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’ 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.
1Electro-Harmonix Sovtek Deluxe Big Muff Pi
This pedal may be based on the Russia-made ‘Civil War’ Big Muff from the early 90s, but one glance at its control system will tell you that it’s no mere reissue. The elements that make it a Big Muff Pi – smooth, rich distortion – remain, but it also brings you another crate of weapons to boost tonal versatility.
These extra features include a comprehensive mids section with which you can dial in a fuzzy wah or a phaser-like effect, a Wicker switch that adds a biting treble, a blend knob to bring back some of the clean signal and a gate control to tame some of the noise. If you’ve always wanted a little more from your three-knob Muff unit, this Deluxe iteration may just be it.
Retails at $149/£144. Check out our full review here.
2TC Electronic Dark Matter
The TC Electronic Dark Matter is a Marshall Plexi-inspired distortion box whose tones span 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) and gain and level knobs are all the dials you need to work with.
Retails at $48.99/€45.
3Revv 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. Check out our full review here.
4Walrus 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.
5Keeley 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.
7MXR 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.
8Old 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.
10Fender 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.