Guitar players tend to be irredeemable gearheads. We’re constantly chasing tone — that certain sound made by the combination of guitar, pedal, amp, strings, whatever. Even if we find something that speaks to us, we’re still likely to explore other variations to unlock new sonic possibilities.
An easy way to dramatically change your tone is trying new pedals. Unlike guitars and amps, pedals can a relatively inexpensive change to make and can give your sound a new dimension. Better yet, there are thousands of them on the market at various price points. For fifty bucks, you can try on a completely different style.
One of the foundations of rock music is distortion. That hard-edged sound of grinding guitars comes in many permutations and tones. Distortion pedals work by altering the sound wave to introduce clipping within the unit without relying heavily on amp gain. This is distinct from overdrive, which works by applying gain increases at specific points. Overdrive does just as the name implies: it pushes the amp into breaking up in a natural way. If it’s an overdrive you’re looking for, you can read our list of the best overdrive pedals here.
Distortion fundamentally changes the input signal, giving the more compressed signal that is prevalent in modern rock and metal. The idea behind a distortion stomp box is that you can get full saturation at lower volumes, as opposed to driving your amp to generate enough compressed amplitude for clipping to occur. Distortion is also distinct from fuzz — fuzz is essentially a pair of transistors (generally germanium, but not always) and some circuitry that results in a squared waveform. Our post on fuzz pedals can be found here. Distortion circuits are a more complicated configuration of additional transistors, clipping diodes, and op-amps, often subjected to filters in order to voice them in a particular way or to give the player the option to do so.
Distortion is almost certainly my favorite “effect” and there are so many distortions to choose from. I have at least four pedals that generate distorted tones and I usually overlap them for maximum results, gain stacking boosts into overdrives into distortions and many variations thereof. You will certainly have to try a few before you land on the perfect one for your guitar and amp combination. Also, “best” is highly subjective, so consider this list just a sampling and a place to start. Pedals range from under $20 into the thousands, depending on a wide variety of factors. Our list is all middle of the road in terms of cost, while also giving you a range of styles to choose from.
If you’re in search of heavier guitar tone, consider our list of the top ten best distortion pedals.
1. Boss DS-1 Distortion
Among the unwritten laws of being a guitar player is the rule that everyone must own a Boss pedal at some point. They’re nearly ubiquitous in the guitar world. Their design has been copied for years, while the reliability is well established. They’re usually on the cheaper side, and their constant presence can have a calming effect on touring musicians since a replacement is usually easy to find for any given Boss model.
The DS-1 Distortion is about as straightforward as it gets. You get knobs for Tone, Level, and Distortion. Spend a little time dialing it in to make your amp sing and forget it. It can run on 9V batteries or the now-standard Boss 9V adapter that just about every other pedal on the planet uses. Because it’s pretty standard, a lot of players will use this as color rather than the dominant tone, but your mileage may vary. After you’ve tried the DS-1, you can move onto the DS-2 Turbo Distortion or the MD-2 Mega Distortion for even more flexibility.
Why you would choose this one: You need something cheap and proven.
Need more options? Browse more Boss products here.
2. Electro-Harmonix Big Muff Pi
Electro-Harmonix is almost as widespread as Boss. EHX is sometimes considered the first “boutique” pedal maker on the market, often being hand-built in the U.S. Production has changed on a lot of their models, which has led to wider availability and a lower price point. There is an EHX pedal out there for just about everyone. Until recently, I used a Holy Grail reverb, which we included on our reverb post.
It’s commonly held that the Big Muff is considered a fuzz, so if you’re thinking it shouldn’t be on this list, just read our post on fuzz pedals immediately after and it’ll seem like they were on the same list.
Without getting too much into the strange history of EHX production, you should know upfront that there have been many, many versions of the Big Muff. I’m partial to the black Russian iteration. Lots of folks seem to like the green Sovtek Russian version, though this can be difficult to find. If you want something along those lines, Wren and Cuff have an excellent take. But I digress. You could spend hours and hours reading about the different versions.
If this is your first interaction with a Big Muff, start with this one, which is the current-version American Pi. While some consider it a fuzz, it has four transistor amplification stages (two of which are diode clipping stages), making the Big Muff is a highly versatile distortion circuit that can sound fuzzy. Again opting for a three-knob configuration, you get Volume, Tone, and Sustain (basically a gain knob). It’s especially magic paired with a Gibson Les Paul since it already has tremendous sustain. The one major drawback of this pedal is its relatively monstrous footprint that makes it kind of a pedalboard hog. Fortunately, it also comes in a Little version and a Nano version, though some think they don’t sound quite the same. This is an excellent pedal for layering with other types of drive.
Why you would choose this one: You’re looking to get into time-honored tones that always sound great.
Need more options? Browse more Electro-Harmonix products here.
3. JHS Pedals Muffuletta
If you like the sound of the Big Muff and want to explore more textures, this JHS unit should fit the bill. Packing the equivalent of six different circuits in one compact pedal, this will more than answer your need for something versatile. The best part is, none of these are achieved with DSP modeling — this is an all-analogue unit.
Controls include Volume, Sustain, and Tone, just like the Big Muff above, but also the six-way selector switch to choose your flavor. The first is a JHS original take on the circuit. The next is the Rams Head, after the 1973 to 1977 Muff circuit, which featured scooped mid range, less gain and a darker tone. The Triangle takes on the silver-case 1969 to 1970 design, which had better note clarity and more bass. The Pi dated from 1977 to 1978 and had slightly more gain. The Russian Muff often came in a black case between 1999 and 2008 and is the muddiest of them, but offers good grind. The last is the Civil War circuit from 1991 to 1993, which featured an overall brighter character and lower gain. This doesn’t cover every iteration of the Muff, but it does serve up all the best versions.
Why you would choose this one: You like the Big Muff, but you have neither the time nor the funds to track down all the variations.
Need more options? Browse more JHS Pedals products here.
4. EarthQuaker Devices Acapulco Gold V2 Power Amp Distortion
If you’re anything like me, you tend to find one particular setting on a pedal and leave it there. This is perhaps espeically true with distortion, since the nature of the pedal is to give you a heavy tone as though it were coming from your amp at high volume. In that case, you only need one knob: Volume.
This EQD offering is modeled after a vintage Sunn Model T amplifier. The entire circuit inside this box is dedicated to producing the sound of that amp cranked up to 10 without blowing your head off and getting you arrested. You can still affect the drive level and tone with your guitar’s controls, and setting the big ol’ knob at lower levels with the guitar volume rolled off will give you something more in overdrive territory. In a sense, this is the purest expression of a distortion pedal: heavy amp-style gain at low volumes. Well, sort of. This pedal is super, super loud, so beware.
Why you would choose this one: You’re looking for a unique distortion voice without the need to fuss with knobs.
Need more options? Browse more Earthquaker Devices products here.
5. Pro Co RAT2 Distortion
If you’re in the market for something tried-and-true, you wouldn’t be wrong to try the Rat. This is a thick, saturated distortion that has been featured in many a rig over the years. The stout box is designed to put up with a ton of abuse, so even if you’re gigging every night, this pedal is up to the challenge. Speaking of night, this is actually the second version, which adds glow in the dark knob markings and a LED light to help you out in the dark.
This is a low, growly-type distortion. In some applications, it borders on fuzz, but is actually a less-open modification of the MXR Distortion+ below. If that low end grind is perfect for you, it’s pretty much ready to go out of the box. I have found that it could use a little brightening and tightening, so I sometimes pair it with a booster, or roll back the lows on my guitar. It’s an iconic sound that can be had for cheap.
Why you would choose this one: Excellent as a main tone or a cheap pedalboard flavor.
Need more options? Browse more Pro Co products here.
6. MXR M104 Distortion +
Fan of the 70s soft-clipping distortion? You know the kind — Germanium driven, warm, very overdrive-like. This is, of course, a re-issue, harkening back to to the very beginnings of MXR. If you play classic rock, a pedal like this is the way to go.
The simple operation of this pedal requires only two knobs, Output and Distortion. Even given that, you’ll get a surprising amount of range from this unit. I had a slightly different version of this pedal for awhile and I was really impressed with its versatility. One perhaps odd thing I enjoy about MXR pedals is how smooth the knob movement is, if that sort of thing appeals to you. If the 70s vibe doesn’t cut it, you could always go for MXR’s M75 Super Badass Distortion which has a more modern circuit and a few more knobs. Why stop there? You could always go all the way with the M116 Fullbore Metal, too.
Why you would choose this one: Vintage tones are more your speed.
Need more options? Browse more MXR products here.
7. Wampler Pedals Sovereign V2 Distortion
Wampler pedals make appearances on a great many pedalboards according to my research over the years. Brian Wampler has a way with circuits, and the Sovereign is no exception. This is a very flexible pedal with enough gain range to cover just about any application, with the real sweet spot being (to my ears, anyway) the Boost setting, where the heavy gain sparkles with a natural openness.
The Sovereign is controlled with four knobs and two switches. The first switch chooses between Modern and Vintage gain structure, which loosely correlates to a flat/bright switch. On Vintage, it ranges from overdrive to mild distortion, while on Modern, you’re in higher gain territory The other is a Gain/Boost switch, which pushes it even further into a power lead tone. Knobs include standard Volume and Gain, as well as two interesting tonal options in the Mid Contour and Tone knobs. Mid Contour affects the amount of the midrange, with all the way counter-clockwise being fully scooped. The Tone knob doesn’t just roll off frequencies, but rather changes the content across the range as bass increases clockwise.
As you’ll see in the video below, higher-output pickups tend to cause a bit of sag in the circuit, primarily because of the low-end frequencies driving the early gain stages more quickly. Plenty of ways around that, though.
If you’re looking for something more in the rectified arena, Wampler’s Triple Wreck is just as heralded as the Sovereign. It’s a beast.
Why you would choose this one: The flexibility and reputation combine to make a heavy-hitting pedal, especially for single-coils.
Need more options? Browse more Wampler pedals here.
8. MI Audio Super Crunch Box Distortion
Very often, the best-sounding, most convincing distortion pedals are referred to as an “amp-in-a-box”. (Which, to be fair is a misnomer, I guess — amps are boxes, too. But I digress.) Again, focusing on producing high gains at low volumes, the joy of the pedal format is that you get all the clipping without having to turn way up. To that end, the Super Crunch Box is a fantastic take on that genre, with an intriguing industry story to go along with it.
The original Crunch Box was a modified (and updated) version of the old Marshall The Gov’nor, which was meant as an amp-in-a-box simulator of the Marshall JCM800 stack. There are very many pedals out there attempting to sound like one vintage Marshall or another, but the Crunch Box is considered extremely well done even among a crowded field, with the Super version expanding to encapsulate virtually all Marshall tones to the extent it’s possible. It’s so good, in fact, that the higher-profile JHS Angry Charlie is reportedly a part-for-part ripoff with no modification made to MI’s circuit whatsoever. Oh, and it’s more expensive. (Which isn’t to say you shouldn’t buy it if your ears like it better. To each their own.)
The Super Crunch Box features enough controls to dial in a very wide variety of both high and low gain sounds. The two big knobs are for Volume and Gain, of course, with smaller trim knobs for Presence and Tone. The first switch is for low and high gain settings, while the second gives you three different Compression settings. The first position is 1, or the original Crunch Box setting of the JCM800/Gov’nor. The middle is 0 which is basically no compression with more headroom. The far right is 2, which uses silicone diodes to compress further. This, then, is actually several amps in a box for maximum flexibilty.
Why you would choose this one: Your clean amp could benefit from among the finest Marshall amp tones available in compact pedal form.
Need more options? Browse more MI Audio products here.
9. Amptweaker TightMetal Pro Distortion
By now you’ve probably noticed a dearth of metal-focused pedals, exposing my limited knowledge of worthwhile metal tones. From what I understand, it’s generally customary to get metal tones from your amp, but the same could be said for any distorted tone. To that end, this absolute monstrosity I’ve chosen to highlight is the quintessential amp-in-a-box, featuring a total of three effects loops and a crazy array of controls to fine tune your tone.
There are very many controls on this incredibly involved piece of equipment. The knobs across the top are Volume, the 3-band EQ, Gain, and Tight. The Tight knob adjusts the attack and is affected by an internal Fat switch for even more options. The knobs on the face of the unit — Boost Volume and Boost Gain — control the amount of boost before and after the gain stage, which is activated with the Boost switch on the right. This means you can either drive the gain harder, increase the overall level, or both, depending on what you need for a passage.
There’s a row of five toggle switches just below the main knobs. The far left is a Mid Boost which works with the Boost switch. The Thrash switch alters the mid for classic 80s tones, while the Smooth switch adds warmth to the higher frequencies. The Gate switch enables “Chomp” which kills the signal hard after each note. The Gain switch in the off position is for vintage tones, with modern in the on position.
On top of all that, there are three different effects loops. The one on top left is a “universal” loop, meant to be used as an other amp effects loop for modulation and delay. The loop on the top right is connected to the Boost switch, meaning you can patch in only the effects you want to use during, say, a solo, such as a particular reverb or delay. The loop on the left, called the SideTrak, is active when the TightMetal is bypassed. This is an entire signal chain you can use in contrast with the tone of the pedal — perfect for either cleans or a different flavor of distortion. It’s a one-touch jump between your heavy or main tones and any other complete chain, including out of that loop to another amp.
Inside, there’s a trim pot to change the Gate effect, a switch to move the universal effects loop before or after the pedal, an additional gate pot, and the Fat switch. All that and the user manual is only four pages. Go figure. One might conclude that means the whole thing is relatively intuitive, despite its absurd controller layout.
The TightMetal Pro is an expansion upon the TightMetal ST, adding a flexible boost circuit that can be used on either side of the drive. The TightMetal excels in palm-muting applications but is certainly flexible enough for virtually any style. That being said, repeated requests did result in the FatMetal, which is warmer and meant for brighter guitars and amps. There’s also a pedalboard-friendly TightMetal JR.
Why you would choose this one: You love metal…and options. Lots of options.
Need more options? Browse more Amptweaker products here.
10. Malekko Sloika MKII Multi Band Distortion
When I think of distortion, I think of a hard wall of fully saturated grind, good for long-sustaining chords, chunky palm muting, and controllable feedback. Even at low volumes, I want to be able to summon a massive wave of sound. Generally, this sort of thing is really only possible with, say, a 100 watt Marshall dimed through two full 4×12 cabs. But for those of us who can’t afford or have no place to put such a thing, pedals are a great alternative.
This Malekko model is my go-to distortion pedal. It has ten bands of drive which are controlled with the Saturate knob, ensuring a smoother, more rounded distortion at all levels. You also get Drive and Volume knobs and together, this gives you excellent control over the density of the crunch. This pedal is supremely responsive to picking, so touch will go a long way in drawing out the tone you want, anything from crushing distortion to just lightly breaking up. The pedal is transparent in the sense that it’s designed to emulate the sound of your amp cranked all the way up. It doesn’t add its own heavy-handed color, which is ideal when you’ve spent years picking out your guitar and amp and still want those to shine through. I use this all the time for heavy, palm-muted tone and whole heartedly recommend it.
Why you would choose this one: Amp and guitar transparency are paramount for your tone.
Need more options? Browse more Malekko products here.
Other Distortion Options
If single pedals aren’t your thing, you could also consider multi-effects processors. With 300 presets and 16 effects in the Line 6 Pocket POD ($129), you’d be hard pressed not to find one or two distortion tones you love. While not a traditional stompbox, this is meant to sit on top of an amp so you have ready access to changing sounds between songs. You can edit the presets on your computer, which gives you not only extreme flexibility, but by far the most finite control of any option on this list. Once you get a few presets dialed in, you might not need any other pedals at all.
For less than half the price, you could also try the Zoom G1on ($49.99). This is in the form of a pedal and features 75 effects, up to five of which can be used simultaneously. With 100 memory locations, you can create a huge bank of pedal combinations and switch easily between them mid-song. It also features an onboard tuner, looper, and rhythm machine.
If nothing on this list will work for you, you can browse all guitar effect pedals here to search out your new favorite. If it’s price you’re worried about, check out our list of the top 15 best cheap guitar effect pedals.
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