock band Guns N’ Roses and the man behind some of the most iconic guitar solos in history. Besides having an amazing talent and working his ass off, Slash’s sound is highly influenced by the use of a variety of pedals, not to mention all the cool amps he has.
Besides the signature Dunlop SW95 Slash Signature Cry Baby Wah Wah, which Slash has admitted to contributing a large part of his sound, he uses a MXR M-104 Distortion and Guitar Pedal, a MXR Blue Box – M103 Fuzz and Octaver, as well as a Boss OC-3 Super Octave which also comes with a Drive mode with distortion.
What distortion pedal does Green Day Use?
Green Day is an American punk rock band that was at the forefront of the punk scene in the 90s. With albums such as Dookie, Insomniac, and Nimrod, the band cemented its place in the music scene, being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2015.
In terms of distortion, frontman and lead guitarist Billie Joe Armstrong uses an Ibanez TS9 Tube Screamer overdrive pedal, as well as a Boss BD-2 Blues Driver, in combination with several high-end delay pedal models such as the Line 6 DL4 and the MXR Carbon Copy Analog Delay.
What distortion pedal does Jack White use?
Jack White is an American musician, singer, and songwriter who achieved commercial success and high critical acclaim with the band The White Stripes. He famously said at one point that for the first seven years, he had used only an Electro-Harmonix Big Muff Pi and a Whammy pedal.
He appears to be using a Moog Minifooger MF Drive pedal, as well as a newer version of the Electro-Harmonix Big Muff with Tone Wicker. He also uses a combination of pedals such as the Boss CS-3 Sustainer, Voodoo Lab Tremolo, and Electro-Harmonix Holy Grail Nano Reverb Guitar Effects, along with custom tuner pedals and multi-effects pedals.
What distortion pedal does Korn use?
Korn is a Nu metal American band that has caught the imagination of the new generation with creative albums, impressive live performances, and socially-oriented lyrics regarding personal alienation and pain.
James “Munky” Shaffer, the rhythm guitarist, uses a TC Electronic Röttweiler Distortion pedal, a DigiTech XMM Metal Master Heavy Metal, as well as a Boss MT-2 Metal Zone, the latter being used for ‘Did My Time’.
Brian “Head” Welch, the band’s lead guitarist, does not appear to use distortion pedals, although he does use a host of other pedals such as the TC Electronic Vortex Flanger TonePrint, the Boss RV-5 Digital Reverb, and the Boss RV-3 Digital Reverb/Delay.
Why use a distortion pedal?
Well, the first and main reason to use a distortion pedal is because, obviously, it just sounds really amazing. While altering the original signal may look like a nasty thing to do to a purist, it actually allows guitarists to create their own signature sounds and add a crunchiness and warmth that wouldn’t be possible otherwise.
Distortion compresses the audio signal, resulting in a specific dirty or fuzzy timbre that may suit a particular music genre. You can get the growl of Stevie Ray Vaughan, opt for the smooth overdrive of David Gilmour, or go for something with a more aggressive bite for playing hard rock or heavy metal tunes.
When was the distortion pedal invented?
The first distortions were actually caused by cranking up the volume of low-fidelity amps. In 1945, a guy called Junior Barnard, a Western-swing guitarist, started playing with a primitive humbucker pick-up and a small amp, experimenting with various sounds. This enabled him to obtain a dirty and low-down sound that was perfect for blues.
Many other electric guitarists soon started doing their own experimenting, with popular names such as Buddy Guy and Elmore James trying to give their guitars the rugged sound of legendary bluesmen such as Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters. The trend took off, with distortion forever changing the sound of the music industry.
Can I make my own distortion pedal?
If you’re wondering whether you could build your own distortion pedal, there’s good news and bad news. The good news is that you can actually manage to build an effects pedal on your own. The bad news is that it is going to take time and possibly more money than a brand new pedal, taking into consideration the quality of the final product.
Manufacturers buy all their parts in huge quantities and they get them cheap, but you might have to pay quite a lot for quality parts such as resistors, capacitors, diodes, transistors, etc. However, if you have the time, skill, and patience, and know a thing or two about electronics, you might as well have some fun while building your own pedal.
How do I connect it to the amp?
In order to connect your distortion pedal to an amp, you first need to make sure that everything is turned off, and that means the amp and any other device that’s connected. Now, this first step is quite important since it avoids short circuits which could damage your equipment. Next, you need to hook up both the amp and the pedal to a power source.
Many pedals come with power adapters, even if they have internal batteries. You should connect your guitar to the input jack. Now take the output jack of the pedal and then connect it to your amplifier’s input. Turn on your amp, set the levels and turn down the effects knobs, activate the pedal, and start playing.
Best distortion pedal brands
If you’re talking about effects pedals, you can’t avoid talking about Boss. In the minds of many musicians, this company has become a synonym to premium pedals, as well as guitar metronome and tuner models. The first ever pedal was the B-100 The Boss, released in 1974 and intended for acoustic guitars, as it came with a pre-amp and pickup.
Since then, the company has released some of the most popular effects processors on the market, from the DS-1 to the DD-7, TR-2 tremolo, and others which have been used by world-class musicians such as Joe Satriani, The Edge, Eric Clapton, and Brian May.
Electro-Harmonix is an American manufacturer of high-end audio processors. Based in New York, the company was founded in 1968 by Mike Matthews. It grew immensely in popularity between the 1970s and 90s due to its solid-state effects pedals or stompboxes which, at the time, were highly advanced, while also selling at affordable prices.
The company created the first stompbox flanger, the Electric Mistress, as well as the first ever delay/echo analog unit which had no moving parts. Other innovations followed, cementing the company’s reputation as a pioneer in the field. One of its most recognizable pedals is the Big Muff Pi, a distortion pedal that has been used by legendary guitarists over decades.
Ibanez is one of the largest companies in the music industry. It’s not only one of the major manufacturers of impressive acoustic guitars, but also a brand that’s known for lots of other musical instruments and equipment. This Japanese company started out in 1957 by producing inexpensive guitars, only to end up creating some of the most iconic guitars of the 20th century.
Its effects pedals have also introduced new technologies, with models such as the Tube Screamer Overdrive and Distortion pedal evolving into variations such as the highly sought-after TS9 which is great for many blues and rock subgenres.
TC Electronic is a renowned audio equipment manufacturer that has contributed greatly to the music industry. The company was initially started by two musician brothers, Kim and John Rishøj, back in 1976. The brand’s first product was a Stereo Chorus + Pitch Modulator & Flanger or SCF.
Soon after, 19-inch rack-mounted processors were released, with appreciated models such as the TC2290. The company is widely known in the music world for its guitar effects pedals. Models such as the TC Electronic Dark Matter became instant hits as soon as they entered the market, due to their crunchy sounds, multiple controls, and solid builds.
Weehbo is a guitar effects pedals manufacturing company headquartered in Hannover, Germany. It was founded in 2008 by Eike Hintzen. Despite being a newcomer, the brand managed to establish itself quite fast on both the European and US markets. Its increasing popularity is in large part due to its quality pedals which come with lots of controls and customization options.
This is no small feat, considering that the company is actually a ‘one-man band’, as Hintzen designs and builds these pedals by hand. One of the company’s most appreciated models is the Morbid Drive, which offers dual distortion, 4-band EQ, as well as two footswitches and other controls.
Behringer is an audio equipment manufacturing company that was founded by Uli Behringer, a Swiss engineer, in 1989 in Willich, Germany. What started as a small company became one of the largest manufacturers of audio processors and other equipment in the world. Uli showed great talent as a teenager, managing to build his own synthesizer when he was only sixteen.
While studying at the Dusseldorf Conservatory, he became frustrated with the lack of audio equipment, a thing which prompted him to start building his own audio processors. Since then, Behringer has been manufacturing mixing boards, digital pianos, as well as quality stompboxes.
MXR is a trademark that is owned by Jim Dunlop. The brand started out in 1972, founded by Keith Barr and Terry Sherwood. The two began by repairing radios and other audio equipment, only to produce their first effects pedal named the Phase 90, which they released in 1974. This pedal was featured on the first two albums of Eddie Van Halen.
MXR was acquired by Jim Dunlop in 1987, continuing the tradition of this brand and introducing new pedals with jaw-dropping distortion. The brand has created some extremely popular pedals, such as the analog MXR M75 Super Badass, which surely deserves its name.