Rock ’n’ roll wouldn’t exist without distortion. Where guitarists used to crank their amps to the high heavens, there are now hundreds if not thousands of stompboxes to do the job – which is why a distortion pedal is often a beginner’s first-ever effects unit and a pro’s Holy Grail.
But that also means settling on one is impossible and identifying the ‘best distortion pedal’ around becomes a matter of taste. There’s compressed distortion for metal, ‘wide-open’ tones for rock and blues, robust preamp boxes for studio work, and a few wilder ones that experimental and noise musicians will love. You’ll find all of them on this list.
1Snake Oil Marvellous Engine
Rob Chapman’s pedal brand is, like the bearded guitarist himself, big on shredability and low on subtlety. The Marvellous Engine takes its cues from the ProCo RAT – with an added ‘voice’ control that adds both presence and distortion.
This steampunk-y device offers the RAT’s smooth saturation, with a frequency response that’s more ‘full-range’, yet its focus on choppy mids make it great for old-school metal riffing. There are usable sounds all the way up the tone control, but it never gets truly zingy… until we crank that voice knob.
Retails for £149. Read our full review here.
2TC Electronic Dark Matter
The TC Electronic Dark Matter is a Marshall Plexi-inspired distortion box that spans from the raw, unadulterated raunch of Jimi Hendrix to Electric Wizard’s sludgiest stoner riffs. Whatever setting you dial in, the stompbox offers a natural, responsive and articulate tone that captures your playing style, warts and all.
The Dark Matter, according to TC Electronic, is meant to sit between heavy overdrive and light distortion. At lower gain levels, it emulates those old-school classic rock tones that issue out of cranked-up tube amps. But push the dirt up, flick the voice switch, and you’re well into crunchy modern rock territory. Many players have also found the Dark Matter’s ‘open-ness’ and responsiveness work well when fed into a higher-gain device.
And like any good distortion pedal, this black box is a no-brainer to operate. Two active EQ controls (bass and treble), gain and a level knob are all the dials you need to work with.
Retails at $48.99/€45.
3Mesa Boogie Throttle Box
True to the Californian brand’s heritage, the Throttle Box revels in scorching high-gain distortion. The slim stompbox is designed for rock and metal while promising the ‘natural’ quality that Mesa’s amps are famed for.
Its controls tell the whole story. Besides the usual gain, level and tone, a mid-cut knob lets you scoop your midrange – the further counter-clockwise, the more ‘V’-shaped the EQ curve gets. And a Lo/Hi switch, which is integrated with the gain circuit, adjusts saturation levels: Lo for crunch, Hi for metal rhythms and searing solos.
That isn’t to say the Throttle Box lacks versatility. The pedal has a wide gain range, going from mild, blues-friendly tones to a mid-gain distortion suitable for most styles of rock all the way to full-on saturation for metal. There’s even a Boost DIP switch within the enclosure that you can flick off to reduce the low end and gain.
Retails at $199/£185.
4Fender Pugilist Distortion
The Fender Pugilist is a box of pure, hard-punching rock – it’s all about raw power, not versatility. It has two separate channels, each with its own tone and gain controls, that can be blended in parallel or stacked in series. Unfortunately, you can’t engage them separately.
The two channels are broadly similar in character, but the ability to set them up with different gain and EQ levels then blend between the two means you can dial in just the right flavour of heavily saturated noise. The added bass boost switch is a nice touch, and, overall, the fat and smooth tones the Pugilist summons make for a fun pedal to play around with
Retails for $120/£87. Read our full review here.
5Revv Amplification G3 Distortion
The G3 Distortion crams everything we love about the Revv Amplification 100 and 120’s Purple channel in a pedal format. It’ll cover a wide range of styles, from Van Halen to Lamb Of God.
Controls on this elegant purple unit are not much of a surprise. It has a three-band EQ, volume and gain knobs, and an Aggression toggle switch. The latter control is where things get interesting. With Aggression set to ‘blue’, the distortion delivered opens up into a more throaty roar. Flick it to ‘red’ however, it becomes a lot more… well, aggressive. It’s immediate, heavy and handles down-tuned riffs like it was built to.
According to Revv Amplification’s founder Dan Trudeau, 16 revisions went into the G3 Distortions voicing – and it certainly shows.
Retails at $229.99/£199. Read our full review here.
6Nanolog C4 Distortion
Put two PhD researchers in nanotechnology to work on a distortion pedal, and you’ll get the Nanolog C4. This innovative device encourages experimentation by offering three distinct voices: silicon, no-clipping and Nanolog’s own carbon-clipping circuit. The latter has a completely different texture from silicon- or germanium-based drives – it’s at once smoother, harmonics-rich, more ‘natural’ sounding, and able to reach high-gain levels without being too compressed and tinny.
Retails for $235. Read our interview with the brains behind Nanolog here.
7Walrus Audio Iron Horse
If you find the Boss DS-1 too compressed and the TC Electronic Dark Matter too open, the Iron Horse will better suit your needs. That’s because it lets you choose the compression levels via that three-way toggle switch. Flicked right, it offers an extremely compressed, smooth and creamy distortion that pairs well with metal and shred genres. The left position loosens your tone up a little, with an emphasis on the highs. And down the middle, it’s wide open – better for punk, classic rock and other barnstorming styles.
Besides that switch, you’ll find the usual level, tone and distortion controls. They’re fairly self-explanatory – except one thing to note is that this isn’t the best distortion pedal for low levels of gain. Below 10 o’clock, it offers an OD-esque rasp, but beyond that is where the Iron Horse truly begins to stomp its hooves.
Retails at $199/€202.
Adrian Thorpe’s pedals have rapidly acquired a reputation for rigorous build quality and
monster tones, and the Warthog might be the most uncompromising of the lot. Effectively Thorpe’s take on the classic ProCo RAT, the Warthog takes those fabulous overdrive-meets-fuzz tonalities, but ditches the RAT’s over-compressed response that means you’re in danger of disappearing in the mix when playing live. Instead, you get raw, loud and obnoxious rock tones by the bucketload, which will leave 90s alternative-rock fans
wishing they’d owned one in 1994.
Retails for £185. Read our full review here.
9Stone Deaf Warp Drive
Never mind its retro-futuristic artwork – the Stone Deaf Warp Drive is built for high-gain, metal-ready tones. From sludge to metalcore to classic Sabbath-style riffs, this stompbox has powerful EQ tools to sculpt your tone for all sorts of heavy genres.
Those EQ functions come in the form of a cut/boost knob that works alongside a frequency control and five-position bandwidth knob; set a frequency, adjust the Q from thin to fat, then boost/cut up to 20 dB from that band. The Warp Drive also has an in-built noise gate – you can engage this via a footswitch – whose threshold can be set via another knob.
Retails for £110.
10MXR M75 Super Badass Distortion
Here’s a straightforward distortion pedal whose strong points are its simplicity, versatility and all-round musicality. With its powerful active EQ section – bass, mids and trebles – dialling in a sound to suit your needs is easy, whether you’re after scooped metal or wide-open blues tones.
The Super Badass has a broad gain range, too. Keep the distortion low and output high, and the pedal flirts with boost to overdrive tones. But turn up the former knob, and you’ll add saturation and crunch. It may be double the price of a DS-1, but play around with the EQ, particularly the mids knob, and you’ll find those extra dollars worth it.
Retails for $/£100.
11Keeley El Rey Dorado
The El Rey Dorado’s (Spanish for “Golden King”) black and gold aesthetic is a nod to the livery of a Marshall amp. But the similarities run deeper than that because the pedal also delivers uncompromised Plexi tone.
The Hi mode on the El Rey Dorado takes after the 100-watt Super Lead favoured by Hendrix, Clapton and Townshend in the late 60s. The Lo mode, on the other hand, is tuned to sound like the comparatively tame JTM45. Apart from those switches, you’ll only have to contend with drive, tone and level knobs to dial in your desired tone.
While the pedal’s Mayan-themed graphics say nothing about its Brit tone inclinations, you won’t deny it when you plug it in. The Lo setting dials in a ferocious sound reminiscent of a vintage Marshall with the bright channel cranked up, while Hi ramps up the level and delivers a tone that’s less saturated, and has a fuller low-end response. If you’re a fan of classic British flavours, this is it.
Retails at $149/£149. Check out our full review here.
Over 30 years in production, an unchanged build, and used by the likes of Kurt Cobain and Steve Vai – the Boss DS-1 is the granddaddy of distortion pedals. Tone, level and distortion are all the controls you’ll find on the DS-1. No matter where you set them, the pedal maintains its tight, compressed and bold voice. That said, it’s still capable of a little variance, if only in the world of rock. Achieving the grungy power chords from Nirvana’s closet or the creamy licks of Steve Vai is a matter of tweaking the tone and distortion knobs.
The DS-1 is also a practical option for beginners taking their first steps into the daunting universe of pedals. And not simply because it’s affordable. Sonically, the DS-1 is known – almost notoriously so – for its high compression that covers up errors in your technique with more gain, resulting in less detail but ultimately more sound. For better or worse, it could help you feel a lot better about your tone, especially when you’re just starting out.
Retails at $49.99/£42.
13KHDK Dark Blood
This devilish-looking box bears Kirk Hammett’s stamp of approval, so you know its true calling: metal. “I plug it in when I want an over-the-top sound that dominates everything. It’s a tornado,” read the Metallica man’s words that run front-and-centre on the Dark Blood’s product page.
He isn’t kidding around. The pedal is an aggressive beast that combines MOSFET and solid-state design to offer the tone and dynamics of a cranked-up amp, with lots of mids thrown into the mix.
There’s even a treble booster stage added to the front end of the circuit, as well as a Doom knob that controls the pre-distortion EQ. The latter tweaks the low-end response – use it in conjunction with the Lo/Hi switch and noise gate to go from palm-muted riffs to wailing solos.
Retails for $229.95.
Blackstar Amplification managed to pack a few unique ideas into the HT-Dual, which serves up two channels of dynamic, tube-like tones, from light OD to rock ’n’ roll crunch. That there’s an actual tube lurking in the rugged enclosure is just the cherry on the cake.
The first thing you’ll notice about the HT-Dual is its weight. The pedal clocks in at a hefty 2.6 pounds. Part of that has to do with the 12AX7 tube that sits protected in the centre of the chassis. To make the most of it, Blackstar designed this stompbox to operate at 300 volts, the same voltage used in traditional tube amps. This creates the headroom, compression and touch responsiveness of a good all-tube machine.
Channel 1 on the HT-Dual can be used as a clean boost or a light overdrive. It has a pair of selectable voices – clean and crunch – that yields those cherished ‘open’ and warm tones. On the other hand, Channel 2 is the bona fide distortion, and is best deployed on crunchy riffs or searing solos. Both channels have independent level and gain knobs.
The HT-Dual’s formidable EQ section is its other main selling point. Besides bass, mids and treble, the stompbox has an ISF, or Infinite Shape Feature, knob. This Blackstar-exclusive feature allows you to choose a voice along the American-to-British spectrum. ‘American tones’ here refer to a tighter low end and more aggressive midrange, while ‘British tones’ are more ‘woody’ and less in-your-face.
Retails for £229.
15MXR M116 Fullbore Metal
As its name and raw aluminium chassis suggest, the MXR Fullbore Metal is a pedal designed explicitly for headbangers. If you don’t have the luxury of having a high-gain head at your disposal, this may very well be the best distortion pedal for your needs.
The midrange control on the stompbox is as precise as it gets on a pedal as slim as this. A mid knob boosts/cuts the middle frequencies from 200Hz to 5kHz, which you can set via a frequency dial. And a scoop button accentuates the high and low frequencies for that classic metal sound.
A switchable, adjustable built-in noise gate is the other super feature for metal. Set the sensitivity of the gate via a dial on the underside of the pedal, hit the gate button, and the distortion will be well-defined, brutal, and thick with a fast attack and release – perfect for those syncopated palm-muted riffs.
Retails at $99.99/€115.
16Old Blood Noise Endeavors Excess
The Old Blood Noise Endeavors Excess takes the unctuous 80s concoction of chorus and distortion, and sends it through a haunted eight-track. It’s a distortion plus chorus/echo that’s capable of producing ambient washes, resonant filter-esque gurgles and other experimental sounds.
You can choose between a chorus and slapback delay to chain up after the distortion, run in parallel or engage an independent effect. The chorus has editable parameters for rate and depth, and the delay for time and feedback. The latter runs up to a maximum of 125 milliseconds, and, although it doesn’t generate endless feedback, comes within spitting range of oscillation.
With the chorus or echo set at tame levels and stacked after the distortion, you can nail those lush tones from the 80s. Running both sides in parallel, however, creates a more multi-textured effect, depending on how much modulation/delay and dirt you sum out.
Retails at $199/€212.
Like the Boss DS-1, the ProCo RAT2 has been around the block for decades now. It’s an iconic, elegant and straightforward distortion pedal whose massive sounds have found a place in the music of Jeff Beck, Radiohead, Sonic Youth and more.
The RAT2 is all about tight, crunchy rhythms with a tight low-end and controlled treble. While it’s designed for high-gain, arena-ready tones, it can also be wielded as a boost for your solos. Part of the RAT2’s charm is that it’s an extremely usable and musical device, which makes it great for beginners and seasoned pros alike.
The filter knob is where all the magic happens. It’s not your regular tone control. Rather, turning it clockwise rolls off those high frequencies, while turning it in the opposite direction lets your guitar’s voice shine through. The RAT2 does get extremely saturated, heavy and loud – and that’s exactly what rock ’n’ roll is supposed to be.
Retails at $99.99/£69.
18ZVEX Box Of Rock
One of ZVEX’s more straightforward devices, the Box Of Rock is a musical, gritty and crunchy distortion unit modelled after the 1966 Marshall JTM45. It’s a two-fer of a stompbox, too, with a Super Hard On clean boost circuit that you can engage independently or stack with the distortion. Given its nature, it’s best employed for classic rock, blues, country, and indie rock styles that require high-headroom and low- to medium-gain tones.
The Box Of Rock is one of those pedals that doesn’t have a bad setting. No matter where you set the volume, tone and drive dials, you’ll get sweet, amp-like distortion that’s clear without the shrillness and crunchy without the brittleness. It never trespasses into high-gain territory, though, and it’ll retain the natural voice of your guitar.
What sets this pedal apart is its boost circuit. Based on ZVEX’s Super Hard On, the clean-ish boost can either be engaged independently or run after the distortion to give it extra sparkle. You might even find yourself leaving the boost on all the time.
Retails for $349.
19Suhr Riot Mini
From the boutique makers Suhr comes this pedalboard-friendly distortion box that roars with high-gain might. It’s built to mimic the organic feel and touch-responsiveness of a 100-watt tube head, so it’s best fed into a clean amp.
While its gain range isn’t the widest among the other stompboxes on this list – it goes from crunch to colossal – the Riot Mini has a two-way voice switch that toggles between a more natural-sounding distortion and a heavier, tighter one.
Retails for $129/£139.
20Fender MTG Tube Distortion
As its name suggests, the MTG Tube Distortion is a tube-powered dirt box. It was designed in collaboration with amp guru Bruce Egnater of Egnater Amplification fame. In a nutshell, this stomper is like the shredding channel your amp never knew it had.
In addition to a three-band EQ, the MTG provides you with a “tight” control which helps shape bottom end at higher gain levels. It also has a footswitchable boost with independent level and gain controls. With a tube incorporated in the circuit, the distortion delivered by the MTG is more rounded than you’d expect from a regular box of dirt. Gain levels go from medium to high and beyond, but this pedal is not just some renegade.
With the mids backed off and the gain down to about the 10 o’clock mark, it’ll get you through those soulful numbers. The aforementioned boost circuit gives this pedal an added usefulness too, with its independent controls allowing you to dictate just how much volume and intensity you want to add to the dirt.
Retails at $199.99/£159. Check out our full review here.