Distortion is what gives hard rock and metal that edgy sound we have all grown to know and love. Because of this, the first pedal most guitarists invest in is a distortion pedal.
As you experiment with this little distortion box, you will no doubt start to love it. Most musicians will have tried many different distortion pedals by the time they are good enough to play on a live stage.
Distortion pedals are literally a dime a dozen. And it seems like a new one hits the market on an almost daily basis. With so many options to choose from, knowing which ones are truly worth your time can be a big hassle.
And that is where we come in. We have taken the time to filter through the thousands of distortion pedals currently on the market. We’ve narrowed it down to what we believe are the best 5 distortion pedals that are available right now.
We based our decisions on current reviews, ratings, and recommendations from actual users.
Top 5 Best Best Distortion Pedal
OUR TOP PICK
Boss is a company that is known for making budget friendly guitar pedals. They have been in the game for years and they have mastered the art of developing high quality guitar pedals at affordable prices.
When you look at guitar pedals in the $50 and under price range, you will find the Boss DS-1 is considered one of the best.
One thing you will love about this guitar pedal is how versatile it is. The DS-1 is designed to cater to both beginner guitarists, as well as more advanced players.
This is what makes this particular distortion pedal stand out from all the others on the market.
As far as build and design goes, this is one of Boss’ best yet. The orange color is bright and will immediately capture your attention.
The design is very simple, and very straightforward. And by having only three knobs, the layout makes using this pedal as easy as 1..2..3.
Each knob controls a different sound or effect. They are tone, level, and distortion. With these 3 knobs you will be able to experiment with the sound and shape it to your exact needs.
- Can also be used with a bass guitar or keyboard.
- Easy to use.
- The background noise can get in the way at times.
The TC Electronic Dark Matter is the type of distortion pedal you can spend all day playing. It offers a wide range of sounds yet still remains true to its roots.
It features an all analog-drive circuit that gives you a new school sound mixed in with a little old school flavor. It has very low compression and a lively response that reacts to the way you play.
And thanks to true bypass, you will have optimum clarity and experience zero high end loss when the pedal is off.
The interface consists of four highly intuitive knobs that allow you to extensively tweak the tone. They also let you focus on playing instead of spending time trying to figure things out.
The great thing about this pedal is that it gives you full control over your tone. The voicing switch allows you to easily toggle between extra bass and retro vibes.
This basically means you can switch between old school and new school sounds.
- True bypass so you experience zero high end tone loss.
- Voicing switch that makes it easy to shift bass response.
- Two-band EQ with active bass and treble knobs.
- Users have complained about it being too bassy even when the bass is off.
- Gain, level, bass and Treble controls - total control of your distortion sounds
- True bypass - Zero loss of tone
- Voicing switch - for an awesome shift in bass response
There is one reason the late, great Kurt Cobain decided to give the Pro Co RAT2 a try. He needed more gain and boy did this distortion pedal deliver. As a matter of fact, he was able to unleash some of the highest gain levels of his career with this pedal.
This particular pedal is known for its hard clippings that come as a pair of silicon diodes. These clippings are what produce the very aggressive, yet smooth distortion you get with this pedal. It even has a subtle hint of fuzz.
The beauty of the Pro Co RAT2 is in its versatility. It is in a league of its own when it comes to arena rock rhythm tones and soaring leads.
If you have an amp that has too much headroom, the RAT2 can help you nail that sweet spot between sparkly clean and warm overdrive.
- Excels at arena rock rhythm tones and soaring leads.
- Nails that sweet spot where a tube amp goes from sparkly clean to warm overdrive.
- Users have complained about constant buzzing.
- Used as a primary distortion, it excels at arena rock rhythm tones and soaring leads
- Nails that sweet spot where a tube amp goes from sparkly clean to warm overdrive
- Use the RAT 2 as a boost for solos and get the extra kick you need
If you are a true metal head you will absolutely love the Electro-Harmonix Metal Muff Distortion with Top Boost Guitar Effects Pedal. And while some have compared it to the Big Muff Pi, trust us when we say, this baby is a completely different animal.
Often considered the ultimate metal distortion pedal, The Electro-Harmonix Metal Muff features three powerful EQ bands and 6 controls. The controls help you shape the sound in a way that fits your personal groove.
And thanks to the Top Boost you will get some serious bite. It helps increase the gain and keep some of the low end in check.
You can think of this pedal as a metal distortion pedal first, and a fuzz pedal second. It gives you that focused distortion tone that most metal heads crave.
- Buffered Bypass
- Seinsitive EQ controls.
- Features foot switchable Top Boost with separate control knob.
- Some users have complained about the sound.
- High input impedance buffered bypass
- Output volume and master drive controls
- 3-Band EQ: bass, mid and treble
- Foot switchable Top Boost with separate control knob
- 9-volt battery included, Optional 96DC-200BI power supply available
The Boss MT-2 is the type of pedal you will either love or hate. There is no in between with this one. While some musicians feel this pedal is the key to achieving the perfect level of high gain, others feel it has a very harsh sound.
But here’s the truth about this pedal, it provides some of the most over-the-top, insane distortion tones in the world. The mids and highs are huge, and the sound is ultra saturated. It will sound like you are playing through a stack of overdriven amps.
- Expanded EQ option for great versatility.
- Buffered bypass.
- Produces a great sound.
- Provides super-long sustain and heavy mids and lows.
- Some users have complained about the sound being too thin. However, this can easily be remedied by tweaking the EQ.
- The MT-2 provides super-long sustain and heavy mids and lows like a stack of overdriven amps.
- The Package Height of the Product is 3 inches
- The Package Length of the Product is 6 inches
- The Package Width of the Product is 4 inches
Best Distortion Pedal Buying Guide
If this is your first time buying a distortion pedal, it is very important you understand that your amp will have a great impact on the overall sound.
If you are using a single-speaker solidstate combo amp, which most beginners are, then you will have a difficult time replicating the sound that is produced by more expensive tube amps.
If your goal is to achieve a super full and dark distorted tone, your distortion pedal must give you the ability to emphasize low-end and mid-range tones. Or if need be, a separate EQ pedal can be used to achieve a similar effect.
While you will more than likely be able to get really close to a particular distorted sound, try not to become overly obsessed with getting it perfect.
The only way you will be able to get the distorted sound perfect is if you able to invest in other pieces of equipment such as amps, cables, and in some cases, additional pedals.
Your playing technique will also play a role in your ability to replicate a certain sound. So make sure you practice as much as you can.
Versatility vs Usability
Generally speaking, a guitar pedal will emphasize one of two things. Either versatility or usability. While pedals that focus on usability are able to produce a great tone, they also feature less controls which means you won’t be able to do a lot of altering of the sound.
On the other hand you have pedals that focus on versatility. With these types of pedals you will get more controls. While having more controls is a good thing, it also means you will need to do more tweaking in order to acheive the best possible tone.
When deciding between versatility and usability, it all boils down to what you are personally looking for. If you want to plug in and start playing immediately, you will want a pedal that emphasizes usability.
If on the other hand you want more control over your tone, you should opt for a pedal that emphasizes versatility.
As you are searching for the right distortion pedal, one of the terms you will see being mentioned in almost every description is Bypass.
There are three basic types of bypass. Hardwired bypass, buffered bypass, and true bypass. Bypass is what happens to your guitar signal when the pedal is no longer engaged.
True bypass is the most common type of bypass. With it your guitar signal will pass straight through the box without affecting the sound. With true bypass its like your signal is just going through a cord.
A lot of guitarists prefer this type of bypass because they believe it makes their tone more transparent. However, this isn’t always the case.
With true bypass, the distance your signal has to travel before it reaches the amp gets shortened. With a shorter distance comes a better high end response.
The longer it takes for your signal to travel to the amp, the more high end frequencies you will lose. Keep in mind true bypass doesn’t improve your tone.
The second type of bypass is buffered bypass. With buffered bypass your signal will still pass through the pedal and its circuitry. The big difference is it will now get boosted.
By boosting the sound as the signal passes through the pedal, the signal will be able to maintain its strength. This process actually preserves your signal a lot better than true bypass does.
If you are an advanced musician who uses multiple pedals at the same time, having a buffered bypass pedal can prove to be very beneficial.
Last but not least we have hardwired bypass. Hardwired bypass isn’t very popular but it is still worth mentioning.
With hardwire bypass the signal will pass through the pedals circuitry and will not get boosted. With hardwire bypass you will lose some high end response. This is especially true if you are using multiple pedals with hardwire bypass.
Frequently Asked Questions
How Do I Choose a Distortion Pedal?
When choosing a distortion pedal the most important thing to consider is functionality. Are you looking for a pedal that offers numerous gain stages, or do you want something more straightforward that will kick in only when needed?
You also need to consider the shape of the distortion. Are you looking for something more modern, or something that’s vintage? These are questions you need to be able to answer before purchasing a distortion pedal.
What Do Distortion Pedals Do?
If you are new to the world of guitars, chances are you have no idea what a distortion pedal is, or how it works.
Most distortion pedals are designed to do two things. Boost the guitar signal, and change the shape of the signal’s waveform. Understanding how the signal gets boosted is fairly simple. Understanding clipping on the other hand is a little more complicated.
Generally speaking, a signal wave will look like a smoothly undulating wave. The peaks and troughs will have a natural curve throughout the entire range.
When the waves are clipped for any reason, that is when distortion takes place. When a wave is clipped it means the highs and lows of the wave where cut off. When that happens the quality of the sound gets reduced. As far as distortion pedals go, this is a desirable effect.
Back in the day, distortion would happen anytime an amplifier couldn’t deal with the signal that was being pushed through it. If the signal was too strong, the speaker would be unable to recreate the highs and lows of the sound wave. As a result the sound waves would be cut off.
Technically speaking, a distortion pedal is designed to artificially clip a sound wave in the same way an overdriven amplifier would. The only difference is the distortion pedal will do it in a much more significant way.
After the signal has been clipped, it will go from the distortion pedal through to the amp. This is how you get that distorted sound with sustain and range.
In theory, clipping is quite simple. However, there are many different degrees in which clipping can be done. Because of this there are many different distortion pedals on the market.
What is The Difference Between Distortion and Overdrive?
When it comes to distortion pedals, this is probably the question that gets asked the most. Truth be told, there isn’t all that much of a difference between distortion and overdrive. They are so similar that the lines can sometimes be blurred when people are trying to describe what they hear.
Even some of the most advanced guitar players have a difficult time distinguishing between the two. However, that doesn’t mean there isn’t a difference.
To help you better understand the difference, let’s start with a little background. Distortion is actually something that happens when an amp is either damaged, or given more than it can handle. Back in the day this was looked at as something bad. No one wanted to hear that sound when they were playing.
Over time however, the sound actually became desirable. In order to consistently get the distorted sound, guitarist would have to intentionally over drive their amps. That sound is now known as overdrive.
For some musicians, overdrive wasn’t enough. They wanted more. They wanted distortion. To make this happen they used the same overdrive methods in a more aggressive fashion.
Using effects and the pedal, musicians would clip the sine waves more aggressively. Overdrive pedals tend to clip waves soft and smooth. Distortion pedals however are a little more harsh. They just shear off the wave.
Distortion pedals are a little more artificial in the way they replicate certain sounds. There is however a lot of overlap between the two pedals.
If you are trying to figure out which one would be best for you, it all goes back to the type of music you are trying to create.
If you are more of a vintage style player, and you prefer the less aggressive sounds, an overdrive pedal would be your best option.
If on the other you’re into heavy metal and more modern sounding music, a distortion pedal would be the best option.
Keep in mind there are a lot of exceptions and you should in no way look at this as a hard rule of thumb. At the end of the day it’s all about experimenting and finding what works best for you.