If the advent of overdrive allowed guitar players to explore a new, grittier sonic territory, then the invention of the distortion pedal sent them into the stratosphere. Today, the distortion pedal is ubiquitous in virtually every style of hard rock and metal, and many of the world’s most famous guitar players rely on a handful of different distortion effects to craft their signature sound.

Distortion is arguably the most popular effect in any guitarist’s pedalboard, so it’s no surprise that every major pedal manufacturer produces a handful of different distortion pedals. This makes it much harder to narrow down the best pedal for your sound.

Fear not, today we’re going to cover everything you’ll need to know about distortion pedals. We’ll also cover some of the best pedals that are available today to help you make your pedal decisions a bit easier.

What is the Best Distortion Pedal?

What exactly is a distortion pedal and what does it do?

Distortion stompboxes belong to a family of pedals we call gain effects. This family includes overdrive, distortion, and fuzz. While it’s easy to pin down what a fuzz pedal is and what it does, separating overdrive and distortion is a bit more difficult, and there’s plenty of overlap between these two kinds of effects.

While overdrive is designed to mirror the sound of a tube amp driven to its farthest point, distortion takes it a step further. If an overdrive pedal is the sound of a classic tube amp on 11, then distortion is the sound of that same amp turned up to 21.

Distortion pedals allow players to capture the modern high-gain sounds of hard rock and metal, and they’re required equipment for any player that likes to dabble in those worlds.

Most pedals provide a knob that allows you to adjust the level of distortion in the circuit, and then several other knobs to shape the tone of your guitar. Many pedals offer comprehensive EQ and presence controls, which are critical to crafting a modern high-gain distortion sound.

One of the major benefits of a distortion pedal is that it allows you to capture tones similar to those produced by high gain metal amps that usually carry price tags that are way north of $1000. A distortion pedal turns any amp into a snarling, metal monster, so they’re a great choice for players who need a great sounding distorted channel, but are unwilling to drop thousands on a new amp.

What makes a great distortion pedal?

While it may be hard to pick a pedal with so many different options on the market, nailing down the factors that make a good pedal is much easier. When you’re shopping for a distortion pedal, these are the things you should evaluate to decide which pedal is best for you.

  1. Rich and harmonic high gain tone
  2. Dedicated tone shaping controls
  3. Heavy duty build quality
  4. True bypass construction

Rich and Harmonic High Gain Tone

Hands down the most important factor to consider when you’re evaluating different pedals is the tone it produces. A good distortion pedal will accurately replicate the sound of an expensive tube amp designed for hard rock and heavy metal.

While that sounds easy enough on paper, it’s actually exceptionally difficult. The vast majority of distortion pedals fall short when it comes to delivering a convincing tone, and it’s easy to see why.

High-quality, high gain amps are the product of years of engineering and refinement, and they’re usually driven by a concert of expensive tubes and other components. Replicating that tone in a stompbox without the help of tubes is extremely difficult. The result is usually a pedal that sounds artificial, muddy, or overly processed.

But, that doesn’t mean you can’t capture that beautiful high gain tone that the top tube amps are famous for. There are plenty of pedals that manage to deliver accurate, rich, and harmonic distorted tones. In fact, with so many distortion pedals failing to deliver this kind of tone, it makes it much easier to weed out the mediocre pedals from the best ones on the market.

Dedicated Tone Shaping Controls

When it comes to distortion pedals, the tone shaping controls are what allow you to dial in a signature tone that provides warmth and power, while still cutting through the whole band.

Some distortion pedals rely on a tone knob to provide all of their tone shaping capabilities, and while there are a few pedals that manage to capture a broad scope of tonal shaping with this single knob, it’s usually not enough to effectively shape the tone to your liking.

Instead, look for pedals that offer a 3-band EQ, or at least controls for treble and bass. This consideration becomes especially crucial if you’re playing through a small amp, especially if the amp has a closed back.

Some pedals allow you to further control your tone through the addition of voicing modes, or switches which will cut or boost certain frequencies in your sound. While these additions aren’t practical requirements, they can dramatically increase the amount of tones you can capture with your distortion pedal.

With smaller amps, it becomes difficult or impossible for the speaker to produce lower frequencies accurately, and the result is a “woof” sound that’s not pleasing, and also dangerous for your speaker.

Being able to shape the tone in a way where your amp can accurately process the frequencies is critical to your tone, so pay extra attention to pedals with comprehensive EQ shaping options, especially if you’re playing with a smaller amp.

Heavy-Duty Build Quality

How well the pedal is built is another crucial concern you’ll want to consider, especially if you’re regularly moving your gear for practices and shows.

A distortion pedal is often the most used pedal in a guitarist’s arsenal, so it’s important that they’re built to last. After all, they’re called stompboxes for a reason; they get stomped on!

Most pedal manufacturers build their pedals with this in mind, and they take special care ensuring that their pedals are going to be able to stand tall against whatever you dish out.

Look for pedals that feature a metal case, and have some weight in your hand. When you find a pedal you like, take some time to read the reviews for the pedal to note if there are any concerns with durability or build quality.

Once you find the best pedal for you, you’re going to put it through years of use and abuse, so make sure the pedal you choose is going to provide the durability and reliability you need.

True Bypass Construction

The more pedals in your arsenal, the more crucial true bypass wiring becomes.

The concept is easy enough to understand: pedals with true bypass construction completely bypass the pedal’s circuitry when the pedal isn’t on. This ensures that the tone from your guitar is what makes it to your amp, without any degradation or color added by the other pedals.

Pedals without true bypass construction use a buffer to send your signal into the effects processor. The buffer functions as a pre-amp and helps the pedal produce the effect you’re after. The issue is that buffers affect your tone, even when they aren’t on.

So, if you’re looking for the best possible tone from your rig, you’ll want to opt for pedals that feature true bypass construction. With effects like reverb, or delay, true bypass is less critical, and you can run those effects through the effects loop on your amp.

But, other effects, like distortion or overdrive can affect your overall tone when they aren’t engaged if they don’t employ true bypass construction, so you’ll want to look towards true bypass models to ensure that your pedals aren’t adding unwanted color to your tone.

Distortion Pedal Reviews – Our Top 5 Recommendations

Bogner Uberschall Distortion Pedal

Best Overall

What Makes It Special?

The Bogner Uberschall helped to revolutionize the sound of hard rock and metal when it was released in 2001, and Bogner has now made that same signature high gain tone available in a stompbox. With dedicated EQ controls and footswitchable boost, the Ubershall is unquestionably one of the most impressive distortions on the market.

  • 3-band EQ
  • Footswitchable boost
  • True bypass construction
  • Ultra high-end components

The Uberschall distortion offers seemingly endless ability to shape your high gain tones to your heart’s content. This pedal includes several features that separate it from the rest of the pack, including a footswitchable boost circuit, and high-end components unseen on other distortions, even ones with a similarly high price point.

This distortion features true bypass construction, double-sided gold plated circuit boards, and capacitors and relays made by some of the most respected manufacturers in the business. While this pedal is expensive, it’s going to be virtually impossible to find a pedal that’s built as well or sounds as good, as the Bogner Uberschall.

What Customers Like

  • Faithfully captures the sound of the famous Bogner Uberschall amplifier
  • Incredibly sensitive 3-band EQ for precision tone shaping
  • Unbeatable build quality

What Customers Dislike

  • High priced
  • May be too large for cramped pedalboards

MXR M75 Super Badass Distortion

Best For the Price

What Makes It Special?

MXR is world-renowned for their high-quality stompboxes, and their Super Badass Distortion is one of the most excellent examples of their dedication to tone and quality. This pedal features a 3-band EQ, it’s built like a tank, and its small size makes it ideal for smaller pedalboards.

  • Dedicated EQ controls
  • True bypass construction
  • Highly responsive gain control
  • Nano pedal housing is perfectly sized for pedalboards

One of the areas where the MXR Super Badass Distortion succeeds is that it provides an impressive range of tones. While some distortion pedals are balls-to-the-wall at all times, the M75 allows you to dial in tones ranging from subtle overdrive to a menacing distortion with the turn of a single knob.

A dedicated 3-band EQ allows you to further shape your tone in ways that other pedals fall flat. Other features such as true bypass construction and built-to-last construction help separate this pedal from the pack. Best of all, it comes in at a modest price point, making it ideal for players who need high-end distortion but are unwilling to shell out $150+ on a stompbox.

What Customers Like

  • Captures a wide range of tones
  • 3-band EQ allows you to dial in a signature tone
  • Built to last

What Customers Dislike

  • Can be a bit noisy
  • Some sounds are muddy or digital sounding

Boss DS-1 Distortion Pedal

What Makes It Special?

This is the one that started at all. The Boss DS-1 is one of the first, and most popular distortion pedals ever made. This pedal provides intuitive and straightforward controls and industry-leading build quality, which make it perfect for players who need a pedal to stand up to the rigors of the road.

  • Tone control for shaping EQ
  • Battery or AC power
  • Built like a tank
  • Level and distortion controls for further tone shaping

The DS-1 is an industry standard for a reason. This pedal is easy to use, it provides a reasonably wide range of tones, and it’s built to stand up to anything you can dish out. Add to that the fact that it’s one of the most affordable distortion pedals on the market, and it’s no wonder why the DS-1 has been the most popular distortion for so long.

While this pedal doesn’t offer a 3-band EQ, the tone control does a surprisingly good job at allowing you to tailor your tones, and the distortion control enables you to dial in any sound from light overdrive to balls-out distortion. It may not be as pretty or as customizable as other pedals, but its status as the most popular distortion on the market is unimpeachable.

What Customers Like

  • Easy to use
  • Built to last
  • Runs on battery or AC power

What Customers Dislike

  • Not true bypass
  • Doesn’t deliver high-gain metal tones

TC Electronic Dark Matter Distortion

Best for Beginners & Students

What Makes It Special?

The Dark Matter Distortion provides an impressive array of features that’s unseen in other pedals around the same price point. With dedicated tone shaping controls and an exceptionally sensitive drive control, beginners and students will be able to unlock a broad range of high-gain tones from this pint-sized stomp.

  • Dedicated bass and treble controls
  • True bypass switching
  • Voice control provides two distinct voicing modes
  • Battery or AC power

For beginners, it’s essential they have a pedal that achieves the tones they’re after without having to invest hundreds into a new pedal. The Dark Matter Distortion from TC Electronics delivers in spades and proves that you can unlock boutique quality tones in a pedal that costs well under $100.

This pedal is perfectly sized for pedalboards or packing up in a gig bag, and it runs on AC power or a 9V battery, so it provides the options beginners need when they’re lugging their gear around to lessons, practices, or jam sessions.

Despite its low price, the Dark Matter does an impressive job of delivering tones ranging from slight overdrive to full-on distortion, and the voicing switch makes it easier than ever before to dial in great tone regardless of the amp you’re using.

What Customers Like

  • Impressive array of tones
  • Two voicing modes
  • True bypass construction

What Customers Dislike

  • Mediocre battery life
  • May not deliver enough distortion for some players

Caline CP-30 Red Devil Distortion

Best on a Budget

What Makes It Special?

The CP-30 from Caline delivers impressive tone shaping controls, two separate voicing modes for modern or vintage style tones, and a dedicated 3-band EQ for shaping the tone to your heart’s content.

  • Two voicing modes
  • 3-band EQ

Guitarists on a budget have long been left out in the cold when it comes to distortion pedals, as affordable options usually fall short of delivering anything but muddy, uninspired tone. The Caline Red Devil manages to change that, by providing players with dynamic distortion that sounds far more expensive than it is.

This pedal provides controls for level and gain, and a 3-band EQ for shaping your tone once you’ve dialed in the amount of distortion you want. There’s also a voicing switch that provides a vintage and modern voicing for your settings.

What Customers Like

  • Vintage and modern voicing modes
  • 3-band EQ

What Customers Dislike

  • Doesn’t run on batteries
  • Not as dynamic as more expensive distortions

6 More Really Good Distortion Pedals

Fender Pugilist Distortion

While they’re best known for their guitars and amps, Fender has made quite a splash lately with a full line of high-end pedals designed for today’s modern guitarist.

The controls on this pedal are unique and feature LED indicators, so it’s easier to see your settings, even on the darkest stages. While most pedals provide gain, level, and EQ controls, the Pugilist provides two separate gain engines, so you have two opportunities to dial in the gain on the pedal, and a blend knob to set how much of each engine comes through.

Unfortunately, a single tone control is the closest you’ll get to a dedicated EQ, so you’ll need to rely solely on your amp for your EQ settings for the most part. But, the two gain stages really shine on this pedal, and they provide a distortion that’s very tube-like and dynamic.

This pedal may not be ideal for those seeking a pedal to the floor metal distortion, but everyone else is sure to be pleasantly surprised by the Fender Pugilist.

Empress Effects Heavy Two Channel Distortion Pedal

The Empress Heavy pedal allows you to shape your tones in ways that most players never dreamed of doing from a stompbox.

This pedal provides two independent distortion channels, which allow you to create two different distorted tones in a single stomp.

The pedal provides a master treble and bass control, and an independent mid control for each channel. Each channel also has a switch that allows you to choose from 3 different frequencies for shaping the mids of each channel, which will enable you to develop your tones with a precision you just can’t find in other pedals.

Independent weight controls on each channel allow you to further shape your tone by changing the character of the low frequencies.

Each pedal is handmade in Canada, and while the Heavy from Empress carries the highest price point of any distortion pedal on the market, it also allows you to dial in the broadest spectrum of tones possible.

Boss MT-2 Metal Zone Distortion

Another wildly popular distortion from Boss, the MT-2 is the key to the tones of some of metal’s top guitarists, including Kirk Windstein of Crowbar and Down.

The MT-2 provides controls for level and distortion, as well as a 4-band EQ that allows you to tailor the highs and lows in addition to the low-mid and high-mid frequencies for the pedal.

If you’re looking for a pedal that provides the saturated distortion that modern metal demands, you’ll want to be sure to try out the MT-2 Metal Zone from Boss.

MXR M116 Fullbore Metal

If you’re after a pedal that delivers modern metal distortion, the Full Bore Metal pedal from MXR is one to take a closer look at.

This pedal provides a 3-band EQ for shaping the tone to your liking, and controls for the level, gain, and frequency of the pedal. The frequency control offers the kind of broad tonal shaping that modern guitarists demand from a distortion pedal, and a scoop button allows you to further scoop out the mids to create a decidedly modern metal sound.

One of this pedal’s most notable features is its gate button, which allows players to incorporate a noise gate into their sound to reduce or eliminate unwanted noise and feedback. The gating is impressively functional and natural sounding, and it helps ensure that the tone that comes through your amp is precisely as you intended it.

Donner Giant Metal Distortion

If you’re looking for a quality distortion pedal you can add to your rig without breaking the bank; you’ll want to check out the Giant Metal pedal from Donner.

This simple pedal provides controls for volume, tone, and distortion, so it’s effortless to use. There’s also a switch that offers three voicing modes: A standard mode, a low boost, and a high boost.

So, while this pedal doesn’t offer the tonal shaping abilities of other, more expensive pedals, the voicing switch allows you to still dial in a wide range of different tones.

Add to that true bypass switching and an ultra-low price point, and you’ve got a quality distortion pedal that every player on a budget should consider.

MXR Dime Distortion

When it comes to iconic metal guitar players, you can’t have that conversation without including one of the genre’s first legends, Dimebag Darrell of Pantera.

This signature pedal allows you to capture the kind of saturated high-gain tones that Dime was so well known for. Harmonically rich, this pedal delivers more impressive metal tones than most other distortion pedals.

The controls are straightforward and provide gain and level controls in addition to a 3-band EQ. The scoop switch allows you to cut out the mids to achieve a tone reminiscent of Dime’s signature sound.

If you’re looking to take your distorted tones to the next level, check out the MXR Dime Distortion.

5 FAQ’s about Distortion Pedals

How do you use a distortion pedal?

One of the coolest things about a distortion pedal is that they reward experimentation. When you’re dialing in a tone, keep in mind that there’s no wrong or right way to do it and that experimenting with different sounds is usually the key to developing a signature sound.

Before you ever plug the pedal in, take some time to read the instruction manual. I know, no one wants to sit there reading when you could be playing, but these manuals almost always contain valuable nuggets of information that can be critical to understanding how the pedal works, and how you can use it to dial in a signature tone.

When you first get your pedal, one method for dialing in a tone is to zero out each knob on the pedal. Set the pedal on a table in front of you, and strum your low E string as you turn each knob from zero to ten. This will give you a much better feel for how each knob affects the sound of your tone.

Once you have a feel for how the controls work, you can adjust each one individually until you’ve arrived at a tone you like.

Another great way to dial in a sound is to start with the recommendations provided in the manual. Almost any pedal will feature a section of recommended settings that were dialed in by the team who makes the pedal. Of course, several factors influence these recommendations, so just because a setting made it into the instruction manual, it doesn’t necessarily mean it will sound good on your gear.

With that said, starting with the factory recommendations and then tweaking the knobs from there is usually a great way to find the best tone for your rig.

Where do you place a distortion pedal (in the chain)?

One of the most critical and often overlooked considerations, when you’re playing with pedals, is how you have your pedals set up in your effects chain. There’s a science to setting up your effects that goes far beyond the ethos of “just plug it in and play.”

If your pedals are placed incorrectly in your effects chain, the resulting tones you get will often be muddy, overly distorted, or just plain muddy and indistinguishable. The best way to prevent these issues is to ensure that your effects chain is properly set up.

As a rule of thumb, you should start with any dynamic effects you have, such as compressors, equalizers, or volume pedals. Next comes any filters you have, such as a wah or envelope filter. Next, come your gain effects such as distortion or overdrive. From there, you’ll place any modulation effects you have, such as chorus, flanger, or phaser. Finally, you can add time-based effects like delay or reverb.

If your amp has an effects loop, you may want to consider running pedals through the loop that don’t feature true bypass construction. It’s common to add any time-based effects you have into the effects loop, and that configuration can be especially helpful if you rely on overdrive or distortion the way you’d use a second channel on your amp.

Whether or not you use your effects loop is up to you, the important takeaway here is to make sure your pedal chain follows the recommendations above.

What are the top distortion pedal brands?

When it comes to distortion pedals, it seems like every pedal manufacturer in the world has several models available. Beyond the household names you’ll see, there are also fantastic pedals being produced by lesser known manufacturers as well.

When evaluating different pedals, you should try and play as many different pedals and brands as you can before deciding on the best pedal for you. If you’re unsure where to start, these heavyweight brands are notorious for producing some of the best distortion pedals on the market.

Boss is perhaps the largest and most well-known pedal manufacturer in the world. They also produce some of the most iconic distortion pedals ever made, including the DS-1, which has been immortalized on recordings like Nirvana’s cover of “The Man Who Sold the World.” Beyond this classic pedal, Boss also offers a complement of different distortions you’ll want to check out.

MXR, which is under the umbrella of the Jim Dunlop company, has been producing some of the most exceptional effects on the market for decades. The MXR brand is world renowned for their pedals, which include some of the best distortion stompboxes available. You’ll want to take a closer look at the Distortion III, Super Badass Distortion, and the Distortion +.

These days, many of the finest high-gain amp manufacturers have entered the ring, and they bring years of experience making the world’s best hard rock and metal amps to the fold. Their pedals tend to be more expensive, but they’re also among the best sounding options on the market. Be sure to check out pedals made by brands like Mesa Boogie, Bogner, and Keeley as you’re making your choice.

How much does a good distortion pedal typically cost?

The cost of a quality distortion pedal runs the gamut, so it’s difficult to put a price tag on this category. As a general rule, you’ll be able to find quality distortion pedals in the $40-100 range.

There are also many high-end options which carry price tags north of $150. Depending on what you’re hoping to get out of your distortion pedal, you may find that you need to look towards these higher end pedals to find the best tone for your needs.

Since so many players rely on a distortion pedal for all their high gain tones, this is one area we don’t recommend cheaping out on. You may find that the Boss DS-1, which is one of the cheapest pedals on the market is perfect for your sound. But, if you find that you need a more heavyweight solution for your high-gain tones, you can expect to shell out considerably more.

Where can I learn more about distortion pedals?

Fortunately, there are tons of great resources online that can help you learn more about distortion pedals so you can select the best pedal for your sound.

Sweetwater is one of our favorite resources. While Sweetwater primarily exists as a retail store, they go the extra mile when it comes to product information. Virtually every pedal’s product page also includes demo videos and helpful information about the pedal that you won’t find anywhere else. Short of trying out a pedal in store, this is the best way to learn about new stompboxes.

Guitar.com is one of the most trusted resources for every guitarist. You’ll find great articles from top players, producers, and manufacturers as well as reviews and helpful information about virtually every product guitar players need.

Guitar Fella is a newer resource, but they’ve quickly become a go-to spot for all things guitar. Whether you’re hoping to learn about pedals, amps, guitars, or anything in between, there’s a good chance you can find some quality information from the folks at Guitar Fella.

Conclusion

For most guitar players, a quality distortion pedal is one of the critical components of their signature sound. You too can help find your signature sound with the help of a distortion pedal. When you’re shopping, make sure to go for pedals that provide a smooth, warm, and convincing tube amp quality tone, and plenty of options for tone shaping.

What are some of your favorite distortion pedals? We’re eager to read your questions and comments below.

When shopping for a distortion pedal, guitar players usually check out these effects as well:

  • Noise gate/noise suppressor
  • Overdrive
  • Wah
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