The best distortion pedals to buy in 2023: 10 great hellraisers from budget to boutique
Looking to kick your sound into more than just overdrive?
Distortion! The seed of all rock guitar sounds. A good distortion pedal can be a joy to play, and there are countless great options on the market right now for pushing your favourite tube amps into mayhem. Let’s dive into what we think are the ten best options, whether you’re looking for a boutique noisemaker or an affordable stompbox.
Distortion vs Overdrive – what’s the difference?
There aren’t really any hard-and-fast rules to delineate an overdrive pedal from a distortion pedal. But in general, distortion pedals are more, well, distorted than overdrive pedals, offering more compression and saturation, with harsher signal clipping. There is, of course, crossover between categories, and you’ll even see some of these pedals also called fuzz pedals!
The best distortion pedals to buy in 2023, at a glance:
- ProCo Rat2
- EHX Hell Melter
- EarthQuaker Devices Acapulco Gold V2
- REVV G3
- Boss MT-2W Metal Zone
- DOD Boneshaker
- Empress Heavy Menace
- MXR Distortion+
- Friedman BE-OD
- Black Mass Electronics 1312
The ProCo Rat2 will be forever the best way to start a list like this. It’s affordable. It sounds great. It’s easy to use. What more do you need? The circuit is a great example of how many distortion pedals work: the signal is boosted, and then the top ends of the wave sliced off and sent to ground by clipping diodes, resulting in the more compressed and saturated sound. But the unique quirk of the pedal is its filter control, which aggressively rolls off high-end for woolly, fuzz-like tones on one end and harsh, spiky distortion on the other.
Today’s best deals on the ProCo Rat2
EHX Hell Melter
EHX’s recent Hell Melter is a great take on the ‘expanded HM-2’ format. As a quick primer, the HM-2 was released by Boss in the 1980s, and while it’s ultra-harsh sound and absurd frequency response wasn’t a hit in the mainstream, it quickly became the sound of scandinavian death metal. The Hell Melter is the latest in a long line of updates to the formula, which makes the chaotic sound a lot more usable thanks to modern updates like a noise gate, parametric midrange and clean blend.
Today’s best deals on the EHX Hell Melter
EarthQuaker Devices Acapulco Gold V2
The Acapulco Gold is an intriguing pedal. Is it a distortion? A fuzz? Something in between? By overloading and saturating two small power-amp chips, this pedal conjures powerful, crushing sounds completely unlike most distortion pedals, which boost the volume and then clip the signal with diodes. With just one knob for output volume, there’s not a lot of explaining that needs doing, either: just plug in and get going.
Today’s best deals on the Acapulco Gold
Revv’s G3 is an amp-like distortion with a voicing based on the brand’s signature “Purple Channel” from its Generator 120 and 100P amps. This modern, aggressive sound will let you turn even the cleanest amplifier into a roaring, chugging metal beast. There’s also a switch to engage either the Red or Blue ‘aggression’ modes, which up the gain and presence of the pedal to raise even more hell.
Today’s best deals on the Revv G3
Boss MT-2W Metal Zone
For a while, the Metal Zone was a bit of a meme – played exclusively by your little brother in his terrible metalcore band with more JNCO jeans than good riffs between them. But in recent years, it’s had a renaissance, and not just in the form of this latest Waza version. There’s a lot of tight, chunky distortion on offer, and its EQ section is incredibly powerful. Just don’t use it to scoop the midrange, OK?
Today’s best deals on the Boss MT-2W Metal Zone
Some distortion pedals have a parametric midrange, letting you fine-tune exactly where the frequency is boosted and cut. The Boneshaker has a parametric midrange – and a parametric bass, and a parametric treble. This means you can accurately sculpt the response of the entire pedal to create either thunderous bass, honky midrange or spiky treble – or anything in between. It comes particularly recommended for players of extended-range or baritone guitars, as the low-end response being so versatile is indispensable in this regard.
Today’s best deals on the DOD Boneshaker
Empress Heavy Menace
The Heavy Menace from Empress is, unsurprisingly, aimed at people who want to chug. Serving as something like a high-gain amp head in a box, there are three channels, ranging from Light(ish), to Heavy, to Heavier, a noise gate for clamping down on hum and feedback and perhaps most importantly a parametric midrange to help you fine-tune the texture of your chugs.
Today’s best deals on the Empress Heavy Menace
Here’s a good example of why the distortion/overdrive spectrum is completely arbitrary: the Distortion+ is, obviously, a distortion pedal. However its circuit is almost identical to the DOD Overdrive Preamp 250, which is, obviously, an overdrive pedal. Either way, both pedals sound great, with the Distortion+ offering slightly more compression and saturation thanks to its germanium diodes.
Today’s best deals on the MXR Distortion+
Friedman’s BE-OD is a classic of the ‘amp-in-a-box’ style of pedals. These aim to recreate the distortion character of particular amplifiers, in the BE-OD’s case the timeless sound of a cranked Marshall head. If you want to bring some of that British roar to your sound but don’t want to commit to a full Marshall stack, then a BE-OD is a great option.
Today’s best deals on the Friedman BE-OD
Black Mass Electronics 1312
We started with the RAT, and we end with the RAT – sort of. The 1312 is one of the best “boutique” takes on the circuit out there. It has higher headroom than a standard RAT thanks to an internal 18-volt charge pump, and the flavour of distortion can be chosen with an eight-way clipping switch, with everything from vintage germanium diodes to mosfet clipping on offer. If you’ve been bitten by the RAT and want to dive as far as you can into that world – the 1312 is for you.