Distortion and the electric guitar go together like eggs and bacon. Distortion is an essential effect for rock 'n' roll and metal genres. Unlike an overdrive pedal which is more of a break-up or push into distortion, a proper distortion pedal starts out pretty big, and goes even bigger. Feed a distortion pedal into the clean channel of your amp and it turns into a beast.
In this guide we cover some of the most coveted and popular options to introduce distortion into your signal chain.
|Image||Guitar Pedal||Summary||Check Price|
|Pro Co RAT2 Distortion Pedal||It's amazing that such a versatile, popular pedal comes in at well under $100. The distortion the RAT2 provides spans from smooth/warm blues tones to all-out metal. Best of the Best.||Amazon|
|Boss DS1 Distortion Pedal||A classic distortion, well-loved for its budget price-point, unique distortion tone, and Boss reliability and quality. A very capable pedal to start with, and you can modify the thing to make it even better.||Amazon|
|MXR M75 Super Badass Distortion||Truly badass distortion pedal with an incredible range, from boost to overdrive to full-on distortion. Incredibly useful and responsive EQ knobs are a game changer. Unbelievable value.||Amazon|
|Boss DS-2 Turbo Distortion||Big brother to the Boss DS1, and addresses some of its shortcomings by providing a thicker, warmer distortion, due in large part to the two Turbo settings. If you love a classic or grunge rock crunch and have more than $50 to spend, you’ll want to take a close look at the DS-2.||Amazon|
|Wampler Dracarys||If modern high gain distortion is the name of your game, we have yet to find one we like more than this huge-yet-articulate sounding boutique pedal.||Amazon|
Choosing a Distortion Guitar Pedal
If you line up a dozen distortion pedals side by side and listen to them all, it would be like tasting red wines or smelling perfumes; your senses would quickly fatigue, and the tones all blend together. Distortion is not a clean effect - it's messy and compressed, so unless you are comparing a metal tone cranked up all the way with the mids scooped against a dialed down rock tone, it can be hard to determine differences.
In this guide, we present to you some great can't go wrong choices for distortion pedals, and make sure to highlight if a certain pedal is better suited to a certain playing style or genre. As you read through our reviews you'll understand what makes each pedal special.
Of course another 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. Live shows (and YouTube videos for that matter) 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. 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. We wish we 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 present a wide range of price points, but what we hope you take away is that you don't have to break the bank to have an extremely good distortion pedal on your pedalboard.
The Top 5 Distortion Pedals
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.
MXR M75 Super Badass Distortion
In our opinion the MXR M75 Super Badass Distortion is one of the best sounding distortion pedals MXR has put out. This thing is crazy versatile, easy to use, and is an outrageous value for the money.
What stands out with the M75 is just how versatile it is. We love collecting and rearranging stompboxes as much as anyone, but if you were to just want one pedal to cover all your dirt needs, this would be hard to beat. There are plenty other versatile distortion pedals out there, but few are going to be priced this well and be this simple to dial in.
Unsurprisingly the DISTORTION knob does the heavy lifting, but the three EQ knobs - BASS MID and TREBLE - let you have endless tone shaping possibilities. With the distortion set all the way down, the M75 is a neat little clean boost with just a little bite. As you dial up the distortion you approach a nice crunchy overdrive, and with the knob cranked all the way and a little EQing you'll be in modern metal territory.
At any distortion level remember that you can (and should) play with the EQ settings to sculpt your sound, that way you can tame any harshness in the mid or highs, emphasize or remove bass (there's plenty of it on tap), or make it stand out in the mix.
Bottom Line: This pedal shines on its own, but it's no slouch when stacked. We put a Tube Screamer in front of it and it was a force to be reckoned with. True to its name, the MXR M75 truly is a super badass pedal with an incredible range for all your distortion needs.
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.
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.
Wampler Dracarys Distortion
It would be remiss of us to not include our favorite high gain distortion pedal. We tried many, and we can confidently say the Wampler Dracarys Distortion came out on top.
The Dracarys is a boutique, true bypass pedal made in the USA by Brian Wampler and company, and was inspired by the playing style of Swedish guitarist Ola Englund.
This thing is a monster (or a dragon, as it were). Forget about "transparent" drive pedals, the Dracarys will absolutely decimate a clean channel with huge distortion. The controls are familiar - three EQ knobs (BASS MID TREBLE), a VOLUME knob, and GAIN knob. The toggle switch in the middle lets you go between Open and Tight (less and more compression, respectively).
If you back off the gain, you can absolutely get modern rock tones out of the Dracarys. Still, we would strongly recommend it for people who tend to play heavier genres. This pedal will chug and djent beautifully, sounding huge yet still very articulate.
Bottom Line: Much more than a fancy Metal Zone, this is one of the finest high gain distortion pedals we've had the pleasure to test. It's super easy to dial in and the EQ controls are very useful. For sweet sounding modern, high gain distortion, we wholeheartedly recommend trying out the Wampler Dracarys.