Bass distortion has a very specific purpose on a bass guitar. While not common in genres like jazz that maintain a cleaner tone, it is ubiquitous in rock and heavier genres like metal. In fact, if you are in search of a bass tone like legendary bands Black Sabbath, Motörhead, and hard rock and roll hall of famers, you’re pretty much guaranteed to want to invest in a good distortion pedal.
If you’ve been looking for a bass distortion pedal, or if you’ve been researching the effect, you’ve come to the right place. This article will give you all the information that you need to make an informed decision as to which bass distortion pedal is right for your needs, as well as giving you five great recommendations for specific pedals.
- Bottom Line:A USA-made premium bass distortion pedal, built as a collab between MXR and Fuzzrocious Pedals. A switch lets you select either Silicon or LED clipping diodes, each having a different voicing. Separate WET/DRY knobs offer more precise control. This boutique pedal is perfect if you crave versatility.
- Bottom Line:Rugged, all-analog boutique pedal from Tech 21. Lots of control options available like a 3-band EQ, unique r.i.p. knob, drive control, and a low pass filter. The tonal options are staggering and this pedal encourages experimentation. This level of quality doesn’t come cheap, but it’s worth it.
- Bottom Line:It’s boutique, True Bypass, and crafted in Finland - the Darkglass B3K is a force to be reckoned with & a tweaker’s dream. The 3 knobs offer basic tonal options and the 2 toggle switches really make things interesting. If you demand the highest quality and can afford it, give the B3K a long look.
- Why Distort a Bass Guitar?
- Do I Need a Special Distortion Pedal for Bass? Can I Use a Regular Guitar Pedal?
- What Should I Look for in a Bass Distortion Pedal?
- How Did We Select the Best Bass Distortion Pedals?
- The Top 5 Bass Distortion Pedals
Why Distort a Bass Guitar?
There’s not a set rule on this, but bass distortion has a few different uses. For example, Flea from the Red Hot Chili Peppers used distortion very effectively on Around the World (you can hear it front and center during the first 25 seconds of the song).
The effect has also been used on tracks from bands like Ben Folds Five, Black Sabbath, and Motörhead.
The basic idea behind bass distortion is the same as electric guitar distortion. It doesn’t magically make you sound better (though the occasional mistake might be harder to discern if you use loads of distortion), but it does change the overall character of your sound. Distorting your bass guitar can make your tone sound bigger, meaner, or throatier. It can help you cut through for the occasional bass solo (as Flea often does), or you can fill in and carry the entire tune like Chris Wolstenholme does on the Muse song Time Is Running Out. Bass distortion is not just for hard rock or metal - you can play in genres that use a lot of distortion without distorting your bass and sound great, likewise you can fit in a distorted bass riff in a wide variety of genres. Just like any other effect it’s really all about your personal taste, what type of sound you are trying to achieve, and what sounds inspire you.
Do I Need a Special Distortion Pedal for Bass? Can I Use a Regular Guitar Pedal?
You definitely can use a guitar pedal to distort your bass, it just generally won’t sound very good. Guitar specific gear (whether that’s pedals or amplifiers) aren’t designed to handle the low end frequencies you get from a bass guitar. If you plug your bass into a pedal designed for a guitar odds are you’re going to lose the vast majority of your instruments definition. It might sound okay in your room or a small practice space, but as soon as you play at any sort of venue (whether that’s a coffee shop or a bar) you’re going to be basically inaudible.
What Should I Look for in a Bass Distortion Pedal?
Thankfully, living in the internet age makes it incredibly easy to find great gear. Generally anything that’s around the $50 mark or higher will be perfectly serviceable. Once you get to that price point it’s really all about personal taste. Kurt Cobain did use a Boss DS-1, which was both inexpensive and mass produced. You don’t have to break the bank to get a great sound.
How Did We Select the Best Bass Distortion Pedals?
As always, our pedals are chosen by both personal experience and research on the part of the author. We try to make sure that we find an option that’s applicable to everyone, which is why we recommend both high-end boutique equipment as well as cheaper options at the end of every article.
The Top 5 Bass Compressor Pedals
Hopefully this article helps you figure out which bass distortion pedal is the right fit for you, your setup, and your budget. If you feel anything else should be included on this list feel free to let us know in the comments section below!
Boss ODB-3 Bass Overdrive
BOSS pedals have always been known for one thing, and that’s their reliability. You would be hard pressed to find any piece of gear that will hold up to the rigors of performance as well as a BOSS pedal, making it the perfect option for the gigging musician. The Boss ODB-3 is a no-frills bass overdrive pedal that’s reliable and sounds great.
From left to right, it features a LEVEL knob which sets the effect’s volume, a 2-band EQ in a neat little 2-in-1 knob configuration (which helps you combat the loss of low end frequency that plagues many distortion pedals), a BALANCE knob which is essentially wet/dry, and a GAIN control to set how much overall distortion you want.
It comes in the standard indestructible BOSS stompbox enclosure we all know and love, and just like any other BOSS pedal the ODB-3 will compare well against just about any pedal on the market when it comes to sound. Quality, simplicity, reliability, and bass distortion for days - it’s all here.
MXR M85 Bass Distortion
The MXR M85 Bass Distortion pedal is a great option for the bass player who wants more control and versatility in their gear. What’s cool about this pedal is that it’s a collaboration between MXR and Ryan Ratajski of Fuzzrocious pedals (known for their dirt pedals). The M85’s coolest feature is a switch in the middle which lets you select between LED or silicon diodes, with the LED diodes offering a smooth and open sound while the silicon diodes offer more aggressive and biting tones.
Unlike the Boss ODB-3, the WET and DRY controls are separate on the M85, for added versatility. The TONE control only affects the distorted bass signal, so you can dial in the perfect amount of crunch or distortion without sacrificing your precious bottom-end. The knobs are nice and large and easy to see and adjust, which is a plus when you’re doing a show with harsh lighting conditions.
While the Boss ODB-3 is more straightforward, the MXR M85 is a little more customizable and selecting between Silicon and LED clipping diodes gives it two pretty distinct characters. To sweeten the deal further, this pedal is made in the USA and is True Bypass.
Electro-Harmonix Bass Soul Food Distortion Pedal
A companion to the incredibly well received Electro-Harmonix Soul Food, the Electro-Harmonix Bass Soul Food Distortion is a great option for the bassist on the hunt for a smooth and versatile overdrive.
This New York City-built pedal has four easy-to-use knobs to control the effect’s volume, dial in the amount of overdrive, BLEND between wet/dry, and a TREBLE knob that only affects the overdriven signal. As an added bonus, the pedal also has a switchable -10dB pad for bassists with higher output instruments (e.g. active pickups). An internal selector lets you choose between Buffered or True Bypass.
From Geddy Lee to Muse, the no-nonsense Electro-Harmonix Bass Soul Food will let you dial in your perfect bass distortion tone, all for under $100.
Tech 21 RIP Red Ripper Bass Distortion Pedal
The Tech 21 RIP Red Ripper Bass Distortion Pedal is a great fit for any bassist who won’t compromise on his/her tone. The all analog construction ensures that your instrument retains its signature sound, and the solid metal housing ensures that the pedal won’t let you down when you need it the most.
With the r.i.p. knob all the way down and the drive knob halfway up, you can achieve a pretty basic, classic, and warm distortion tone. Crank the drive up and things get quite a bit more gnarly. Turning the r.i.p. knob up functions as a sort of compression, and eventually you’ll be getting an almost synth-like sound. The 3-band EQ is the icing on the cake, and really lets you sculpt your tone to perfection.
It’s a little on the pricey side, but such is the cost of this level of build quality and all-analog circuitry. If you can afford it, it’s absolutely worth it.
Darkglass Electronics B3K CMOS Bass Overdrive
The Darkglass Electronics B3K CMOS Bass Overdrive is tweaker’s dream. If you love sculpting your sound you are going to love this pedal. The pedal allows you to tweak every facet of your instrument’s tone, which will guarantee you’re always able to dial in your perfect distortion.
The knobs should be familiar if you’ve been looking at dirt boxes - LEVEL is the volume of the pedal, DRIVE is the amount of overdrive, and BLEND is the mix of clean tone and drive. There are also two toggle switches, ATTACK and GRUNT, which let you add more attack and bass to your tone.
This reviewer sums up the versatility of the B3K:
“It can be used as a small overdrive to warm up your tone, boost your signal. It works as a overdrive/small distortion to pump up the low end, or it can work as a heavy distortion or even fuzz for the dirtiest of sounds. But it will never lose the low end-natural sound of the bass.”
This is a boutique pedal through and through, True Bypass, and is made in Finland. Be aware that it does not take batteries, and the power adapter plugs in on the same side as the input jack, which is a bit peculiar. It’s the priciest of the best bass distortion pedals on our list, but such is the cost of having this level of build quality and tonal versatility.
If you’re still not convinced, check out this excellent bass guitar cover of Muse’s Hysteria with no other effects pedals in use aside from the Darkglass Electronics Microtubes B3K:
(If you own this pedal and want to replicate this tone, the author recalls the BLEND and LEVEL knobs at 12 o’clock, the DRIVE between 2-3 o’clock, and both toggle switches in the up position)