- Choosing a Distortion Guitar Pedal
- What to Look For
- 5 Best Distortion Pedals under $80
Choosing a Distortion Guitar Pedal
The easiest way to start shopping for a distortion pedal is to look at people you want to sound like. Let's be honest here; you don't need to reinvent how guitar is played, or find that pedal that no one else uses and have a truly unique sound. Instead of trying to go to the moon by yourself, look at other people that go to the moon. What do they use? If you want to sound like Dinosaur Jr, then look at what they use. As you look at pedals, remember these words: Do Not Follow The Hype. There is good hype, and there is bad hype; and they are often hard to discern. Instead, take people's opinions for what they are, opinions and not fact. You need to make your own choices. Just because that punk asshole thinks that the Pro Co RAT is the only distortion worth playing through his Krank, doesn't mean you have to follow suit. But when that ProCo RAT is on stage, pay attention. Live shows are your tone school, and you can learn the most by listening to someone's tone before they press a pedal, and the change once they have pressed the pedal. Take that with you.
What to Look For: Tone, Quality, Versatility, and Cost
A question that can define a career, or be a waste of hundreds of dollars. A factor that can switch people into your music, or switch them off. Too little distortion and you can sound weak, and too much distortion and you can sound worse. Hopefully, we can guide you through and help you make an informed decision.
Tone: This is totally qualitative. Take some time, search on YouTube for demos of basically any pedal, and note how much you like the sound of that particular pedal. Side by side, listen to another pedal. Weigh the sounds against another. While doing this, remember there are other variables. Guitar / amp / room / mic / speakers / cab / hands / etc. I wish I could tell you that this is the only factor, and all else pales in comparison, but that just isn't true. You need to consider these other factors.
Quality: This is much easier to discern. Try to look up the reputations of each pedal. Have people had issues with the builds? Are there possible oversights that the manufacturer has made? Is it true bypass or buffered? Are the knobs cheap plastic or aluminum? Is there no art on the pedal, or is it hand painted by an artist? Do you care?
Versatility: While watching demos, note the possible tonal variety one can achieve with the pedal. Maybe you need a pedal well-suited for metal. Maybe the three knobs on a RAT aren't enough to sculpt what you need. Consider the pedal for the type of music you (and/or your band) like to play.
Cost: The last variable, but often the deciding factor. In this guide, we try to focus on distortion pedals under $80, which we feel like is a price point that won't break the bank, yet will allow you to purchase a distortion pedal that you'd be happy with for a very long time to come.
The Top 5 Distortion Pedals under $80
Now that you're armed with some information, it's time to make a decision. We researched high and low, watched video reviews, talked to pedal owners, and consulted communities like forums, reddit, and Equipboard's own to come up with this list. Here we present to you the five best distortion pedals in the $35-80 price range.
Pro Co RAT2 Distortion Pedal
The Pro Co RAT2 has always held a pretty special place in guitarists' hearts. It’s kind of an odd pedal in all honesty, which is probably why people like it so much.
It’s half fuzz and half distortion, offering a really interesting mix between the two that you just won’t be able to find in any other pedal in the market. We’ve also found that the Pro Co RAT2 does a great job of nailing that “kind of clean and kind of not” stage of distortion, making it a great option for those of you who wish to employ a more subtle drive.
To cover the basics, this pedal is spartan, extremely easy to dial in, and the thing is built like a tank. Seriously, it looks like it could get crushed under a car tire and survive just fine. You get 3 knobs - Distortion, Filter, and Volume - and a footswitch. It’s hard to get more basic than that.
Tone-wise is where this pedal truly shines. Users love it because of its versatility. Whether for hard rock, metal, or smoother/warmer blues soloing needs, the RAT2 can dial it in perfectly. It absolutely does it all and carries with it a relatively affordable price tag, hence why it has made appearances on Alex Turner’s board (of Arctic Monkeys fame), Graham Coxon of Blur, and many, many more. When you plug it in, you'll understand why it gets so many glowing reviews.
Note: Be aware it does not include a power supply. Also, the Pro Co RAT2 requires a power supply that looks like a headphone jack, so you can't use the Visual Sound 1 SPOT chain power supplies on this baby. You’ll need to pick up this converter.
Boss DS-1 Distortion Pedal
The Boss DS-1 is a classic, and for good reason. Sure it has kind of a minimalist design, and sure it’s the same color as a traffic cone (who thought that was a good idea?), but it’s got a great tone. Furthermore, it is extremely affordable, and because of the legendary Boss “built like a tank” quality, it will last you a lifetime.
Let’s talk about the sound. For better or for worse, users of the DS1 say it brightens the sound of their amp. Most users seem to like this sound coloration, since it makes the distortion distinctive from any other generic distortion pedal. On the down side, this pedal’s tone has been described by some as thin, buzzy, or metallic. If your guitar amp’s tone is on the darker side to being with, the brightening effect the DS1 has might actually be desirable! In our research we found the Tone control to be heavy on treble, so for a warm, saturated, thick distortion sound, you might want to back off of the Tone knob (keep it at 7 o’clock or under).
As with several other Boss pedals, another reason the Boss DS1 is highly sought after is because of how modifiable it is. Since the DS1 will run you just under $50, with the cash you have left over you can choose to send it in for some mods. One of the more popular mods is the Keeley “DS-Ultra” Mod, which promises to raise the volume and push the pedal a bit more, leading to a more saturated Marshall Distortion-like tone.
Sure, it’s a bit metallic at times, but the way this pedal cuts through a mix is pure rock and roll perfection - hard to do better for the price.
Joyo JF-02 Ultimate Overdrive Pedal
Joyo has found quite the sweet spot amongst the hundreds of pedal manufacturers out there. They essentially make inexpensive “copies” of nearly every type of pedal out there, and they do a very good job with this. The Joyo JF-02 Ultimate Overdrive Pedal is widely regarded as one of the best creations from Joyo, with the ability to accurately emulate the sound of the far more pricey Fulltone OCD Obsessive Compulsive Drive Overdrive boutique guitar pedal.
Users widely agree you practically get a Fulltone OCD… for about $100 less! This pedal is quite versatile, with tones spanning from light distortion to metal. What’s amazing about the Joyo JF-02 is that for its low, low price, you’re not actually sacrificing all that much! The construction quality is top notch, and users report little to no unwanted noise/hiss/coloring of your signal. If there is one gripe, it’s that the Joyo Ultimate Overdrive is perhaps not best suited for all-out metal tones… unless you are running into your amp’s already decent sounding overdrive channel. The chief complaint is that if you run it into a clean channel, the Joyo doesn’t saturate the tone enough for “melt your face” metal type distortion.
Still, considering you’re getting a faithful reproduction of a Fulltone OCD, A+ build quality, and the versatility of much more expensive distortion pedals, it’s hard to fault the Joyo. Truly an amazing value, and almost a no-brainer for your first distortion pedal. With a whopping 270+ positive reviews, the Joyo's Ultimate Drive has earned a place on many guitarists' pedalboards.
Boss DS-2 Turbo Distortion Pedal
The second Boss distortion pedal we highly recommend for the budget-minded buyer is the Boss DS2 Turbo Distortion, which can be thought of as the big brother of the Boss DS1. Where the DS1 carries some user complaints about the sound being overly bright and a bit thin, the DS2 seems to have fixed all that (and as a result comes at a bit of a more premium price).
Its stand-out feature is arguably “Turbo Mode,” which in setting I offers a smoother, more mellow distortion, and in setting II ups the power level and boosts the mid frequencies to stand out more in the mix. If your guitar is equipped with humbuckers, the turbo setting will give you some truly nasty, thick, sustained lead tones.
Like the Joyo Ultimate Overdrive, the Boss DS2 might not be the best for full-on metal tones. With the DS2, think more alternative rock / classic rock / modern rock / grunge / crunch - that’s where it excels. And this goes without saying, but being a Boss pedal, you probably couldn’t destroy the thing even if you tried! Your investment will stand the test of time.
Keep an eye out for price drops on this one, as it tends to run about $28 more than its DS1 little brother.
Electro-Harmonix Soul Food Distortion Pedal
The Electro-Harmonix Soul Food is quite a special pedal. First, you should know that it’s EHX’s take on the Klon Centaur Professional Overdrive, a legendary (and expensive) pedal sought after by tone snobs on eBay and high end vintage guitar shops. By most accounts - and blind listening tests - Electro-Harmonix did a fantastic job recreating the Klon’s capabilities.
Aside comparisons to the Klon, the EXH Soul Food is a great distortion/overdrive pedal in its own right. It’s rare when a pedal manufacturer hits the nail on the head and makes a fantastic sounding pedal loved by guitarists for well under $100.
If you’re here looking for distortion well suited to metal, the Soul Food might not be your best bet. It shines for warmer, more subtle, bluesy type distortion, as well as a quality clean boost/low gain overdrive.
It’s inexpensive, it’s effective, and you can rest easy that the fine folks at Electro-Harmonix are behind it. For all levels of players looking for a fantastic pedal for their distortion and overdrive needs, the EXH Soul Food delivers.
Note: Includes a power supply.