Welcome to our distortion pedal buyers guide. We have reviewed all of the top contenders and provided our feedback on all of them. See the table of contents below to jump to a specific distortion pedal.
Distortion is one of those effects that always finds a place in every type of music. While it was originally a sound impurity, the effect it has on sounds made people seek it out on purpose and try to increase and refine the effect. This is what drives the development of the best distortion pedals.
The way distortion increases harmonics and reduces dynamic range helps bring the sound to life, making it full and rich and helping it stand out in the mix.
Genres like rock and metal couldn’t exist without a generous dose of distortion to produce the bite and grit around which the styles revolve.
While many amplifiers come with some kind of distortion module, or produce natural distortion when the input gets loud, getting the right distortion character calls for a good distortion processor.
This article will help you identify and compare the best distortion pedals and find the perfect fit for your guitar playing.
Things to Look For in a Distortion Pedal
Digital vs. Analog
There are two primary types of distortion pedal, analog and digital. The big difference is how they achieve the distortion effect, which has an impact on the resulting tonal character. It’s a complex matter, so let’s cover the basics and move on.
People tend to describe the sound of analog distortion as warm, fat, and organic. Digital distortion has a harsher, brighter sound. Most tend to prefer one or the other, but there are great distortion pedals of both kinds. Some modern distortion pedals use digital hardware to emulate the sound of classic analog distortion. Many musicians like to run a signal with warm analog distortion into a digital distortion for more bite. You can do this by getting one pedal of each type. Another option is to run a digital pedal into an overdriven analog amplifier overdrive.
Digital pedals tend to be cheaper and more convenient, but that’s not always the case.
There are different types of distortion that work in different ways and produce different sounds. To understand this, we must understand what distortion is. Sound consists of oscillating waves of pressure, or emulations thereof. There’s a positive and negative polarity, and the neutral center is silence. The basic distortion occurs when an oscillation exceeds the limit imposed by the carrying medium, also known as the ceiling. This forces the sound wave to conform to a different shape, altering its harmonic profile. It can happen in an amplifier or speaker, in a digital environment, or even in the human ear. Pushing the signal harder into the ceiling is known as “gain” or “drive.”
This is a visual representation of distortion. The upper curve is a clean sine wave and the lower one is the same wave with digital distortion. The resulting wave is more similar to a pulse wave, with plenty of odd harmonics. With that in mind, let’s take a look at the common types of distortion for guitar.
Overdrive/Saturation is the original distortion. This occurs when the input signal overloads the circuit or membrane. It clips the peaks of the wave in a gentle manner, increasing warm harmonics while retaining most of the dynamic range. Dynamic range refers to the difference between loud and quiet parts of the sound.
Tape distortion comes from a hot signal exceeds the limited headroom of magnetic tape. The sound is warm and fat with a characteristic hiss. While the peaks are clipped, dynamic range prevails unless you push it very hard.
Tube distortion is a popular form of saturation that provides a warm and crunchy tone. Think blues or rock. The tone of overloaded analog amplifier tubes is an immortal classic.
Valve saturation gives a progressive increase in harmonics as you push the gain. It has a distinct color depending on the valve type. Triode valves grant more even harmonics, and pentodes offer more odd harmonics. Even harmonics are smoother and more “musical,” while odd ones are more intense.
Fuzz is an extreme form of clipping first occurred in low-grade speakers. The tone is harsh and, well, fuzzy and reduces dynamic range to a minimum. This is the wild, fat guitar tone of classics like Jimi Hendrix.
Waveshaping is a digital distortion that forces sound waves to adapt to a static wave shape. This can create a nearly-infinite variety of distorted tones.
What we guitarists know as Distortion is a more elaborate configuration of multiple overdrives run through different filters to produce a more extreme tone suitable for rock and metal.
Bypass and Signal Integrity
When talking guitar pedals, the issue of bypass is bound to come up. It refers to the path your guitar signal takes through the pedal when it’s disengaged, which influences the signal quality.
True bypass means there’s a designated straight circuit for the dry signal. This means the signal has a shorter distance to travel, granting a more transparent result.
Buffered bypass means the signal goes through the main circuit at all times, and gets a boost at the end. This helps the signal recover from volume loss, but it raises the noise floor. The signal quality isn’t as good, but some guitarists like it better for long signal chains.
Since distortion pedals will, in most cases, claim an early spot in your effects chain, noise can accumulate across the signal chain. On the other hand, noise isn’t as problematic in a distorted sound.
Distortion tends to produce more of a mess than you want for your guitar tone. Harsh treble overtones, in particular, need reining in. While most pedals have some kind of filter to tame the sound, the best distortion pedals offer adjustable filters or equalizers which you can use to sculpt the sound to your liking.
The Best Distortion Pedals of 2018
Now you know what’s behind the distortion effects you like and what to look for. It’s time to look at the best distortion pedals the market has to offer.
So, let’s get started.
MXR M75 Super Badass
Starting off the list, MXR’s M75 Super Badass Distortion is one of the best distortion pedals money can buy. From smooth, warm overdrive to hard, crunchy distortion, this pedal can satisfy your distortion needs.
What makes this distortion pedal so powerful and versatile is the amount of tone control it gives you, thanks to its three-band EQ. Five control knobs let you dial in just the right tone. With the “DISTORTION” knob, you can drive the tone more or less for the right amount of compression and overtones. The “OUTPUT” knob lets you balance the general volume coming out of the pedal, which is important when you want to switch between clean and distorted sounds without the volume jumping too far. The knobs labeled “BASS,” “MID,” and “TREBLE” each control a band of the equalizer, from high to low frequency ranges. If you want a classic, warm tone, simply reduce the treble and increase the bass. If you prefer the scooped out rock tone, just drop the mid down low and leave keep the others higher at 12 o’clock or higher. For a cleaner sound in a full band setting, you can give the bass and kick drum some space by cutting the bass band.
Like most MXR pedals, this one is great for metal guitarists. It also works well for any kind of rock, and if you don’t push it too hard it’ll also give you a great blues tone. Its analog circuitry produces a warm tone even when you push it hard, while still offering enough crunch and grit for metal and rock. The general tone is reminiscent of classic tube amplifiers, but with a bit less compression.
It’s a solid design that will endure really rough use, while also fitting well on your pedalboard. All components are of high quality and reliable. And it sells at a much nicer price than boutique distortion pedals.Pros
- High-quality build
- Great control over the tone
- True bypass
- Ranges from very gentle to very harsh distortion
- The loud signal can raise the noise floor to a noticeable level in a long pedal chain.
The incredible versatility makes it one of the very best distortion pedals for under $100. It’s also among the best distortion pedals for metal and rock.
TC Electronic Dark Matter
TC Electronic has done it again. Their guitar effects always find a spot or two on these lists, and Dark Matter is their best distortion pedal.
The sleek, compact stompbox may not look like much at first glance, but it sure packs a punch. The warm, fat distortion provides all the amp-shaking, face-melting rock overtones you could wish for.
Its build quality is high, with a hard metal casing and not a single flimsy or questionable component. It’s durable and steady with a nice weight to it. Its true bypass circuit keeps your dry signal super clean, this pedal only adds dirt when you want it to. The footswitch is sturdy and responsive, and big enough to use with ease on a dark stage.
You also get a nice amount of control over the distorted tone the pedal produces, with four control knobs. “GAIN” drives the signal, adjusting the amount of distortion, while “LEVEL” sets the overall volume. The “BASS” and “TREBLE” knobs let you sculpt the sound to fit your style and cut through the mix. You can adjust the tone further with the “VOICE” switch, which toggles the bass response so you can choose a darker and fatter tone or a brighter and thinner one. All knobs and labels are big enough to where you can use it on a dark stage even when you just got the pedal. Engaging the more bass-heavy mode produces a more modern tone.
It’s a powerful distortion pedal that’s perfect for classic rock and it’s also great for blues and jazz if you use gentler settings. Note, however, that it doesn’t have enough bite for most metal music. It’s more of a vintage-tone distortion unit, ideal for use with a tube amplifier.
You can power it with batteries, which are easy to switch, or with a DC power supply. However, this is sold separately.Pros:
- High-quality, compact build
- True bypass
- Rich, warm distortion
- Plenty of parameter control
- The amount of gain is a bit limited
The final verdict? It’s a solid distortion pedal at an affordable price. If you love the classic rock sound of the early ‘80s, this is one of the best distortion pedals you can find.
Wampler Plexi-Drive Deluxe
The Plexi sound is one of the most iconic types of distortion, originating in the Plexiglas covered ‘60s Marshall heads that defined the sound of rock n’ roll. The Plexi-Drive Deluxe is a great emulation of this classic sound with some modern bells and whistles to bring it into the modern era. As such, it’s a top-of-the-line distortion pedal with a hefty price tag. While it’s not the very most expensive one on the list, it’s up there. So it’s not a great pick for guitarists on a tight budget. For those who still want the general tone but don’t need as many features, the Plexi-Drive Standard may be a better option, as it isn’t as expensive.
The build is formidable, featuring high-grade components in a sturdy metal casing with a stylish finish which leaves no doubt that this will give you the famous British sound, although it’s made in the U.S.A. It’s got top-mounted jacks for input, output, and a jack for a nine or 18-volt PSU. There’s also a battery connection on the bottom. Bright LEDs let you know what’s active and when your battery is close to dying. It has a soft switch relay true bypass circuit for optimal sound quality.
The first row of knobs has the three active EQ band level controls and the gain knob. The second row presents the output volume knob and boost volume knob. Between these two you find two tone boost switches. The bass boost simulates the tone of a classic 4x12” cabinet, while the bright boost grants more presence and shimmer. The latter is very useful if you play through humbuckers. These switches ensure that you will get a great sound regardless of amplifier and guitar model. There are two footswitches, one to activate the boost and one to disengage the pedal and put it in true bypass mode.
If you know what a plexi amp sounds like, you know what this pedal sounds like because it’s a very faithful emulation. While it’s more of an old-school sound, you can do a lot with it because the sound itself is so versatile. If you push it hard and dial in the right EQ settings, you can achieve almost any popular rock tone. That’s not to say that it’s only for rock music. You can use it for most kinds of music, but it’s among the best distortion pedals for rock of all kinds. That includes heavy metal. Whether you prefer the vintage ’68 tone or something more aggressive like a JTM-45 cranked to 11, this is the ultimate Marshall-in-a-box solution.Pros:
- Very versatile
- Superb build quality
- Excellent, famous tone
- Extensive sound controls
- It’s expensive
- The gain boost has a learning curve
If you can afford it, this pedal will satisfy all your cravings for high-quality distortion. It’s one of the absolute best distortion pedals for rock and a top candidate for most kinds of music.
Boss probably has a greater number of good distortion pedals on the market than any other manufacturer. Their DS-1 distortion is a true classic that you’ve heard on many famous albums covering many genres over the decades. It’s a bit dated and limiting, however, which is why they created this 40th anniversary edition, the DS-1-4A.
Design-wise, it follows the typical Boss formula. Compact and tough as nails with a big, square footswitch. It’s got three parameter control knobs for shaping the sound. “DIST” for the amount of distortion, “LEVEL” for the output volume, and “TONE” to choose between dark and bright sounds. This makes it quite versatile for its simple design, and able to dish out many of the classic rock sounds from the last few decades.
Although it’s a recreation, it’s not quite identical. Nor is it a digital modeling, it’s a fully analog pedal. The modern circuitry produces a tone that’s a bit more middy and sharp compared to the smoother, warmer tone of the original. But it’s a small difference and you’ll still get that classic tone you recognize from some of the most famous rock albums. If you play grunge, indie, or garage rock, you’ll have a great time with this pedal. If you’re a fan of Steve Vai or Joe Satriani, you’ll also love this pedal because it’s what they used for some of their greatest classics. You’ll find many of the greats still use their DS-1s, because these things are built to last.
It uses a buffered bypass circuit instead of true bypass, which can produce a bit more noise when the pedal is inactive. But with how good it sounds, you’ll want to keep it on anyway. You can power it with a nine-volt battery or DC adapter, but this is a separate purchase.Pros:
- Great, durable build
- Familiar rock sound
- Can produce a fierce tone
- No true bypass
- Somewhat limited tone control
It’s an undying classic, both because it sounds great and because it doesn’t break. If you seek the best distortion pedals for rock music, consider this one. Other than modern metal that requires a more fine-tuned sound, and maybe more gain as well, the DS-1-4A sound fits more or less every type of distortion-centric music style.
Electro-Harmonix Metal Muff
Now for something that’s more tailored to the metal guitarists out there. The EHX Metal Muff is the wilder sister of the legendary Big Muff distortion stompbox. Since it’s still a great fuzzbox as well, it’s also suitable for the less extreme types of hard rock.
The casing is a wide, tough, rugged metal box. On the inside, a high-input impedance buffered bypass analog circuit creates a rich tonal mayhem to whatever tone passes through. Since this is a stompbox for those who love a dirty sound, you won’t miss true bypass. It comes with a nine-volt battery, although it’s best to buy a dedicated 96DC-200BI PSU to power it.
Its control surface presents you with quite a few knobs to tweak. You get the usual distortion amount and output volume controls, along with a three-band equalizer for customizing the tone. These help a lot since the overall tone can get quite messy at high gain settings. The signature feature, however, is the top boost. With this knob, you drive the 3.5kHz-4.3kHz frequency range harder into the ceiling. The result is a crispy, compressed tone with less low-end mud. You dial in the desired amount, and then you can toggle the effect on and off with the footswitch in the bottom-left corner. This is ideal for guitarists who switch between rhythm and lead guitar between songs or even throughout songs. It will also help your solos and instrumental parts stand out and also keep the guitar from drowning out the vocals. Just like the main on/off switch, the boost switch has a red light that tells you whether it’s engaged.
The generous tone control options, along with the fact that it’s a fuzzbox that’s been modified for heavy metal, makes it one of the most versatile metal distortion pedals on the market.Pros:
- Warm, analog tone
- Reliable build
- Extensive tone control
- Very versatile
- Might be too fuzzy for extreme metalheads
The versatility of this pedal makes it one of the best distortion pedals for guitarists who play many types of rock and metal. For example, classic rock cover band guitarists and progressive rock guitarists.
Wampler Hot Wired V2
The concept of the Wampler Hot Wired V2 is similar to that of the Fulltone Plimsoul and Boss DS-2. Two distortion mechanisms contained in one pedal. The difference here is that they can work a bit more independently, and have separate parameter controls. If you like to have control over your sound, you’ll love this distortion pedal. The idea behind this pedal came from renowned studio musician and session guitarist Brent Mason. While he’s most famous for his work with countless country music stars, this pedal can also dish out enough crunch for harder types of rock. It’s an extremely versatile distortion pedal. Famous users, other than Brent himself, include John Fogerty and James Burton.
Each channel has a gain knob, a tone knob, and a volume knob, as well as a bass boost switch. In its “Normal” position, the frequency response seems unaltered, while the “Fat” position bumps up the low frequencies for a nice woody texture, and the “Fatter” position gives it a thick and warm tone. These bass boosters are a godsend if you play a guitar with single-coil pickups only, since their bass response isn’t always enough. The blend knob on the right lets you balance the two distortion signals to taste. You can engage and disengage each channel separately with the two footswitches. Two bright diodes with different colors ensure that there’s no confusion about what’s active and what’s not. The separate footswitches make it easy to adjust the sound for a solo and then go back to your chords.
Channel 1 is a classic overdrive with a warm and somewhat dirty tone. At lower levels, it’s smooth and gentle, but when you crank it up you get that delicious chickin’ pickin’ tone. This tone is perfect for blues, country, and classic rock. Channel 2 has more of a British plexi type distortion with higher gain and a crunchy in-your-face tone. You can push either channel hard to get a rich distortion, but it’s usually better to use a bit of each, they complement it each other so well. Cranking both will allow you to play hard rock or even metal. This distortion is so versatile and rich you wouldn’t believe it was designed with country music in mind.
The device itself is made in the U.S.A. with high-grade analog components, so the build quality is great. It has a relay true bypass circuit that lets your dry signal through without a blemish. It’s all housed in a tough metal casing with top-mounted input and output jacks. You can power it with a nine-volt battery or PSU.Pros:
- Two distortion channels with separate switches
- Extensive parameter control
- Great build
- Designed by a world-class guitarist
- The sound can get a bit dirty since there’s no EQ
Brent Mason’s signature on the pedal leaves no doubt that these are the best distortion pedals for country music. However, this is a truly versatile pedal that can do so much more.
Boss MT-2 Metal Zone
This might just be the most iconic distortion pedal for modern metal musicians. The Boss MT-2 Metal Zone has a big fanbase, although there are also those who find its tone too tinny and harsh. It’s more for those who love bright, crunchy metal distortion, and not so much for the old-school metal lovers.
However, this has more to do with the popular settings rather than the circuitry itself. The general tone is both fat and crunchy, producing an over-the-top sound like what you’d get from a series of overdriven amplifiers. The ability to scoop out the mids altogether is what makes it sound so hollow on many famous metal albums. You could also go the opposite way, if you so please, or leave the tone knobs in a neutral position.
When it comes to controls, you get a knob for the distortion amount, one for the output volume, another for the midrange band, and one for the bass and treble. This is a somewhat odd tone control setup, but it makes sense in a modern metal context. The scooped-out sound works really well in many types of metal, and you’ll rarely want to increase or decrease the bass tone without compensating with the treble as well. That would make the riffs hard to distinguish in the distorted wall of sound that is metal music.
This pedal’s purpose is to produce extreme tones, so be careful when you’re dialing in your tone. High gain and brutal EQ cuts are its forte, and it doesn’t do a whole lot else.
Other than that, it’s a typical Boss pedal. A durable, intuitive design with a powerful circuit, which fits any pedalboard. You can power it with a nine-volt battery or PSU.Pros:
- Lots of high-gain distortion
- Fantastic build
- Famous metal tone
- Quite affordable
- Buffered bypass
If you love the sound of metal, hard rock, or nu-metal from the ‘90s and onward, look into buying this pedal. It’s among the very best distortion pedals for metal.
Bogner Ecstasy Red
The Bogner Ecstasy is one of those legendary amplifiers that shaped the sound of rock n’ roll. It’s famous for its red and blue channels, each offering a great tone with overdrive capabilities. In more recent times, Bogner decided to reproduce the sound of this classic amp in a set of twin pedals. Bogner Ecstasy Blue and Bogner Ecstasy Red. The red one offers more distortion than the blue. You can achieve anything from light overdrive to hard distortion with this deluxe distortion pedal.
It’s different from most pedals in that it doesn’t rely on clipping diodes and op-amps to achieve distortion. It uses all Class A components just like the actual amplifier to produce an authentic sound. It also features a variac compressor that mimics the effect of an underpowered tube amp to alter the dynamics of the signal. So you get the full amplifier sound rather than just distortion. You also get a boost switch for solos and such, and you can boost more than the volume.
You get a three-band equalizer that really lets you sculpt the sound. You can cut the mids or drive them harder, reduce harsh brightness or excess bass rumble, and fit your sound into any mix. The mode switch lets you choose between three different gain structures, called “Tight,” “Full,” and “Mellow.” This lets you define the tone even more by shifting the EQ curve and gain character. But it doesn’t stop there. You also get a pre EQ switch that will change the harmonics and presence of the distortion by adjusting the frequency response, especially in the treble register. The “structure” switch lets you choose between emulations of different editions of the Bogner Ecstasy Red amplifiers, from vintage to modern. So the amount of control you get over the distortion tone is immense.
The build is both sturdy and pretty, with a hard, shiny metal casing. You find the cable jacks in the back. In addition to the typical input, output, and nine-volt DC PSU socket, there’s also a slot for a remote footswitch. The built-in footswitches and the volume and gain knobs have bright diodes to let you know what’s going on with your sound. They’ll also blink when the battery is running low. The pedal has a true bypass circuit for maximum sound quality.
This is a very elaborate, high-grade distortion pedal for those guitarists who want a powerful, authentic overdriven sound with lots of flexibility. If you prefer a deeper, warmer tone rather than more distortion, you should also take a look at its twin: Bogner Ecstasy Blue.Pros:
- Superb build quality
- Authentic, famous tube distortion tone
- Amazing tone control
- Compressor included
- The price tag
If you’re an audiophile or simply looking for the best tube amp distortion pedal, this is the best distortion pedal for you. As long as you have the money to spare, that is.
Do you like the idea of two different distortion units in one sleek pedal? Then this might be the best distortion pedal for you.
This pedal offers a lot of creative control over the sound. In addition to an ordinary tone knob, there’s also a mid contour knob that lets you scoop out or drive the mids harder. What makes it really interesting is the flip switch that lets you choose between modern and vintage tones. When you flip it down, the pedal takes on a whole different character that takes you back to a distant decade. Together with the aforementioned tone controls, this gives you access to a wide range of different distorted guitar sounds. As if that wasn’t enough, there’s another flip switch that disables the distortion altogether, turning the Sovereign into a clean boost pedal. This is great for clean leads, but it also lets you push the guitar harder into your amplifier to produce a different kind of overdrive.
The distortion circuit is analog with true bypass. It’s housed in a sturdy, rugged metal casing. It can run on a nine-volt battery and you can also get a PSU if you plan to use it a lot.
If you love crafting your personal guitar tones, this is a perfect distortion pedal for you. While you may not get those really extreme metal tones out of this stompbox, it will cover almost any other distortion needs. It can still go quite hard, and it will grant a lot of smooth distortion tones like what you hear in Brad Paisley’s music.Pros:
- Incredible versatility
- Convincing vintage tone
- Affordable price
- Doubles as a clean boost pedal
- No presets to store those elaborate settings
- The small, rounded footswitch is inconvenient
This distortion pedal is best suited for those who need a variety of distorted guitar tones and those who love to tweak effect parameters.
DigiTech DOD-Gunslinger Mosfet Distortion
Powerful, dynamic saturation in a tough, stylish package at an affordable price... there’s a lot to love about this Digitech distortion pedal.
The way the mosfet circuit clips the signal creates a gradual distortion that’s rich in harmonics but also dynamic. It’s similar to the sound of classic tube amp overdrive but a bit cleaner. The pedal reacts to your playing dynamics, making louder notes grittier while keeping lighter ones more intact. At higher settings, though, all notes sound hot, compressed, and crunchy enough for harder rock music. Another factor that contributes to the clean, dynamic sound is the way it’s designed to discern between strings, reducing the muddy clashing sound that often occurs during transitions between strings. If you like arpeggios, this is an ideal distortion pedal.
As hard as the sound can get, the brushed metal pedal itself is even harder. It’s robust and compact, ready for live use and pedalboard-friendly. True bypass lets you keep your clean tone really clean, although this is the kind of pedal you may want to leave on at all times. You can run it at nine or 18 volts, letting you adapt to the desired volume level or what power supplies you happen to have. It’s a high-quality build at a very agreeable price.
In addition to the usual gain and level control knobs, you also get the ability to adjust the lower and higher frequencies independently. So you can get really fat, dark tones or bright, crunchy ones. A bright blue LED indicator lets you know when it’s on and helps you see the footswitch in the dark.Pros:
- High-quality build
- Rich but clean, dynamic tone
- True bypass
- Great value for the cost
- It may get too loud compared to other pedals in your chain
With this great distortion pedal, you get a really responsive distortion at a great price. It’s a distortion stompbox for the shredders out there, letting you knock out complex riffs and wild arpeggios without messy distortion artifacts that could ruin the performance.
Pro Co Rat2
Here’s another one of those simplistic yet powerful distortion pedals. While it’s more reminiscent of a fuzzbox, it can produce anything between light saturation and hard, heavy distortion. It’s also one of the best distortion pedals for bass guitar.
You’ll recognize its characteristic fat and rich tone from songs by Jeff Beck, Radiohead, Nirvana, and Foo Fighters. It can be hard to imagine that wide variety of sounds when you look at its minimalist design. You can control the distortion amount, tame the sound with the filter knob, and adjust the overall volume. That’s all.
The design stands out, most of all with its holder. While the build quality lower than that of the original RAT distortion, it’s not bad. It creates the distortion with a true bypass analog circuit that grants a wild, warm tone. It operates on nine-volts and you can power it with a PSU or a battery.
It’s a simple, straightforward distortion pedal that specializes in a warm semi-fuzz tone. It works great for rock of many kinds, but not much else.Pros:
- Famous distortion tone
- Bass-friendly distortion pedal
- Rich bass and midrange
- Not very versatile
The warm, dirty tone of the Pro Co Rat2 is an excellent choice for wild rock of all types, and even classic metal. If this isn’t your type of music, there are better options for you.
Electro Harmonix Nano Big Muff
Remember the Big Muff mentioned earlier? This is that famous and oft-mimicked distortion pedal, but in a compact, modern format. The somewhat contradictory name is an apt way to sum up this pedal. A big sound in a tiny pedal that’s ideal for rock guitar and bass.
It doesn’t seem like the size reduction required any significant sacrifice. Both the build quality and the sound are as impressive as you’d expect from Electro-Harmonix. It sounds just like the classic Big Muff Pi with its famous crackling and rumbling distortion.
Unlike the Metal Muff, this one only offers three basic control knobs. Volume, tone, and sustain. The range of each one is vast, from very subtle to extreme. If you love full-on, fuzzy saturation in large doses, you’ll love this pedal. The higher you push the sustain, the fatter and dirtier the sound becomes. At full blast, the note will keep ringing and rumbling for a really long time. With the tone knob around the middle, you get the familiar rich distortion. Toward the bottom, it produces a deep, dirty rumble that will shake your room. Turn it up all the way, and you get a fierce, fuzzy crunch.
The pedal comes with a nine-volt battery. If you don’t like to run your pedals on batteries, you can get a 9.6DC-200 supply to power it.Pros:
- Widespread, classic distortion tone
- Vast parameter ranges
- Great distortion pedal for bassists
- True bypass
- Limited creative control
- Can produce a lot of background noise
If you want that timeless fuzz distortion, consider this a top choice. It’s also one of the best distortion pedals for bassists.
MXR M104 Distortion +
While it’s not as famous as some of the legends on the list, this is a classic pedal that’s been around for a long time. Its soft-clipped germanium tone is unique and very distinct from that of the M75 Super Badass Distortion from the same company.
The build is excellent, with a tank-tough metal casing and high-grade components, operating at nine-volts using a PSU. What makes it such an interesting pedal is the use of germanium for the distortion circuit. This is a bit of a signature trait of old-school fuzz box type distortion units. However, the M104 Distortion+ is not an ordinary fuzz box. Its unique combination of distortion features gives it a very characteristic tone. It’s definitely capable of producing a nice fuzz-like tone, but you’ll also get both softer and harder overdrive out of it. The main thing that makes it different from a fuzz box is the fat sustain it gives your sound.
If you like the distortion sounds of the ‘70s and ‘80s, you should take a closer look at this pedal. The rich distortion makes it one of the best distortion pedals for blues and classic rock.
You only get two parameter controls to play with, which can be a bit limiting. On the other hand, if you’re the type of guitarist that prefers to have a simple, ready sound so you can focus on playing, this is a great thing. The range of the distortion knob is generous, letting you dial in both subtle and fierce distorted tones. The main footswitch stands out a lot from the casing, making it easy to hit in the dark without any accidental knob tweaking.Pros:
- High-quality build
- Classic, unique distortion tone
- True bypass
- Not very versatile
This unique pedal is among the best distortion pedals for punk rock. It’s also fantastic for blues and any kind of rock with from the ‘70s or ‘80s.
Ibanez Tube Screamer Mini
Perhaps the biggest trend in the world of guitar pedals these days is the creation of modernized miniature versions of classic pedals. The Tube Screamer Mini is a perfect example of this. The original TS-808 and its siblings like the TS-9 and TS-7 have featured on countless rock, blues, and metal albums spanning many decades. Santana, Phish, Metallica, and Keith Urban are all great examples of bands that use the famous Tube Screamer distortion pedal.
While the distortion is very simple and the effect parameters few, the overdrive sound itself is so versatile that it works for almost every genre. The Tube Screamer isn’t meant to stand out much, it’s just a great tool to add distortion and make your amplifier tubes scream.
Tube Screamer Mini looks similar to the original, although it’s much smaller, and the build is just as good. It’s made in Japan and features analog circuitry with the classic JRC4558 chip and a true bypass circuit. The main difference from its predecessor is that they’ve switched out the big, square footswitch for a small, traditional one. They’ve also changed the control layout. Instead of three identical knobs, you get these very small tone and level knobs and a nice, big overdrive knob. This makes it easy to adjust the distortion amount with your toes while playing. It comes with a nine-volt adapter which plugs into the back of the pedal. Due to the super compact design, there’s no room for a battery compartment. Another great thing is that the price has shrunk along with the pedal itself, landing around half of what a TS-808 costs.
The distortion tone itself is of the warm and fat variety, with long sustain and reduced dynamics. Up to about halfway it’s a subtle, tone-enhancing effect. Pushed past the noon position, it will drive your tone hot and produce that classic rock/metal bite. It can get pretty loud at higher gain settings. Turning the tone knob down gives you a fat, rumbling tone while pushing it higher gives you a sizzling crunch. Given that the tone knob is such an inconvenient size and sounds good in all positions, you’re likely to set it once and never touch it again.
If all you need is a convenient, basic overdrive/distortion that works for every type of music, this is a top candidate.Pros:
- Clever, compact build
- Famous, classic sound
- Good distortion pedal for bass guitar
- True bypass
- No battery slot
- Limited sound options
If you’re short on space or you like simple, high-quality overdrive in a wide range of intensities, this revitalized classic is an ideal choice for you. Perhaps the best mini distortion pedal.
PlimSoul by Fulltone is one of the more unique distortion pedals on the list. Serial distortion with an altered frequency response curve gives it a distinct character that can fatten up your tone for anything between blues and metal. It’s like two pedals in one, and they blend together in a seamless manner.
The build quality is typical for Fulltone. It’s rugged and built like a tank with reliable analog circuitry and no flimsy parts. It looks and feels as robust as it sounds. It runs on a nine-volt battery or power supply, and it has a true bypass circuit. The already warm analog tone is further enhanced by a hard-wired boost to the midrange and the lower mids in particular. This gives it a thick, organic sound. On the other hand, if you prefer a transparent pedal, you may want to look for something else. This pedal is designed to produce a specific, enhanced tone.
When it comes to parameter controls, at first glance it may look like you get three knobs. One for the overall level, one for the sustain, and one for the Hi-Cut filter frequency. Looking closer, you’ll find a fourth one which is smaller and located on the right. This little fellow, labeled “Stage 2” lets you dial in additional distortion. Unlike the main dist, which is a soft-clipped overdrive, this is a more intense hard-clipped distortion. Blending the two together produces a rich distortion sound with intricate harmonics. This could get messy if it wasn’t for the Hi-Cut filter, which lets you attenuate the treble frequencies and clean up the sound. At high sustain settings, you get a fat, crunchy tone with a small dynamic range. Great for hard rock. At lower settings, it’s more of a woody saturation that’s more apt for jazz, blues, or country. Engaging the second distortion stage lets you dial in a more aggressive tone, suitable for metal or punk rock.
It can be a subtle saturator or a loud, over-the-top growling distortion unit. You can get tube-like sounds or harsh, almost digital sounding ones, or something that falls in between the two. It’s one of the most versatile distortion pedals you’ll find. If you like versatility and creative control, this might be the best distortion pedal for you.Pros:
- Great build
- Distinct, powerful tone
- Generous sound customization options
- True bypass
- The boosted midrange may not suit certain guitarists
The power and versatility of this pedal are hard to beat. Possibly the best distortion pedal for experimental guitarists and those who play in multiple bands of different genres.
Boss DS-2 Turbo Distortion
You may be thinking “Another Boss distortion pedal? Why?” The answer is simple, they’re all so different. If you find that the DS-1 isn’t enough but the Metal Zone is too much, this is the one you should take a closer look at. It’s more or less a DS-1 that has an extra gain circuit built into it. It’s like running a DS-1 into another DS-1 or some other similar distortion pedal. Distorting an already distorted signal is what we call serial distortion, although Boss chose to call it Turbo for the DS-2.
In other words, the DS-2 can do everything that the DS-1 can do, and even more. If you turn the Turbo knob down, it’s pretty much a DS-1 with a different color. But the Turbo is what makes it so great. In Turbo Mode you’ll get a flat frequency response and a quite smooth, warm tone. Turbo Mode II offers more bite and bumps up the midrange a bit to thicken up leads.
You can plug a Boss footswitch into the DS-2 and use it to switch between the two turbo modes without having to reach down and twist the knob. This way you can switch while playing, for example, before and after a solo. Other than that it’s the same general concept as its older sister.
Crank it up high and you’ll get some intense crunch and dirt out of the analog circuit. You will recognize the sound. Famous users of this pedal include John Frusciante, Steve Vai, Dave Navarro, and Kurt Cobain.Pros:
- Lots of distortion
- Famous sound
- Great build
- Two modes with footswitch compatibility
- Lacks true bypass
This is one of the best distortion pedals for rock guitarists who want a typical distortion sound and lots of it.
EarthQuaker Devices Hoof
This is one of the most beloved fuzz pedals in the world, and for good reason. It can produce a wide range of distorted tones, from subtle amp-like saturation to hot, fierce fuzz. From messy stoner rock sludge and doom metal drones to modern mid-cut crunch.
Inside the rugged metal shell, an intricate analog distortion circuit works its magic with silicon and germanium transistors. The build quality is superb, built in the U.S.A. using custom upgraded versions of the traditional components. This gives you a fuzz that’s wild and authentic but under your control, and it’s built to last. The input and output jacks are top-mounted, and so is the nine-volt DC power supply jack. So it’ll fit well on your pedalboard.
The overall tone is rich, hot, and crispy. At lower levels, it’s a nice warming effect and at higher levels, it offers extreme amounts of distortion. To manage the mess that often comes with this kind of distortion, you get two tonal character controls. One is a typical tone knob that makes the sound bassy if you turn it down and bright if you turn it up. The other is called “Shift” and works together with the “Tone” knob to boost the highs or scoop out the muddy midrange. You can get a lot of mids, or no mids, depending on your preference. So you can get all the mojo of fuzz distortion but retain control over the final sound. This places it among the best distortion pedals for desert rock and related genres.
The rich bass response also makes it one of the best distortion pedals for bass guitar.Pros:
- High-quality build
- Nice amount of tonal control
- Bass-friendly distortion pedal
- True bypass
- No battery operation
If you like fuzz type distortion but you want more versatility, this is a great pedal for you. Probably the best distortion pedal for stoner rock.
Xotic Effects SL Drive
Don’t let the minimalist design fool you. This simplistic mini distortion pedal will give you a powerful, distorted sound and a faithful recreation of both the Super Lead and Super Bass amplifiers. If you’re a fan of Jimmy Page or Paul Kossoff, you’ll be pleased to know that this pedal achieves their guitar tones. It’s a very efficient solution, you get the power of these famous amps dating back to the ‘60s in one neat little pedal.
It has the standard set of knobs on the front. Drive, tone, and volume. The amount of distortion ranges from very subtle to fierce, aggressive crunch. You’ll wonder how they fit all that distortion in such a tiny device. That’s not to say that it doesn’t offer any control. If you look inside the rugged enclosure, you’ll find four additional switches. Three of the switches affect the midrange and treble response, while the last one toggles the 6 dB boost.
It’s a true bypass pedal and the design seems very sturdy and portable. And it still manages to keep the price down to a nice, affordable level. This makes it one of the very best distortion pedals for beginners, since it’s also easy to use and sounds great.
The overall tone is clean and authentic-sounding, and it retains the characteristics of your guitar tone. Ideal for playing with a Stratocaster.Pros:
- Amazing compact build
- Famous timeless tone
- Easy to use
- Great value for the price
- Limited sound options
In summary, it’s a great mini pedal with a vintage tone. One of the best distortion pedals for classic rock, blues, and hard rock.
Maxon 9-Series Sonic Distortion
You may not have heard of this Japanese brand, but it’s a guitar pedal legend in its own right. Maxon was the original manufacturer of Ibanez pedals. When Ibanez replaced them with a Taiwanese manufacturer, Maxon started producing pedals under its own name. Many guitarists find these higher-quality Japanese-produced pedals better than modern Ibanez pedals.
The Maxon Tube Screamer is identical to the Ibanez Tube Screamer in almost every way, even when it comes to looks. But unlike the TS Mini mentioned earlier, the Maxon 9-Series Tube Screamer uses the classic enclosure and big, square footswitch. The footswitch makes it easier to use, especially in a dark setting. Performance-wise, it’s more powerful and truer to the original TS-808 as well. However, the upgraded electronics brings take it to a new level. Combining op-amp circuits with distortion transistors makes the sound more refined and improves the low end of the sound. It’s pretty bassy compared to the typical distortion pedal, which is a big plus. With up to 55 dB of gain boost, this thing packs a lot of punch. Ideal for lead guitarists.
The overdriven sound is fat with a long sustain, at high levels the dynamic range is very small. Despite what the name might imply, it’s actually a valve overdrive and has no tubes.
It’s all contained in a die-cast zinc enclosure that will withstand a lot of touring and rough use.Pros:
- Great build
- Responsive and rich tone
- Famous tone
- True bypass
- The tone may be too harsh for some
If you want an excellent version of that familiar overdriven sound, this pedal won’t disappoint. It’s a powerful distortion unit and one of the best distortion pedals for rock guitarists of every kind.
Electro-Harmonix Soul Food
One more entry from Electro-Harmonix. This is the last EHX pedal on the list, I promise. It’s a small pedal, but it seems as tough as a tank.
This pedal doesn’t aim to produce as much distortion as possible. It uses a “quality over quantity” approach, and it also doubles as a clean boost pedal. That being said, you can still get enough crunch to play rock music. The overall tone is warm and dynamic with a lot of mojo. It’s perfect for blues, jazz, and old-school country.
The fact that it doesn’t compress your playing as much as the typical distortion pedal gives it a more lively tone. You’ll still hear louder and quieter parts letting your organic feeling and vibe through while adding more warmth and bite the harder you play. Due to its boosted power rails, you can get a really loud signal out of this pedal. Whether you want a hi-fi clean boost or extra power and thump for your distortion, this helps a lot. It also lets you choose between f true bypass and buffered bypass. This makes it great for long signal chains, where you can choose whether it’s more important to reduce noise or make up for the volume loss of multiple true bypass pedals.
It’s a very simplistic pedal and it only gives you three control knobs. One for output volume, one for drive amount, and one for the treble level. The treble knob controls a high-shelf filter so you can boost or cut the brightness of the signal. The sound is very fixed but it’s a good sound, so if you like vintage tones you should definitely consider this pedal.Pros:
- Compact, sturdy build
- Easy to use
- Also works as a clean boost pedal
- True/buffered bypass options
- Limited sound options
If you’re looking for a simple, easy-to-use distortion pedal that sounds really great, this is a great candidate for your pedal chain.
Behringer Super Fuzz SF300
Behringer tends to land a spot on every guitar pedal review list. This is because they produce good budget options for the less wealthy guitarists.
While this is a budget distortion pedal, the versatility and tone are impressive. If you’re looking for nice fuzzy distortion at an appetizing price, you’ve found it. It has two different fuzz modes with different harmonic profiles, as well as a boost mode. Thanks to the treble and bass controls, it can do a lot more than simple fuzz. Even if fuzz isn’t your favorite type of distortion, this can probably give you the distortion you need. As long as you’re not looking for faithful, vintage overdrive. It’s more of a true distortion box rather than a fuzz box anyway.
The compact design is nice and convenient, but the plastic casing may rub some people the wrong way since it’s not very durable. This is where you notice it’s a budget pedal. Another slight issue is the battery compartment design, it can be tricky to replace the battery. And it can go through batteries at a pretty quick rate. You won’t have to worry about this is you use a PSU, but some guitarists report that this can make the pedal noisy.
Fuzz 1 is an old-school fuzz like what you’d hear on ‘70s records. Fuzz 2 is more of a grunge type distortion. With either one, you can achieve both subtle and aggressive amounts of distortion. The amount of distortion and output volume is impressive, given the price.Pros:
- Two types of fuzz distortion
- Decent tone control
- Great price
- Low build quality
- May introduce excess signal noise
If you’re looking for the cheapest distortion pedal that still works well, this is probably it. It’s one of the best distortion pedals for beginners.
Final Thoughts on The Best Distortion Pedals
As you can see, there’s a lot more to distortion than what meets the eye. And a plethora of great options. This list covers the best distortion pedals for many different purposes. Think of what you need, go over the list again and listen to what your favorites sound like. Compare the traits and features listed here and narrow down your favorites until you’ve found the ideal distortion pedal for you.
Distortion is perhaps the most important guitar effect, so getting a great distortion pedal is important. The ones listed here will be sure to give you the sound you need, regardless of your specific distortion needs.
I hope you’ve had a good time learning about these fantastic distortion pedals, and that you’re excited for new levels of thick and gritty guitar playing.