Distortion – most of us can't imagine guitar without it. There's something about turning pristine cleans into delicious dirt that still thrills us every time. Luckily then, we live in a 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, meaning if you're looking for the best distortion pedal to help you achieve tonal bless, there's more choice than ever before.
When used right, there's nothing like the roar of an amp getting totally shredded by a distortion pedal, and as a result, it's come to define many genres, from metalcore to Swedish death metal, hard-rock to punk. This hard-clipping effect has captured the hearts of many players, whether that's bedroom warriors dreaming of the sound of a totally dimed Peavey stack or the gigger looking to push their gain tone into the stratosphere.
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. Of course, our intelligent price widgets have also scoured the internet for the best deals.
We've included some in-depth buying advice at the end of this guide, so if you'd like to read it, click the link. If you'd like to get straight to the products, keep scrolling.
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 (opens in new tab) 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. It's also worth noting that it pairs especially well with one of the best phasers of all time the MXR Phase 90.
Read the full MXR M75 Super Badass '75 Distortion review
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 distortion pedal 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? A distortion pedal uses hard-clipping to transform your clean guitar signal into a filthy, gritty mass of pure joy. Now, while this buyer's guide focuses on distortion pedals, 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 – and fuzz clips it harder still.
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.
What style of distortion is right for you?
Just like chorus, delay, or reverb pedals, each individual distortion has its own unique tone and characteristics. But, deciding on which distortion is right for you really depends on the style of music you want to play. In the world of heavy metal, distortion is the most-prized raw material. For many metal guitar (opens in new tab) players, the ideal pedal delivers a thick, saturated distortion with a tight and controlled low end.
If you are playing towards metal's extremes, you'll obviously require a whole heap of gain, but you'll also want tone-shaping controls such as a variable mid control to ensure you can dial in the exact sound you need to be heard of the blistering drums and thunderous bass. Some scenes, such as early '90s Stockholm death-metal, coalesced around a single distortion pedal, the famed Boss HM-2 (opens in new tab) – they dimed everything, and it sounded horrible but brilliant in its own unique way.
For the less severe styles of music, such as punk and hard-rock, you may want to seek a more open-sounding distortion. For these genres, you can afford to opt for a distortion pedal that has more of a mid-range punch, as opposed to the scooped mids the metalheads seem to favor.
Find out more about how we make our recommendations and how we test each of the products in our buyer's guides.
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