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, and we’ve dedicated an entire post to Big Muff variants 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.
2. TC Electronic Dark Matter
A step up from the Boss unit would be this pedal from TC Electronic. Though it isn’t one of their TonePrint-enabled pedals, you’ll still get a healthy range of usable tones from this inexpensive unit. To my ears, it’s better than the old Boss standby, although to be fair to the venerable old orange box, that’s most likely a function of the expanded control set.
Speaking of, the knobs on this include Gain, Level, Bass, and Treble, which all do their expected jobs. The tone knobs are active for maximum effect. There’s also a Voice switch that’s basically a mid-shift; up is neutral to the input signal, while down boosts the lower mids.
Why you would choose this one: Modern distortion sounds with good flexibility and true bypass for the same price as the Boss above.
Price: $49.99 (33 percent off MSRP)
3. Xotic Effects SL Drive
As you’ll see throughout the rest of this list, many of the best distortion pedals are so-called “amp-in-a-box” pedals. The reason for this is that heavy distortion from an amp generally requires a lot of volume (and preferably a decent amount of watts) and that just isn’t possible in most settings. This one comes from the trio of mini pedals from Xotic (we covered the booster in this post) and focuses on the late 60s Super Lead and Super Bass Marshall Plexi sounds. If you’re looking for a JCM800 in a box, we cover that a bit later down this list.
The evident controls on this pedal are Drive, Tone, and Volume. The Volume being a trim pot is an interesting choice, though to be fair, that is usually a set-it-and-forget-it knob, anyway. In order to make this tone monster the miniature wonder it is, Xotic have employed internal dip switches to round out the control set. There are four switches that allow you to choose between three Super Lead configurations — Default, High/Mid Cut, High Boost — and a Super Bass setting. The manual also illustrates sample settings for both single coils and humbuckers to dial in some more famous tones. All that in an ultra-small footprint.
Another well-loved option for these sounds is the Catalinbread Dirty Little Secret, but the edge has to go to the tiny pedal for what it achieves.
Why you would choose this one: Cleverly packaged, cranked Plexi tone without all the bulk and the noise complaints.
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.
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.
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.
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.
8. MI Audio Super Crunch Box Distortion V2
As I said, 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. Naturally, this is contested, but that’s the story around the internet water cooler. It shouldn’t dissuade you if you prefer the JHS, but it won’t have been the first time they’ve been accused of such a thing. Anyway, back to the pedal at hand.
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, Hi, Mid, 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 flexibility.
Unfortunately, the V2 is very recently released and isn’t widely a available. You might be able to find one on Reverb.com before anywhere else has it.
Why you would choose this one: Your clean amp could benefit from among the finest Marshall amp tones available in compact pedal form.
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.
10. Source Audio Soundblox 2 Multiwave Distortion
For those of you looking for something a bit different, this certainly fits the bill. Packing almost as many features as the Amptweaker above, this is a digital modeling distortion pedal that goes for a nice mix of usable, straightforward distortion and wacky, bizarre tones.
Controls on this are many and varied. Sustain controls the input volume, while Output controls the overall effect volume. The knob in the middle with, count ’em (no, really, count them, the numbering is kind of weird) 24 settings, allows you to choose the distortion type across three banks of Multi-Band and three banks of Single-Band distortions. The Multi-Band settings separate the signal into 10 frequencies to be distorted individually and recombined at the end. Single-Band options are the more expected distortion types. There’s a Drive knob, of course, and a Tone knob, the latter of which is an active control of whatever the Tone Shape is set to. Finally a built-in Noise Gate lets you choose between three settings. The two footswitches allow you to activate or bypass two presets. It’s quite a beast, and yet, there’s a pro version that does even more. It’s not for everyone, but it could be for you.
Why you would choose this one: You’re feeling confined by the other options on this list and want to explore new distorted territory.
Our honorable mention goes to the DOD Boneshaker. I kind of understand why it’s overlooked, but I have one on my board and find that it’s awfully underrated. It starts to shine when you stack a booster or an overdrive into it, so if you’ve tried it alone before and found it wanting, hit it with some additional dirt to bring out what I find to be an articulate, hard-hitting punch.
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