Rock ’n’ roll wouldn’t exist without distortion. Which is why a distortion pedal is often a beginner’s first-ever stompbox and a pro’s Holy Grail – finding a unit to suit your needs is tough enough, and settling on one is impossible.
That’s also because there are dozens of models out there that identifying the ‘best distortion pedal’ is 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. And you’ll find all of them on this list.
1TC Electronic Dark Matter
For old-school amp distortion tones
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.
- Musical, tube-like tone with low compression
- Two active EQ knobs boost/cut your bass and treble
- “Voice” switch toggles between bassier and more retro tones
- Retails for about $50
In a way, the Dark Matter is the antithesis to the Boss DS-1. It embraces low compression, and all the screeches and spontaneity that brings. While it may lack the refinement of other units, this pedal will emphasise your pick attack, string chokes and palm mutes, and let slip moments of glorious harmonics – accidental or otherwise. In deliberating between the DS-1 and Dark Matter, you should decide if you want a distortion pedal that helps you develop your technique, or cover it up.
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.
2Walrus Audio Iron Horse
For fuss-free versatility
The Walrus Audio Iron Horse is no one-trick pony. It’s a rowdy, galloping distortion pedal that owes its versatility to a secret weapon: a mini toggle switch that changes the clipping diodes.
- Robust, no-nonsense rock tones
- Three-way toggle switch lets you change compression types
- Sturdy construction with beautiful graphics
- Retails for $199
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 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’s truly begins to stomp its hooves.
For stripped-back simplicity
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. The bright orange box is renowned for its reliability, elegance and accessibility, and can even be considered a rite of passage for guitarists.
- Timeless, sturdy and compact design
- Simple and elegant controls
- Compressed, high-gain tones for smooth distortion
- Retails for $50
“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.
4MXR M116 Fullbore Metal
For die-hard metalheads
As its name and raw aluminum chassis suggest, the MXR Fullbore Metal is a pedal designed explicitly for headbangers. Its sounds, controls and features are all about ensuring those riffs are as furious and tight as they should be. 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.
- Devastating modern distortion tones
- Built-in adjustable noise gate
- Precise controls for your midrange
- Retails for $100
Generally speaking, a metalhead’s distortion pedal has to sound crisp and articulate under high-gain conditions. Your notes and chords shouldn’t be buried under a thick layer of dirt. That necessitates robust midrange EQ, compression and noise gate functions to rein in the distortion. And the Fullbore Metal has all of that.
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 “Freq” dial. And a “Scoop” button accentuates the high and low frequencies for that classic metal sound. Besides these, “Low” and “High” dials give you even more command over your tone.
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.
5ZVEX Box of Rock Vexter
For Marshall-esque low- to medium-gain distortion
One of ZVEX’s more straightforward devices, the Box of Rock is a musical, gritty and crunchy distortion unit modeled after the 1966 Marshall JTM45. It’s a twofer 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 a high headroom and low- to medium-gain tones.
- Sweet-sounding OD to distortion tones with plenty of crunch
- Has an independent clean boost circuit
- Retails for $219
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. Which makes the Box of Rock a solid low-gain OD box, too.
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.
For a multi-purpose preamp-in-a-box
Here’s a stompbox that’s in the running for the most versatile distortion box around. 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 within the rugged enclosure is just the cherry on the cake.
- High-voltage tube distortion tones
- Two channels that span from clean boost to screaming lead tones
- “Infinite Shape Feature” lets you dial in British and American tones
- Has a speaker simulated output
- Retails for under $200
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 the tube, 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 either 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 more than competent for crunchy riffs or searing solos. Both channels have independent “Level” and “Gain” knobs.
The HT-Dual’s formidable EQ section is its other big selling point. Besides “Bass,” “Mids” and “Treble” dials, 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.
7Stone Deaf PDF-2
For modern, psychedelic and garage rock tones
This Stone Deaf device deserves mention on this list for its sheer ingenuity. Because this isn’t your average three-knob dirt pedal. Think of the PDF-2 as a filter/distortion hybrid. By manipulating select frequencies, you can achieve wah, phaser and other psychedelic sounds on top of your distortion.
- Two channels: clean boost and distortion
- Wide parametric filter with adjustable bandwidth to precisely shape your signal
- Works with a Stone Deaf expression pedal to create wah and phaser effects
- Great for stacking with other effects
- Retails for about $170
The pedal’s four-knob interface is anything but simple. It offers only one distortion-centric control in “Gain,” yet there’s a wealth of tones waiting to be unlocked via the powerful EQ section. Set a frequency from 35Hz to 6kHz, change the Q from razor-thin to fat via a five-way “Bandwidth” toggle, then boost or cut by up to 20 dB.
It all comes together when you hook the Stone Deaf EP-1 Expression Pedal up to the PDF-2. This controls the frequency sweep of the stompbox, leaving you with a wah or manual phaser, depending on your other settings. Setting a thin bandwidth is the fun part: With a bit of boost, you’ll get cocked wah tones. And if you cut the dB instead, you’ll get phaser effects.
The PDF-2 is not for everybody, nor can it claim the crown of best distortion pedal. It certainly isn’t versatile, and it doesn’t offer many options to control the ferocity of your dirty tones. But for gnarly psych and garage rock tones – or even for pretending to be Josh Homme – this Stone Deaf box is worth a spin.
8Old Blood Noise Endeavors Excess
For warped 80s sounds
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.
- A singular effects pedal that offers more than the sum of its parts
- Distortion and chorus/echo can either stack or run in parallel
- Sweet spots bring forth crazy filter sounds
- Expression pedal input to control the modulation/delay
- Retails for $199
While the Excess produces a woolly, high-gain distortion that’s competent enough for most schools of rock, that’s not what you’re here for. It’s the modulation and delay section, and its interactivity with the dirt stage, that makes this worthy of OBNE’s repertoire of mind-bending pedals.
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.
The Excess really flaunts its worth with an expression pedal hooked up. With it, you can control the rate/time or depth/feedback of the chorus/echo. That’s when you’ll be able to use the unit as a manual flanger, a pitch-shifting noisemaker or anything in-between. One thing’s for sure: this is far from an Eddie Van Halen in a box.
For straight-up rock tones
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 just about any rock guitarist out there.
- Fat-sounding with near-endless sustain
- Doesn’t overpower the voice of your guitar
- “Filter” knob boosts or cuts the high frequencies
- Retails for $125.99
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. Which is probably why the pedal is often billed as a distortion/fuzz/overdrive hybrid. 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. Think of this control as the ‘reins’ to the RAT2. It’s best used to keep any potential harshness in your signal in check.
Besides that, you only have two self-explanatory dials to contend with: “Distortion” and “Volume”. The RAT2 does get extremely saturated, heavy and loud – and that’s exactly what rock ’n’ roll is supposed to be.
10Chase Bliss Audio Brothers Analog Gainstage
For tinkerers and tech heads
It’s a boost, it’s an overdrive, it’s a fuzz. The Chase Bliss Audio Brothers does it all – and exponentially more, thanks to the unique design of this slim stompbox. If you love experimenting with your gear to coax non-standard sounds from your guitar, the Brothers offers a complex and interactive puzzle to solve. While it doesn’t have a literal distortion mode, tinkering with the pedal will yield any distorted tone you’re after.
- Two channels that offer a total of six individual modes
- There are 33 routing options alone
- MIDI- and with expression pedal-compatible
- Save up to two presets
- Retails for $349
The most expensive pedal on this list deserves its price tag for the sheer amount of thought and technical expertise that Chase Bliss Audio put into it. Going through all the features, switches and dials on the Brothers will require an essay, so we’ll focus on the highlights: the Brothers has two significantly distinct channels, each with three modes, that you can route in series or parallel to unlock hundreds if not thousands of tones.
The downside? It isn’t exactly easy to use.
The left channel (Channel A) is a JFET-based drive unit, while the right channel (Channel B) uses a series of integrated circuits. Each has boost, overdrive and fuzz modes, selectable via a three-way mini toggle. You can cascade the channels either way or blend them in parallel with a “Mix” knob right in the middle of the enclosure. Thankfully, you’ll only have “Gain” and “Tone” knobs per channel – and a master “Volume” dial – to contend with.
The OD on Channel A is the ‘nice guy’ of the pair, emphasising transparency while giving your tone a kick in the midrange. It’s a meaty, asymmetrically clipped and harmonics-rich overdrive that’s better for the raucous side of blues. Responsive and nuanced, too, the drive at low-gain settings sounds just as musical.
Channel B’s OD, on the other hand, is the more aggressive sibling. Modern, highs-heavy and able to scythe through the mix, it’s a biting sort of drive with lots of presence.
And then you can stack them together. Which is the real triumph of the Brothers, as you can use one side to boost a drive on the other channel, or smash two fuzzes together for sheer obliteration. The collisions and clashes you’ll encounter will keep you twisting knobs for hours on end. And for those who welcome that challenge, Brothers is a beauty.