Regardless of where you got your first taste of distortion, be it from entry-level amps or from a stompbox, your ever changing musical preference will eventually lead you to check out what other distortion pedals offer. This is where we come in with our updated roundup featuring highly recommended dirt pedals (also called “dirt boxes”) that cover a wide variety of styles.
This guide is sponsored by Sweetwater so you can click through to get the full specifications, the latest price, and purchase any of the Distortion Pedals stocked by Sweetwater that we have recommended.
To better narrow down the list, we tried to steer clear of overdrive and fuzz pedals, even though they are usually categorized in the same manner as distortion pedals. Compared to overdrive, distortion pedals usually have more gain and can compress the sound, resulting in consistent response and improved sustain while taming attack dynamics. And instead of going for more bite like fuzz, distortion allows for more of your original signal to seep through. Keeping these characteristics in mind, we ended up with a list of true-to-form distortion pedals that deserve our recommendation and more importantly, your consideration.
Things to Consider when Buying a Distortion Pedal
Classic vs Modern Gain
Depending on the style of music that you’ll be playing, you’ll have to consider how much gain you actually need. Classic distortion units will be good for subtle to crunch tones, while modern ones will have enough gain for violin like lead tones and down-tuned riffs. There are some pedals with wide gain range, but they may require experience and time to get the sound just right.
Simplicity vs Flexibility
There are some pedals that offer more flexibility, but the downside of such is that you might end-up spending more time tweaking and end up tiring your ear, which defeats the purpose of flexibility. So if you’re in a band that won’t be needing high-gain distortion, or vice versa, it is best to stick to your guns so to speak, and save yourself the trouble. If you love tweaking your pedals, and you’re experienced enough to formulate your own sound, then flexibility should be your top priority.
Most distortion units come with reasonable price tags, so budget will mostly be a no issue. There are some that costs more and claim to sound better, but since we are talking about distortion, the difference in sound may very well be a matter of preference rather than actual quality. Still, you can’t escape the natural law of supply and demand, the more sought after and rare a pedal is (like boutique pedals) the more you have to save up for it.
Unless you go for cheap plastic units, most distortion pedals in the market today are housed in reliable metal housings. You’re more likely to get bored with the pedal and sell it, than actually breaking it. Still, there are brands that are known for extreme longevity, in case you want to pass down your distortion pedal to multiple generations!
The Top 9 Distortion Pedals
Whether you’re looking for singing single note lines or you just want to lay back and play crunchy riffs, our list will help you find the right dirt box for your taste. We covered everything from classic stompboxes with streamlined controls, to knob-infested dirt boxes that allow for more personalization.
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|The DS-1 gives you all the fundamental properties of a good distortion stompbox, nothing more and nothing less. With its long list of virtuoso users including Steve Vai and Joe Satriani, this is definitely the dirt box to beat.
|See our detailed review below
|The Big Muff PI is credited for helping Electro-Harmonix achieve world wide acclaim, with its combination of affordability, reliability, and aggressive tone. With big names like Jimi Hendrix, David Gilmour, and Frank Zappa, this was an easy selection for this list.
|See our detailed review below
|Mesa/Boogie amps helped define the modern distortion sound, this pedal gives you a stompbox approach to attaining their sought after shred and progressive rock style tones, by combining high-gain distortion and 5-band EQ.
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|If you’re looking for a high-gain “amp in a box” distortion pedal, then this is highly recommended. It features discrete Class A gain stages instead of the usual op-amps or diode clipping to get as close to Uberschall amps as possible.
|See our full review below
|Here’s a real badass distortion pedal that gives you impressive ’70s era rock tones mixed with modern transparency, reliability and simplified controls. It brings back the sound of the past, without the maintenance hassles of vintage pedals.
|Extended review below
|Wampler is relatively new, but they’ve established themselves as one of the authorities when it comes to making quality modern high-gain pedals. Case in point is the Sovereign, which have satisfied a long list of rock and metal guitarists.
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|The list of artists that have used a Pro Co Rat include the who’s who of rock guitar, including Jeff Beck, Joe Walsh, Bill Frisell, John Scofield, David Gilmour, Dave Grohl, James Hetfield, Joe Perry, Nuno Bettencourt, Kurt Cobain and many more.
|See our extended review below
|The BD-2 is essentially a hybrid distortion/overdrive pedal. It gave Boss a second entry in this list with its natural sounding tube-like dynamics and feel, much like overdrive pedals, but with good compression and at higher gain settings.
|See our full BD-2 review below
|For its price, this distortion pedal allows for impressive flexibility, while keeping the quality of both sound and build quite high. With artist users that include Andy Summers, Vernon Reid, Gary Lucas and more, this affordable pedal is highly recommended.
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Detailed Distortion Pedal Descriptions
After more than 30 years since it was first released, the transparent sounding Boss DS-1 is still at the top of the heap. Guitar virtuosi like Joe Satriani and Steve Vai have used it to create their cutting edge instrumentals while big name artists like Kurt Cobain used it to produce some of the most memorable distorted guitar riffs! There’s no denying that the DS-1 has helped shape guitar music and influenced many of the modern distortion pedals that are available today.
The DS-1 is beloved for its transparent and dynamic distortion, and for its affordable price tag. Beginners will find it very easy to setup and use, while experienced players will appreciate how easy it is to integrate into existing rigs. It has three basic controls – Tone, Level and Dist which you can tweak to create bare bones distorted tone that will not overshadow your guitar’s voice. The DS-1 comes in the familiar Boss single effect pedal shape with rugged metal exteriors, and it has been known to last longer than the rockstars that use them.
Electro-Harmonix Big Muff PI Distortion/Sustainer
The Big Muff PI is the pedal that launched the Electro-Harmonix brand into world wide acclaim, thanks to the pedal’s reliability, affordability and aggressive tone. Iconic guitarists also played an important role in popularizing the pedal, Jimi Hendrix, David Gilmour, and Frank Zappa are just some of the big names that stomped on a Big Muff PI to create great music. Up to this day, experienced guitarists that are looking for rough and aggressive distortion will go for the Big Muff PI.
The current production Big Muff PI pedal bears the same vintage distortion tone as the original ’70s era Big Muff PI, with three basic controls – volume, tone and sustain. The pedal’s harmonic distortion and violin-like sustain makes it ideal for cranking out sweet and meaty solos. The Tone knob is also commendable, allowing you shape your tone in a straightforward manner. Finally, this pedal comes in a rough metal housing that will surely get you through your busiest gigs.
Mesa/Boogie Throttle Box EQ
Mesa/Boogie’s 5-band EQ, as seen in their amps, played an important role in popularizing the “V” shaped scooped-mid setting that is as associated with metal and hard rock. Now this same 5-band EQ was bundled with their brand of high-gain friendly distortion and turned into a new pedal, the Throttle Box EQ pedal.
You are basically getting the “dirty” channel of a Mesa/Boogie amp, along with its powerful 5-band EQ, all in a compact stompbox format. To start with, the distortion section already has a foot-switchable Hi/Lo mode, which gives two distinct voices. Then add to that the tone-shaping capabilities of the five-band EQ – and you have for yourself a very flexible distortion pedal that can easily handle various styles of high-gain. Also, this pedal is not limited to just high-gain tones, just set it to low-gain and adjust the tone and mid-cut controls, to get more classic rock tones.
Bogner Uberschall Distortion Pedal
The Bogner Uberschall Distortion Pedal is truly an amplifier in stompbox format. It is built following the design of the actual Uberschall amp, utilizing discrete Class A gain stages instead of the usual op-amps or diode clipping design of other dirt pedals. The result is impressive touch response, clarity and note separation, it will truly make you feel like you are plugged in to another amp!
What’s particularly impressive about this pedal is how it retains clarity at higher gain settings. You can then shape your tone with the built-in 3-band EQ to taste. Like the amp that it is based on, this distortion pedal is perfect for high-gain tones, but it is in no way limited to just that. Turning down the gain knob will give you overdrive-like low gain tones with amp-like touch sensitivity. Finally, the pedal has a footswitchable boost with independent volume control, great for mix cutting lead lines. If you are a fan of metal, or if you are looking for a premium distortion pedal, the Bogner Uberschall Distortion is well worth saving up for.
MXR M78 Custom Badass ’78 Distortion
With each new release, the quality of modern production distortion pedals are continually refined. A great example of this is the MXR Custom Badass ’78 Distortion, with its truly “badass” vintage style tone. What makes it even more impressive is that it manages to retain a simple interface while covering various shades of classic rock friendly dirt, from crunch to singing leads.
With a mere three knobs, Custom Badass provides impressive flexibility, without going beyond the classic distortion tones route. And being a modern day pedal, you will notice improved fidelity, and improved transparency when the pedal is disengaged, thanks to modern true bypass switching. It is designed to be a main dirt pedal in a rig, but it can also be used in conjunction with other drive pedals, and it is especially impressive when driving overdriven amps. This pedal is built for lifetime use and features 100% analog circuitry with true bypass.
Wampler Sovereign Distortion
This Best Distortion Pedals list would not be complete without mentioning a Wampler pedal, specifically the Sovereign, a compact yet versatile dirt pedal that combines classic distortion with Wampler’s sought after high-gain tones. With diverse guitarists that include Carl Verheyen, Brad Paisley, Joe Perry in their roster, Wampler have to be flexible enough to gone beyond their usual high-gain pedals, and this has brought about pedals like the Sovereign.
The Sovereign distoriton is not a clone of other distortion circuits, nor is it the usual amp-in-a-box pedal, rather it is designed to be more like a bank canvass, where you can paint your own distortion tone as you like. What’s even more impressive is how Wampler was able to achieve this while keeping the number of controls to minimum, just the usual tone, gain and volume knobs, but with the addition of a special mid behavior knob that allows for some interesting tone sculpting. Other features include bright and boost toggle switches that expand the possible tones you can achieve even further. Although this pedal is a bit on the premium price range, the wide array of distorted tones that it can produce makes it a worthy investment.
Pro Co Rat 2 Distortion
The original Pro Co Rat became very popular in the ’80s, thanks to big name artists that stomped on this pedal during their live performances. The list of artists that used the pedal include the who’s who of rock guitar, including Jeff Beck, Joe Walsh, Bill Frisell, John Scofield, David Gilmour, Dave Grohl, James Hetfield, Joe Perry, Nuno Bettencourt, Kurt Cobain and many more. What started out as an obscure pedal quickly became a household name.
Although many consider the “Rats” produced in the mid-80’s to be better, the current production model Pro Co Rat 2 is generally the same, albeit built outside of the US. It carries over the same circuit that made the original Rat popular, while adding modern elements like improved reliability and true bypass switching. It is interesting to note that this pedal shares the same scheme as the Boss DS-1, with some adjustments that gave the Rat its own flavor.
Boss BD-2 Blues Driver Overdrive and Distortion Pedal
The Blues Driver is another pedal from Boss that ranks high among the best distortion pedals. Although it technically is an overdrive that can do distortion, it deserves a spot on this list because of its tube-like dynamics and feel, even at higher gain settings. Because of its classic flavor, this humble pedal continues to be a staple in many blues guitarists rigs.
The BD-2 pedal will give you classic blues guitar tones at lower gain settings, sounding warm and mellow, and responding well to nuances and volume changes. Turn up the gain some more and it goes beyond what other classic overdrive pedals can produce, adding more harmonics and sustain. With the advent of pedal modifications, this pedal gained even more popularity, Keeley’s mod is the most popular, adding a Phat switch that increases the low end of single coil pickups. Boss themselves released a special version with improved tone shaping controls called the BD-2W. It you are looking for great blues guitar tones, then this distortion pedal is the best place to start your search.
TC Electronic Dark Matter Distortion
TC Electronic knows how to make technology practical and not detrimental, this is evidenced by the popularity of their TonePrint series pedals. Interestingly, they haven’t released a TonePrint capable distortion pedal, but have stuck with the Dark Matter Distortion pedal. With its popularity, it is easy to understand why TC Electronic has not found a need to replace this pedal just yet, and it helped secure the company a space in this list with its great balance of versatility, quality and affordability.
While the name does imply metal tones, this pedal can do much more than just that. It is designed to cover everything from smooth to high gain, and comes with enough tone shaping to make even those with picky tastes satisfied. The gain knob does a good sweep of tones from classic to modern while the voice switch lets you change the bass response to match your preference. For the price, there’s quite a lot of things to do with the Dark Matter, and the quality doesn’t feel degraded or cheap. If you’re looking for a great value distortion pedal that has plenty of flexibility, check out the TC Electronic Dark Matter.
If you know of a distortion pedal that you think our readers should also consider, you can tell everyone in the comments section below, together with why you think they are worthy.