15 Best Distortion Pedals: The Ultimate List

The central premise of a distortion pedal is to deliver heavy, high-gain sounds without having to turn an amp up high enough to produce them. This is useful for home use, of course, but it’s also increasingly necessary live as stage volumes continue to fall. No longer can you show up to most venues and crank a 100-watt head and enjoy the fully saturated, harmonic-laden sounds such volumes produce. If you’re in search of heavier guitar tone, discover the best distortion pedals available for all your high-gain needs.

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Distortion vs. Overdrive

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. Overdrive also tends to be - but isn't always - soft-clipping. If it's an overdrive you're looking for, you can read our list of the best overdrive pedals.

Distortion fundamentally changes the input signal, generating more compression and generally far more gain that is then hard clipped at some point in the circuit. While overdrives tend not to color much, distortion usually features significantly more equalization, which often happens closer to the output stage.

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. A lot of distortion pedals are designed around specific amplifiers, which also explains the need for more distinct tone coloration.

Distortion is also distinct from fuzz pedals — fuzz is essentially a pair of transistors (generally germanium, but not always) and some circuitry that results in a squared waveform. 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. "Best" is of course subjective; not just because of how each person hears things, but also because of the many combinations of guitars and amps that these pedals will eventually work with.

Where do I put a distortion pedal in my chain?

The general advice is to treat your distortion pedal like an amp, which means it should come as close to the end of the chain as possible, but before any modulation and time-based effects.

Again, since a distortion pedal is meant to emulate a cranked amp, you can envision them as the last stage before the make-louder device - in an amp, this would be the power amp, but in this scenario, it's the entirety of your amplifier.

This means that anything coming after it is effectively in a kind of effects loop, regardless of whether your amp has one. You can still put all your modulation, delays, and reverbs into your amp's loop if you want, and you should if you're using a multi-channel amp and using any of the amp's drive.

If you have a high-headroom amp, you can run everything straight into the front. Use your overdrives and boosters to drive your distortion pedal, then add your time-based devices, then go into your amp. This is especially useful if you're using rented backlines and want to retain a certain sound.

The only possible exception is that if you want a volume boost for solos, you'll want to put your boost pedal after the distortion - and you'll need amp headroom left to make it work.

Oh -- did you expect to see the Big Muff on this post? No one can ever agree on whether it's a fuzz or a distortion, so we created an entire post for the best Big Muff clones.

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