The best pedals to buy in 2021: 20 best distortion pedals
From doomsday devices to versatile dirt boxes, we pick out 20 essential distortion pedals for the modern guitarist.
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.
- READ MORE: The best overdrive pedals to buy this year
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.
Developed in a special collaboration between JHS and the shred-maestro turned blues-aficionado, Paul Gilbert. This pedal is a FET-based distortion that’s designed to pack tones from a mild overdrive all the way to tube amp on-the-brink.
It might be easy to discount the JHS PG-14 as a ‘shreddier’ tube screamer – but there’s some real dirt to be found within this gem, thanks in part to its two most unique features: a mid-frequency preamp for intense tone sculpting, and a push knob that kicks in amp break-up characteristics.
Retails at $199/£195.
TC 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.
Mesa 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.
The Fender Compugilist takes one half of the already fantastic Pugilist Distortion, and adds on a handy compressor. This new combination makes it perfect for achieving snarky driven tones that’s perfect for hot blues jams, or soaring fusion leads.
With both effects independently switchable, this stompbox is a dual board solution. The compressor is highly functional – though never overwhelming. You’ll find standard compressor controls here for recovery, compression amount and output level. A nifty gain reduction indicator also tells you when compression kicks in, helping you dial in just the right amount to achieve the response you’re looking for.
Retails at $169/£129.
Nanolog 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 at $235. Read our interview with the brains behind Nanolog here.
Fredric Effects Verzerrer
Fredric Effects’ Verzerrer is a strange one. A recreation of the Bohm Trickverzerrer, which is said to be the only distortion born out of East Germany. It produces harsh and abrasive tones that may not be immediately pleasing to the ear. But there’s a bit of a history lesson attached to truly appreciating its qualities.
Rock and roll was for the most part – frowned upon in East Germany. And If you were a budding young rocker – you were hard pressed to just pop into the cornershop and pick up a new Fuzz Face. Instead what you might have gotten was a Bohm Trickverzerrer.
A somewhat forgotten piece of gear from music’s history, the Fredric Effects edition of the pedal modernises the original’s primitive design. It’s housed in a more standard enclosure – while keeping the original diodes and transistors to call itself a faithful recreation of a pedal born out of the necessity to rock.
Retails at £140. Read our full review here.
KHDK 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.
EarthQuaker Devices Acapulco Gold V2
Earthquaker Devices’ Acapulco Gold might be the ultimate embodiment of a “one trick pony” – but when your pony is a supercharged poweramp distortion based on a cranked Sunn Model T, it really doesn’t seem all that lacking.
The ridiculously oversized knob that makes up the Acapulco Gold’s entire control section sets its output level – and it does get stupid loud. The trick to taming the beast lies in controlling your guitar’s volume knob. Turn it all the way up to deliver doom-inspired cranked tube tones, or back it almost all the way off for tight Nashville-esque twang.
Retails at $129/£135.
Revv 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.
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.
1981 Inventions DRV
The DRV is the brainchild of Matt Hoopes and Jon Ashley from 1981 Inventions and Bondi Effects respectively. What started out as a 1985 Whiteface ProCo Rat was developed by the pair over the course of four years. The result: a hand wired distortion pedal that’s a cut above the rest.
Elegant in both design and operation, the DRV’s controls – which are similar to that of a Rat’s – consist of just three knobs: a drive control, which adjusts gain, a cut, which is a filter, and an output volume knob. Key to the DRV’s appeal is how each of these controls satisfyingly play off each other.
There’s a lot of tonal depth to be found within this pedal, from Vox-like chimes, to deeply saturated tones that don’t mask complex chords. All in all, the DRV provides exceptional drive all while maintaining an almost amp-like response.
Retails at $250. Read our full review here.
Redbeard Effects Red Mist MK IV
Skindred’s Mikey Demus was searching for the be-all end-all solution to his live rig conundrum: how to attain distortion that truly chugs, regardless of the amp. After approaching Adrian Thorpe of ThorpyFX, the two embarked on a partnership that led to the creation of the Red Mist MK IV.
The Red Mist MK IV offers gain for days, producing heavy distorted tones that are especially tight in the bottom end. Its EQ knobs are immensely flexible – with the mid control offering some of the pedal’s crazier sounding tones when set at either extreme. At zero the mids almost completely disappear, and at maximum – the pedal starts to self-oscillate, producing feedback screeches like something more commonly found in a Death By Audio pedal.
Retails at £190. Read our full review here.
Keeley designed their Filaments pedal to be a high-gain all rounder, using a completely analogue circuit to provide all manner of tube-inspired nasty. Chugging metal rhythms and searing hot leads lie within this pedal’s reach. If you’re looking for a heavy distortion pedal that offers flexible tone shaping, this might be the one.
To help sculpt your ideal tone, the pedal employs six EQ parameters. With the switchable modes: Boost, Bright and Crunch, you can quickly alter the personality of the Filaments at the flick of a switch. And most surprisingly, it maintains a quiet noise floor even at high outputs.
Retails at $189/£179.
Walrus Audio Red
Walrus Audio’s Red is all about achieving saturated high-gain tones that blanket your entire practice space. With the help of its three-knob EQ section, the Red offers a plethora of heavy distortion tones – spanning stoner rock to blackgaze. That said, it’s also really capable at handling more classic rock type sounds.
The texture switch lets you select between two different clipping diodes for either a more compressed tone (ideal for lead playing) or a more open sound that sits on the hot side of an overdrive.
Retail at $219.
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 powerchords 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.
MXR 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.
Old 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.
What you see is what you get with the DOD Gunslinger – a no-nonsense MOSFET distortion pedal that offers thick and snappy drive. Simple to operate, the pedal features four controls: gain, volume, and low and high knobs for shaping your EQ. The pedal operates on 9V, though you can run it on 18V for an increased headroom. It’s a nice touch, and helps this pedal stay board friendly. The fact that you’re likely to run into these used for less than $50 is also an added plus.
Retails at $100.
True to Strymon, there’s more than meets the eye with their Riverside multi-stage distortion. The main controls are simple enough – gain and level, a three-band EQ, and two switches to control gain structure and frequency push. But what truly counts lies under its hood.
Riverside marries the dynamic sensitivity of an analogue JFET circuit with the control of a custom DSP to produce responsive, rich distortion. The nuances that come from this A meets D approach are plenty. It allows the pedal to make use of “continuous variable circuit tuning” – meaning the gain knob has a wide “sweet spot” for choosing your ideal sound, rather than finding it.
Retails at $299. Read our full review here.
Fender 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 around 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.
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