We all need some distortion every now and then. Many guitarists simply can’t live without it. In this golden age of guitar pedals – with all kinds of small-scale boutique stompbox manufacturers facing off against industry titans such as MXR, TC Electronic and Boss – there’s never been a more golden era to find the best distortion pedal to help you turn your pristine cleans into delicious dirt.
The only effect less compromising than fuzz is distortion. Hard-clipping a guitar signal can be done one of two ways - with a distortion pedal, or a guitar amp set to ear-bleeding levels. That said, distortion pedals aren't only for bedroom players dreaming of Peavey stacks - why not have both? The same volume jump that overdrives use to smash tube amps is often present in a distortion, with a hard-clipping extra punch into the bargain.
When used right, there's nothing like the roar of an amp getting totally shredded by a distortion, and it's come to define many genres, from metalcore to Swedish death metal.
The question is, where do you start? Well, the honest answer is 'try a ProCo RAT and go from there,' but if you want a longer read, then we've rounded up some of our favorites below.
Best distortion pedals: Our top picks
Fender's Pugilist Distortion is a hugely versatile dirtbox thanks to its dual distortion circuits, which allow you to blend two channels for monstrous high-gain tones with enhanced clarity – similar to playing through separate amps at once. As a result, it's one of our absolute favorites right now.
Alternatively, with all sorts of flavors of gain at your fingertips, with the Wampler Sovereign Distortion on your pedalboard you could lose days (weeks) simply dialing in various tones, each bathed in harmonic-rich distortion and crunch. It’ll do metal nicely if that’s your thing, with tight low-end, but the mid-contour can give your chords all the punch of a young Mike Tyson, too.
Best distortion pedals: Product guide
Fender have stacked the Pugilist with all the gain you need, and even if it takes a bit of time to dial in your desired setting and negotiate the two gain channels via the blend, there’s so much joy to be had.
Yes, it can function as an overdrive, but we’re on the hunt for the best distortion pedals, and the Pugilist understands this, with oodles of gain that can be shaped to react to your pickups.
Mode A is more overdrive/crunch; Mode B saturates the tone for a more modern metal tone, while the bass boost is excellent for fattening up single coil tones.
Read our full Fender Pugilist Distortion Pedal review
Brian Wampler has packed a heap of features into a small enclosure here. The Sovereign could probably fight in the overdrive category but has so much beef in its gain structure that goes way beyond.
The Sovereign’s controls have changed name through the years – from “mid behaviour” to “mid contour” but their mastery over the pedal’s midrange and highs is ever reliable. The pedal’s soul lies in that mid contour.
The even/bright switch lets you toggle between more of a mids-heavy sound and top-heavy treble, while the standard/boost chooses between responsive overdriven tones and more gnarly levels of gain.
Like the Sovereign, the M75 has a default voice that speaks in British EL34 tube crunch. Keep everything at noon to maintain that sort of equilibrium, but if you’re chasing heaps of ugly-delicious metal gain, roll it forward to 2 o’clock onwards.
The three-band EQ is everything in changing the character of the M75’s gain. Take out some of those mids for late ’80s Metallica scooped crunch, boost them for that ‘70s vibe.
When it comes to the best distortion pedals, the M75 is a no-brainer that takes seconds to find the tone you want – an indestructible little powerhouse of versatile analog distortion.
Developed in 1978, and mass produced from 1979 onwards, the ProCo RAT has a decent claim to being the first proper mass-market distortion box. Its hard, aggressive sound and tight, focussed clipping are pretty much the template for what distortion sounds like to this day. If you're looking for the punchy tone of players like Radiohead's Johnny Greenwood, then the RAT is a good choice. They of course used a Marshall Shredmaster - now long discontinued - but the RAT can cover most of the same ground.
Although it does sound the best at higher gain settings, it can be used as a lower-gain boost, even if it never fully cleans up in the way an overdrive might.
The only real drawback of the modern ProCo RAT is that the op-amp at the heart of the circuit is no longer the original LM308. On the original, the slow slew rate of the op-amp created a distinctive, almost triangle-wave waveform at higher gain levels. However, the hard clip of the diodes means that the difference in reality is more marginal than some claim.
The Boss DS-1’s set-up is simple: level, tone and distortion, with a rubber-topped foot-pedal to switch it on and off. The pedal is happy adding a little crunch, some extra oomph, but it keeps the integrity of your guitar tone steady when dimed.
There’s plenty of versatility. The DS-1’s tone knob really can tweak your highs, perfect for pinch harmonics. Dial it back to thicken up you rhythm tone or to fatten up single coil pickups.
All this tone for under 50 bucks, what’s not to like? Just don’t underrate it just because it’s cheap and pre-dates the Sony Walkman.
The Boss HM-2 was the defining sound of Swedish death metal, defining the most extreme guitar sound in heavy metal at the time. Created with a combination of down-tuning and stacking the HM-2 with a Boss DS-1, the sound of all the controls maxed out quickly became referred to as the 'Swedish chainsaw.'
The HM-2 was discontinued and superseded by the very different HM-3, which is where the KMA Wurm comes in. It's a faithful recreation of the HM-2, with some welcome additional controls and modes for flexibility not found on the original. The four band EQ is much more powerful - assuming you don't just dime all the controls, of course!
Despite its association with death metal, it's worth saying that the HM-2 was by no means a one-trick pony. Its much-maligned spiritual successor is the Boss Metal Zone, one of BOSS's most popular pedals. The HM-2 was able to serve up much of the same level of aggression and clipping, with a less difficult-to-use EQ section. For this reason, the Wurm is a solid choice for most metal sub-genres, especially if using smaller amps.
The Acapulco Gold is dominated by giant output volume knob and its brief is devastatingly simple: to bring the power and tone of a Sunn Model T amp and house it inside a small pedal.
And it works: at low volumes, say, 9 o’clock on the dial, this works as a neat little overdrive, but keep turning it clockwise and the gain – and the volume – keeps coming. The final destination is a thick, fat and open distortion, with a little fuzz overtones, that makes for amazing ‘70s metal tones.
Adjust your guitar’s tone knob to tease different voicings from the pedal. And wear earplugs.
The Iron Horse V2 sees the unit updated with a more dynamic tone control and a new level control that makes it easier to dial in unity gain (i.e. when the pedal’s output level is the same as when it isn’t in the signal chain). The distortion circuit has been tweaked too for more subtle low-gain tones.
Key features include the three-way toggle switch that selects between clipping diodes letting you choose from slightly compressed to more compressed and totally open distorted tones.
The enclosure is finished with some neat artwork from illustrator Adam Forster. We’d love to see a craft beer tie-in.
Metallica’s flamboyant lead guitarist knows his way around a distorted metal tone and the Dark Blood is one of the best distortion pedals thanks to a hefty tone modeled in the high-gain American tube amp style.
The gain is tight and thick, with plenty of bass response courtesy of the appropriately named “doom” control, which intuitively shapes your low-end.
You can find some really devastating rhythm tones setting the hi/lo switch to lo and tweaking said “doom” setting, but an onboard noise suppressor keeps things sane and there are plenty of sparkling highs to be dialled in on what is a great all-rounder for metal.
Another small enclosure pedal of simple design housing an enormous and classic metal distortion tone: it must be a Boss? No, but the Eyemaster, named after the Entombed song, is unashamedly channeling the dimed Boss HM-1 Heavy Metal with equally dimed Peavey Bandit for that classic Swedish death metal sound.
Designed and built in Denmark, this pedal is indestructible, but it comes with a three-year warranty just in case.
Push it all the way for death metal nastiness, dark, raw fuzz energy. There’s just gain and level to play with, but relax, TC Electronic fixed the tone. They know why you’re here; you took the left hand path.
The Herbert is not a distortion pedal in the purest since but it can sure be used as such. Taking the city-levelling tone of the Diezel’s 180-watt lead head and putting it on the floor, this is a sure-fire way of adding high-gain filth to your signal.
This stomp-box ain’t cheap but the amp it takes its preamp circuitry from isn’t either, and featuring the same dynamic EQ options as its namesake, the Herbert has incredible distortion on-tap.
Outputs let you send to a clean amp or alternatively through a power amp or effects loop.
Best distortion pedals: Buying advice
What is distortion?
So, what do we mean by distortion and how might this affect your hunt for the best distortion pedal? As with anything with an aesthetic purpose, gear, and how it sounds, is subjective. There are no rules so long as the tone speaks to you - and ultimately, that's the most important thing to consider.
This buyer’s guide focuses on distortion pedals, but naturally there’s some overlap between distortion, overdrive and fuzz pedals, as all of them are effectively designed to dirty up your tone. Where overdrive doesn’t change the fundamental character of your guitar’s signal, distortion can be considered more aggressive. It clips your signal harder. Fuzz clips it harder still, so you really lose definition.
Distortion pedals are best applied to clean tones - stomp on the switch and your metal/punk/hard rock dreams await.
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In the world of heavy metal, distortion is the most-prized raw material, and the evolution of metal and its subgenres through the ages has seen the black t-shirt dollar buttressing the economy for high-gain pedals. For some metal guitar players, a pedal that can deliver thick, saturated distortion, often with a tight compression to it.
If you are playing towards metal’s extremes, you’ll want a whole heap of distortion. Some scenes, such as early ‘90s Stockholm death-metal, coalesced around a single distortion pedal, the famed Boss HM-2; they dimed everything and it sounded horrible but brilliant in its own special way.
As a rule of thumb, however, it’s always good to use just enough gain to get the job done, and try not to overdo it.
Features that can enhance a distortion pedal include its EQ, which lets you shape the tone (with three- and even four-band EQs being the gold standard), and imaginative switching options such as selectable clipping modes, which let you choose between different voices of distortion. A little versatility goes a long way, even when your sole purpose is to melt faces.