If you’re like me, once you have played a few different types of distortion pedals you’ll be at your local guitar store checking out distortion pedals non-stop for the next week or two. No matter how you got your first taste, the result seems to be the same. A constant and endless search for new distortion pedals to help in a quest of developing what we feel is our own unique sound.
Like many musicians, it is likely that you’re constantly in a quest to find the best tone. Since you might not have time to spend weeks on end traveling to pawn shops and guitar outlets sampling distortion pedals, I went ahead and did that for you. In this article we’re going to make that search for your next distortion pedal easy with this carefully chosen array of pedals. Click here to see the top 10 pedals I picked for you, or continue reading to learn more about distortion pedals before making your choice.
How Did It All Get Started?
Many musical genres need distortion. Electric guitars, electric basses (fuzz bass), electronic keyboards and sometimes rare special vocal effects benefit from distortion pedals. In this article, we’ll focus on the effect that a distortion pedal has on a electric guitar.
Since electric guitar’s early days, blues musicians had been searching to overdrive their amplifier’s signal. New amp and pickup designs made distorting a guitar easier. This finally happened when rock ‘n’ roll came on the scene. Before anyone realized it, musicians like Link Wray were making a name for themselves by distorting their signal to get a cool new sound.
Pedals open up a whole world of sonic possibilities for guitarists. They replicate your favorite sounds. They help you fine tune each notes adulterating the guitar’s signal. They generally add what some might jokingly describe as filth to the sound.
What to Consider When Buying a Distortion Pedal
Before you decide to purchase a new distortion pedal, there are few question you should probably keep in mind.
* How much gain do you need? There’s only two choices: classic or modern. For subtle to crunch tones, you’ll need classic distortion units. Violin like lead tones and down-tuned riffs are showcased by modern distortion units. There are pedals with a wide gain range, but you need experience and enough time to get the sound right.
* Which do you prefer, simplicity or flexibility? Some pedals offer flexibility but if you lack experience, you’ll need more time tweaking. So, better go for pedals that are simple. If you love tweaking your pedals and you have enough experience that you can formulate your own sound, choose a flexible pedal.
* What’s your budget? This question is subjective. The goal is to distort sound, right? So, even if most distortion units have reasonable prices, it’ll just be your personal preference to opt for something that costs more and claims to sound better. However, the more picky you are, the higher the probability that the pedal you like is in high demand. You’ll likely need to pay a little more for some of the boutique instruments or more unique pedals.
Want to liven up your sound with some wild and dirty distortion? Your guitar’s amplifier not doing it for you? Here is a list of dirt boxes, as they are sometimes called, that should be on any good musician’s list. Expect classic stompboxes with streamlined controls, to dirt boxes peppered with knobs allowing more personalized options.
Boss DS -1 – An icon in guitar effects, Boss DS-1 defined a bold new sound when it was introduced in 1978. It’s even got a phrase coined, “BOSS distortion.” Popular for giving guitarists with an ear for tone, exactly what they need, nothing more, nothing less. This stompbox is used by Steve Vai and Joe Satriani for their cutting edge sound. Kurt Cobain produced some of his most memorable sounds with this.
Many distortion pedals got influenced by Boss DS-1. Being affordable, durable and easy to setup, a whole generation of beginners always get inspired creating their sound. Experienced players enjoy easily integrating existing rigs.
Continuously shaping guitar music, it’s three basic controls of Tone, Level and Dist can be used to create bare bones distorted tone. The single effect pedal shape of Boss DS-1 guarantees a transparent and dynamic distortion. For a completely new tonal experience possible only with BOSS, you have to get this pedal. Retails at $49.
Electro-Harmonix Big Muff PI / Sustainer – Electro-Harmonix got known because of their Big Muff PI. It’s affordable and reliable. Tones turn to rough and aggressive distortions. Jimi Hendrix, Frank Zappa, Santana and Pink Floyd are great names helped by this pedal. David Gilmour and The White Stripes also stomped on this producing great rock guitar music.
Current Big Muff PI has the same vintage distortion tone like the original. Just like in the ‘70s era, Big Muff PI has volume control, adjusting the output level. Its tone control gives a range of sounds from warm bass to crisp treble. You can shape a tone in a straightforward way. Sustain control optimizes the long sustain with the right amount of harmonic distortion.
You want sweet and meaty solos? Go for this one. Recommended for amateur recording, home studio use, performance and professional recording, it delivers harmonic distortion and violin-like sustain. For the finest harmonic distortion/sustain , this pedal retails at $81.
Mesa/Boogie Throttle Box EQ – Modern distortion sound? Want to achieve shred and progressive rock style tone? This pedal is for you. Metalheads are aware of the instant sonic aggression by plugging into the Throttle Box. This pedal greatly helped popularize the “V” shaped scooped-mid setting associated with metal and hard rock. This setting also enables you to dial in virtually any distortion. With a couple of adjustments, you’ll also get classic rock tones.
It combines two distinct, high-gain distortion modes with the sonic sculpting of its 5-band graphic EQ. This makes you easily switch between low and high gain modes. Its boost kicks up signal level for extra tonal aggression which is perfect for solos. Coupled with its foot-switch, you have a distortion pedal easily handling different styles of high-gain even when playing live. Powered by 1x9V battery, an optional 9V DC, and even by a Negative Center power supply sold separately, the pedal retails at $299.
Blackstar HT-DIST Tube Distortion – Noted for the natural feel and tone of a genuine tube. Tube amps are expensive and difficult to carry around. Because of this, stompbox builders have been incorporating real tubes in distortion pedals. Blackstar HT-DIST is the most notable result.
It feels even at the higher gain setting. It’s “ISF” tone-shaping knob makes tone shaping simple but extensive. It covers crunch to singing lead allowing you to design your own tone. Its got ECC83, also known as 12AX7 triode stage. Circuitry is at 300V for true tube dynamics and feel.
If you like recapturing the hard rock distortion tones of the 70’s and 80’s, get this pedal. It’s absolutely good at inducing gain levels. End product is a thick distortion with a tight crunch. It’s not oversaturated or fizzy. Beating the transistor-based distortion channel on most solid state amps, this classic among modern distortion retails at $199.99.
Bogner Uberschall Distortion Pedal – This is a highly recommended high-gain “amp in a box” distortion pedal. It’s designed after the high-gain Bogner Uberschall amplifier for all the heavy distortions you want. Yes, it’s a brutal amplifier in stompbox format.
Featuring discrete Class A circuits, expect no op-amps or diode clipping. That’s for getting close to Uberschall amps as possible. You get touch response, thunderous high-gain tones and note separation for clarity. You’ll sound like you have another amp. The Uberschall pedal gives low and medium gains. Turning down the gain knob gives you overdrive-like, low gain tones. Its footswitchable Boost with independent volume control is great for mix cutting lead lines.
Metal fans can shape their savage, tight and face-melting tones with its built-in 3-band EQ. It operates with a 9-volt battery or optional power supply. Save up for this premium Bogner Uberschall Distortion Pedal. The “Armageddon in a Box” retails at $249.99.
MXR M78 Custom Badass ’78 – For impressive ’70s rock tones with modern transparency mixed with reliability and simplified controls. You get a huge amp stack tones with the charm of old-school distortion. Sound of the past without the vintage pedals? You’ll get that.
This pedal covers many shades and saturated rhythms of classic rock: from crunch, saturated rhythms to soaring singing leads. Gets more impressive when you’re driving overdriven amps. Impressive flexibility with just three knobs, it’s definitely easy to use. Expect improved fidelity and improved transparency when the pedal is disengaged because of its bypass switching. Designed to be a main dirt pedal, you can use this in conjunction with others.
Guaranteed a lifetime of usage with 100% top-notch analog circuitry. If you have the ear for the most amazing distortions, buy this. The resulting pedal that MXR hot-rodded a classic distortion circuit of and housed in a solid metal housing retails at $79.99.
Wampler Sovereign Distortion – Wampler is quite new, but is already an authority in making modern high-gain pedals. To tone chasers, Brian Wampler is The King because of his organic, convincing and inspiring dirt tones. So Wampler thought to name Brian’s latest pedal the “Sovereign.” This pedal boasts a long list of rock and metal guitarists as patrons. Diverse guitarists Carl Verheyen, Brad Paisley and Joe Perry use this.
Truly unique, it’s not inspired by other distortion circuits. It’s not an amp-in-a box. It’s more like a bank canvass wherein you paint your own distortion tone. And the real surprise is how Wampler has a minimum number of controls. It’s just tone, two gain stages and volume knobs. For more tone sculpting, its got a special mid contour behavior knob. Two gain stages Toggle switches expand the tones achievable . You may have classic OD tones to modern distortion. This versatility in a small box retails at $199.99
Pro Co Rat 2 Distortion – This became very popular in the ‘80s. Rock guitarists like Jeff Beck, Nuno Bettencourt and Joe Walsh stomped on this. Joe Perry, Bill Frisell, James Herfield and John Scofield use a Pro Co Rat. David Gilmour and Dave Grohl also relied on this Rat.
If you’re in the middle of being a traditional guitarist and an innovator, this is your go-to distortion pedal. It’ll take care of your rock, blues, punk or jazz tunes. Rat 2 covers distortion, fuzz, sustain and overdrive. Its smooth distortion puts the extra punch in your rhythm. Likewise, solos turn up with so much authoritative power.
Carrying the same circuitry that made the original Rat popular, Pro Co Rat 2 Distortion has modern elements now. Improved reliability and true bypass switching are present. This pedal has the same scheme as the Boss DS-1. Adjustments rendered the Rat its own flavor. This pedal that’s got glow in the dark controls retails at $69.95.
Boss BD-2 Blues Driver – A hybrid distortion/overdrive pedal is Boss’ second entry. Like overdrive pedals, it delivers natural sounding tube-like dynamics and feel . Its got good compression and a higher gain settings.
The BD-2 Blues Driver gives the creamy, classic, bluesy but crunchy sound of great blues guitar in this tube amp in a compact pedal. Tones are warm and mellow. That perfect emotive distortion, making you want to cry, scream or sing, is usually given by 30-year-old tube amps.
Tunes respond well to nuances and volume changes than most distortion boxes. Has controls for Gain, Tone and Overall Level. Turn up the gain and it adds more harmonics and sustain. This makes it great for blues and rock. Expect subtle overdrive to ripping amp tones. Operates on an AC adaptor which isn’t included. Otherwise, just use the 9V battery. The pedal that delivers perfect tone for blues retails at a great value of $99.
TC Electronic Dark Matter Distortion – Allowing impressive flexibility, it keeps the quality of both sound and build high. Andy Summers, Gary Lucas, Vernon Reid and many others use Dark Matter.
It’s quality and versatility covers smooth to high gain while staying true to its base. Enough tone shaping keeps picky tastes at bay. This is made possible by the Dark Matter’s ability for powerful, musical roar reminiscent of an early Plexi.
Its gain knob does a good sweep of classic to modern. Clean distortions with an attitude and warm bluesy tones to a crunch type of distortion are what this pedal gives. Full saturated lead sound packed with harmonics and overtones are all possible just by riding your guitar’s volume knob.
Its voice switch changes the bass response. Low compression and lively response reacts to your playing at every turn. It comes with a great price. TC Electronic Dark Matter pedal retails at $49.99.
So now, you have the top distortion pedals. Distortion pedals are a dime and a dozen, but we picked the best. From classic remakes to new, modernized iterations; we made sure we had it covered. You have the effects each one gives, so take your pick. Enjoy making your signature distortions.