The best distortion pedals are indispensable tools for any musician. They enable you to crank up your amplifier and achieve a metal or rock and roll tunes. Get the crowd dancing with the 80 tunes or add buzz to classic songs by adding this handy feature to your electric guitar. These pedals can also be used at the start of the chain, at the finish as well as within the effects loops. Better still, these machines will also enable you to dial in metal tones that have a fender combo, as well as allowing you to create a signature tune to entertain the crowd.
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’ 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.
What is the best distortion pedal right now?
Fender’s Pugilist Distortion is a hugely versatile dirtbox thanks to its dual distortion circuits, which allow you to blend two channels for monstrous high-gain tones with enhanced clarity – similar to playing through separate amps at once. As a result, it’s one of our absolute favorites.
Alternatively, with all sorts of flavors of gain at your fingertips, with the Wampler Sovereign Distortion on your pedalboard you could lose days (weeks) just dialing in various tones, each bathed in harmonic-rich distortion and crunch. It’ll do metal nicely, with tight low-end, but the mid-contour can give your chords all the punch of a young Mike Tyson, too.
5 Best Distortion Pedals of 2021:
Fender have stacked the Pugilist with all the gain you need, and even if it takes a bit of time to dial in your desired setting and negotiate the two gain channels via the blend, there’s so much joy to be had.
Yes, it can function as an overdrive, but we’re on the hunt for the best distortion pedals, and the Pugilist understands this, with oodles of gain that can be shaped to react to your pickups.
Since the early Fifties, Fender has remained a music industry leader in the worlds of guitars, basses and amplifiers with their expansive ranges of top-notch instruments and amps. However, one significantly related category that Fender hasn’t pursued quite as extensively over the last six or seven decades is effect pedals.
However, this year, Fender has finally plunged headlong into the wild and wonderful world of stomp box effects. And to date the company has announced nine new pedals, almost doubling the number of effects the company has ever offered in one fell swoop. The line currently consists of bread-and-butter effects, including overdrive, two distortion pedals, fuzz, boost, delay, reverb, compression and a buffer. No wacky modulators, filters, pitch shifters or even wah or tremolo yet, but hopefully those effects are in the works.
- Sounds excellent, tweak-able
- It’s a steal at the price
- High-gain outshines the crunch
- Blend might cause confusion at first
If you’re going to name a pedal something as righteously cocksure as Super Badass, it better deliver some truly jaw-dropping tones. Thankfully, in this case, it does – offering plenty of distortion to cover most styles of rock and metal, with added versatility thanks to a three-band EQ which can sweep through throaty overdrives and into more scooped and metallic thrills.
With impressive touch sensitivity and low noise levels, finished in a retro silver, it’s a great all-rounder for just about any kind of gain seeker.
With everything set to 12 o’clock, the Super Badass’s basic voicing is tight and crunchy – firmly in the British distortion camp. There’s a huge range of output on offer, too – unity volume lies at around 10 o’clock.
The gain range is similarly impressive: three-quarters on the distortion knob yields a thick, chunky growl that will satisfy most genres of rock players.
You can also employ the three-band EQ to up the mids for vintage bite or cut ’em for metal thrills, all with impressive touch sensitivity and low noise levels. Crank the distortion level too much, however, and things get oversaturated – it’s great for molten leads, but not so much for complex chords.
- Three-band EQ
- Wide gain range
- Low noise
- Not the greatest low-gain sounds
The Bonsai pedal by JHS pays homage to 9 of the finest distortion and overdrive pedals to ever be produced. With 9 individual modes that are all based on a separate iconic pedal, the Tube Screamer is filled with sound-sculpting options and that’s why I’ve placed it at the top of this list.
With a simple rotary knob, you can select one of the presets then tweak the output using the three other controls on the pedal’s face. The detail of each preset is outstanding, moving in chronological order from primitive Japanese distortion pedals like the legendary OD-1, to John Mayer’s favorite TS-10, and into the modern era with the JHS Strong Mod. Each of these settings has distinctive characteristics, and you essentially get nine pedals in one.
The remarkable thing about the Bonsai Tube Screamer is that despite its extensive range of distortion and overdrive sounds, it is relatively compact and will easily fit onto your board. The apple green aesthetics give it a unique look, and there is a green LED light next to the footswitch which indicates whether the pedal is on or is in bypass mode.
- Huge Mesa/Boogie distortion
- Flexible tones thanks to five-band EQ
- Pro-quality build and operation
- Can take a little time to find the right tone
Collaborations between the biggest effects pedal manufacturers and the smaller, hand-built boutique producers have become more common in recent years, but the Angry Driver – released in celebration of Boss’ 40th anniversary – feels like it’s in a league of its own.
You get a Blues Driver, world-renowned for recreating warm valve amp tones, and one of the best boutique distortions in the JHS Angry Charlie, housed together with full functionality as if they were two separate pedals.
Three dual-concentric knobs provide independent Drive, Tone, and Level control for each voice, while a six-position mode selector dials in each overdrive independently or combines them in series and parallel configurations. Which is why – regardless of how much gain you are looking for – the Angry Driver will always have you covered, and is one of our favourite additions to our best distortion pedals guide.
- Two pedals in one
- Top-class distortion covering all tones
- Independent controls for each circuit
Back in the late 1960s and the early 1970s, Electro-Harmonix made a huge breakthrough with its Bug Muff Pi pedal.
After years of development, we now have so many different variations of this original pedal. If we’re talking about metal music, their XO Metal Muff is designed especially for this genre.
At the very first glance, you can notice that the pedal has a fair amount of controls. Firstly, it has a dual-stage formation. Aside from the mandatory on and off switch, there’s also another switch that adds a high-end boost, which is controlled with an individual knob.
When you hit the main switch, the pedal adds distortion, just like any other. But the additional boost switch adds those sizzling high-ends according to the “top boost” knob level setting.
Metal Muff also adds a lot of sustain and gives a lot of control over the mids, from dark and scooped tone, up to “direct” heavy tones that cut through the mix. And with the top boost engaged, it becomes a mean soloing machine.
- The abundance of controls makes it very versatile
- Responsive mids control
- Switchable top boost with its independent control
- Sturdy construction
- The pedal is larger, which might be a problem for some pedalboards
Best Distortion Pedals: Buying Advice
In the world of heavy metal, distortion is the most-prized raw material, and the evolution of metal and its subgenres through the ages has seen the black t-shirt dollar buttressing the economy for high-gain pedals. For some metal players, a pedal that can deliver thick, saturated distortion, often with a tight compression to it.
If you are playing towards metal’s extremes, you’ll want a whole heap of distortion. Some scenes, such as early ‘90s Stockholm death-metal, coalesced around a single distortion pedal, the Boss HM-2; they dimed everything and it sounded horrible but brilliant in its own way.
Features that can enhance a distortion pedal include its EQ, which lets you shape your tone (with three- and even four-band EQs being the gold standard), and imaginative switching options such as selectable clipping modes, which let you choose between different voices of distortion. A little versatility goes a long way, even when melting faces.
What To Look For In A Distortion Pedal
Because there are a lot of distortions on the market today, you have to know what to look for. Many players are into many different sounds! Sometimes you may gravitate towards one sound, or sometimes many! But you have to choose the right stomp box to get your sound otherwise you will be disappointed!
And with so many companies adding a lot of control options and functionality, its easy to get what you need. So when choosing a distortion pedal, make sure to look for these key features:
- Genre of music the device was created for.
- Lowest and highest gain the unit can produce.
- Functions and options for control.
- Build quality and reviews.
Final point, make sure to watch some videos and read reviews. You can learn a lot from them which is why we have created these articles. We load them with everything you need to know to make the right choice!
While we try to do the best reviews possible full of great information, sometimes you just gotta try it. Luckily not only are pedals getting better, but so is customer service from a lot of retailers. So if you buy through one of our links to Amazon, you will be able to rest assured that they will make sure you are happy. Even if it means you gotta send it back to try something else!