Distortion is an essential effect for rock and metal. 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.
- Choosing The Best Distortion Pedal For You
- The Difference Between Distortion and Overdrive
- What to Look For
- 8 Best Distortion Pedals
In this guide we cover some of the best distortion pedals for guitarists.
|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 easily modify it 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|
|KHDK Electronics Dark Blood||This signature pedal from Metallica's Kirk Hammett features amazing high gain metal tones and an ingredibly useful built in noise gate.||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|
|Revv G3||Revv's G3 delivers crushing tones no matter what aggression mode you are in that scream metal being modelling after Revv's marvelous amps.||Amazon|
|Walrus Audio Iron Horse V2||Walrus Audio's Iron Horse V2 gives you a premium boutique distortion pedal that is based on the Rat's LM308 chip with 3 compression options.||Amazon|
|TC Electronic Dark Matter||TC's Dark Matter is amazingly versatile distortion that retains character at a great price point.||Amazon|
Choosing The Best Distortion Pedal For You
The fist step in choosing a distortion pedal is to consider what style of music you want to play. Because distortion is broad term spanning from moderate overdrive all the way to brutally heavy tones, it is important to make sure your pedal is suited to your playing style or genre you like.
We love all the pedals in this list, and while they are all distortion pedals, some are suited for classic rock distortion while some are capable of heavy death metal tones. Long story short, know how you will use the pedal.
The Difference Between Distortion and Overdrive
Distortion produces more gain than overdrive. Distortion saturates to a degree such that it significantly alters the original signal, while overdrive attempts to add character while retaining transparency by replicating a tube amplifier being driven past its signal-handling capabilities.
Overdrive results in subtle breakup of a signal by adding sustain and minor gain.
Distortion adds more compression and sustain resulting in saturation.
What to Look For in Distortion: Tone, Quality, Versatility, and Cost
Tone: How much you like the sound of that particular pedal. Side by side, listen to its tone compared to another pedal. Weigh the sounds against another. While doing this, remember there are other variables in your signal chain. Notably your guitar, amp, room, and a plethora of other factors can affect your tone.
When comparing tone, you may want to take some time in between trying the pedals to take a break and revisit your options before you commit. 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.
Quality: 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? How about the build quality and materials?
Versatility: Consider the possible tonal variety one can achieve with the pedal. Maybe you need a distortion pedal well-suited for solely metal. Maybe you need a single versatile pedal to handle anything from overdrive to heavy gain. 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: We 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.
Top Distortion Pedals
Pro Co RAT2 Distortion Pedal
The Pro Co RAT2 has always held a pretty special place in guitarists' hearts. It’s essentially half fuzz and half distortion, offering a really interesting mix between the two. 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.
This pedal is spartan, extremely easy to dial in, and built like a tank. You get 3 control knobs - DISTORTION, FILTER, and VOLUME - and a footswitch. Be aware it does not include a power supply.
Thick aggressive tones is where this pedal truly shines. We love it because of its versatility. Used sparingly, this pedal can function as an overdrive. Dial up the distortion, and you've got capable distortion that set the standard for heavy metal in the 1980s. Roll on the filter while paring back the distortion and you have a killer overdriven tone that rivals a tubescreamer.
It lacks the granular controls of some of the other options on this list, but whether for hard rock, metal, or smoother/warmer blues soloing needs, the RAT2 can dial it in perfectly making the RAT series from Pro Co modern classics. It has been used by hugely influential guitarists like David Gilmour, James Hetfield, Dave Grohl, and a slew of other monumental artists.
Bottom Line: The RAT2 is a classic that delivers overdrive, distortion, and fuzz in one box. The sweet spot for this pedal is a thick and saturated distorted tone.
Boss DS-1 Distortion Pedal
The Boss DS-1 is the most popular distortion pedal on the planet. Introduced in 1978, the little orange box is the first distortion pedal Boss made.
The controls on the DS-1 are simple. It has TONE, LEVEL, and DISTORTION.
This pedal is a relatively bright sounding distortion. It can do crunch to hard rock really well. Boss even suggests eight sample settings in the user manual for a great way to get to some good tones for specific genres.
The way this pedal cuts through a mix is pure rock and roll perfection. Our favorite application for this pedal is rock and roll, plain and simple. Kurt Cobain, Steve Vai, and Joe Satriani are among the long list of well documented DS-1 users.
Bottom Line: The DS-1 has a great classic rock distortion tone. It is extremely affordable, and because of the legendary Boss quality, it will last you a lifetime.
MXR M75 Super Badass Distortion
The MXR M75 Super Badass Distortion is one of the best sounding distortion pedals MXR has made. The distortion has an incredible range, it's easy to dial in, and it's an outrageous value for the money.
The 3 EQ knobs are its marquee feature. They allow you to sculpt your tone no matter what guitars, amps, or other pedals you're using.
And that's where our dilemma with the M75 is. If you wanted ONE pedal to cover all your dirt needs, this would be hard to beat, especially given the price. It does clean boost -> gentle breakup -> hard rock distortion -> metal.
It's not our favorite sounding in any single category, but it can handle them all extremely well. If you are limited to a single drive pedal or want to put together a minimal pedalboard, this is a great option.
The knobs are super simple: OUTPUT knob controls the volume, DISTORTION knob does the heavy lifting. The 3 EQ knobs - BASS, MID, and TREBLE - serve to sculpt your tone. The pedal features True Bypass and is a rugged and attractive little thing with a metallic silver finish.
With the distortion set all the way down, the M75 is a serviceable little clean boost. As you dial up the distortion you approach a nice crunchy overdrive, and with the knob cranked all the way and the mids cut back you'll achieve a modern metal tone.
Bottom Line: True to its name, the MXR M75 truly is a badass pedal with an incredible range. The 3-band EQ on it really seals the deal. If you want a dirt box that can pretty much do it all, or you frequently switch pickup types and amps you'll really value the tone-sculpting options the M75's EQ gives you.
KHDK Electronics Dark Blood
The KHDK Electronics Dark Blood is one of Metallica's Kirk Hammett's signature pedals. The company was co-founded by Kirk Hammett (KH) and David Karon (DK) in 2012. If you're interested, you can read more of the company's story here.
The pedal feels and looks great in hand (We tested the Limited Edition in Candy Apple Red). The knob controls are GAIN, VOLUME, DOOM (The pre-distortion EQ that controls low-end), and TREBLE. The knobs are chicken head style so they are easy to read and adjusting them is smooth as silk. There is also a Hi/Lo selector switch for compression and sustain and a subtle GATE knob which controls noise reduction.
While the pedal can hold it's own with high gain treble leads, the real surprise was how good the low-end tones sounded when you turn the Doom knob past twelve o'clock. The pedal sounds remarkably full and impressive. We tip our hats to chief engineer of KHDK Antonin Salva, who has done an amazing job with the EQ of this pedal. Having said that, it doesn't sound terrific at low gain levels, but as Kirk said, this was designed to be, "...the ultimate pedal for gain freaks."
In addition to the magical "Doom" knob, the other aspect that really sets this pedal apart is the onboard noise gate. With a simple twist of the knob, you can eliminate unwanted feedback completely. We were really impressed how well the noise gate worked at cutting feedback, even with noisy single coils. The ideal gate level varied quite a bit across the guitars we tested this pedal with, but having the ability to adjust the signal definitely added a useful capability to this pedal.
Bottom Line: This made in Kentucky pedal delivers terrific metal tones for both soloing and rhythm playing due to it's impressive EQ and built-in noise gate.
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 is very good.
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: 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.
Canadian Amplifier wizards Revv have made the G3 and G4 distortion pedals so that you can obtain serious metal riffs. Much like the Wampler Dracarys, this pedal isn't for you if you like your distortion close to overdrive on the sonic spectrum, but for killer metal tones we couldn't recommend this pedal more.
Revv historically makes boutique amps, and that pedal is voiced based on their premium amp models. The pedal sounds great and has a Revv Generator 120 voicing, giving it a tight but full heavy tone. It has three toggle switch selectable "agression modes" with a 3 band EQ, volume, and gain controls.
Bottom Line: The G3 is built like a tank, with a one year warranty should anything go wrong. It is a single space aluminium enclosure with top mounted jacks that runs on standard 9v power.
Walrus Iron Horse V2
The Iron Horse is a beast ready to be unleashed. Just as the cool artwork would make you think first looking at this pedal, it is rough and rowdy. The sound is fat and full, but it also sounds great at low gain levels.
The Iron Horse gives you three control knobs; LEVEL, TONE, and DISTORTION. Additionally, there is a Compression toggle between a low compressed clipping, high compression, or a wide open tonal shape.
The Iron Horse is built around the famous LM308 chip. It is considered one of the Holy Grail op-amps by tone chasers because it was used in the orginal Pro Co RAT pedals until 1995. While not a purpose built guitar chip, it has rightfully gained a following by producing a unique chewy sound (Think Blur's Song 2). Current RAT incarnations that are manufactured in China still sound terrific, but for people specifically looking for the original vintage op-amp sound coupled with American craftsmanship we love the Iron Horse V2.
The Iron Horse gets you that classic distortion sound and gives you more compression options and control. By adding a three mode toggle switch that selects different diodes Walrus has essentially taken a classic distortion and improved the dynamic range.
Bottom Line: This distortion delivers classic tones from the iconic LM308 chip while adding more tone shaping controls.
TC Electronic Dark Matter
TC Electronic's Dark Matter keeps distortion transparent to allow expression in your playing. This drive is for people interested in the tone you get from cranked tube amps on the verge of blowing, and less for people interested in creating chugging metal riffs. That's not to say this pedal doesn't get raw, but it is a less compressed tone focused on nuances.
The tone controls give you the ability to cut both treble and bass frequencies so you can dial in the right sound. Aside from that, the pedal keeps it simple with a gain knob and level knob, so operation is easy. The voicing toggle switch lets you choose between vintage (an emphasis on lower-mids) and modern (an emphasis on higher-mids) sounds. For the price, the versatility of the Dark Matter can't be beat.