If there’s one word that epitomises what hard rock and heavy metal players brought to electric guitar, it’s power. From the early originators to modern trailblazers, the sound of an overdriven and distorted guitar unleashes thunder in a way that makes other instruments look primitive and obsolete. The way to harness this sound yourself is by adding one of the best distortion pedals to your rig.
Distortion pedals can be used in a number of ways, from providing all the gain into a clean amp to ramping up an overdrive channel into infinity. Many guitarists run their distortion pedals at the beginning of the chain, though it’s not unheard for some to run theirs at the end or even in the effects loop.
For a lot of touring musicians, the right distortion is the most important pedal on the board – check out our guide to the best pedalboards if you don't yet own one – especially when using backlines provided by the promoter or local dealers. If you find yourself presented with a traditional Fender combo and need to dial in some heavy metal tones, a distortion stompbox is quite possibly the only thing that’s going to save you. We've got options galore in our guide to the best distortion pedals.
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The best distortion pedal: MusicRadar recommends
The MXR M75 Super Badass Distortion offers incredible value for money. It’s our top pick for the best distortion pedal because it’s a winner for sheer musicality, with dazzling touch dynamics that compliment your playing. It boasts the kind of feel and response you’d expect from a valve amp.
We’d also highly recommend the Boss JB-2 Angry Driver. Boss have made some truly game-changing distortion pedals over the years, but the more recent Angry Driver, released in partnership with JHS Pedals, packages one of the most classic overdrives of all-time with one of the most popular modern distortions. With six modes and independent controls for the Boss and JHS circuits, it’s a one-stop shop for thicker and heavier sounds.
Choosing the best distortion pedal for you
Each distortion pedal has its own unique appeal – some guitarists might want a more transparent gain boost that reinforces the characteristics of their amp, others might want the exact opposite – kicking in various distortions to sound like a completely different rig altogether.
Fans of alternative, grunge or other lo-fi styles generally prefer the grittiness of fuzzy distortion, while more metallic players tend to opt for less crackle and a more pronounced attack. The more adventurous among us might wish to stack both kinds on top of an already overdriven amp (with perhaps some help from a noise gate).
So, how do you choose the best distortion pedal for you? It’s worth having a think about functionality: are you looking for something with numerous gain stages, almost like channels on an amp, or a more straightforward stompbox to kick in where necessary or simply leave on throughout the set?
The next important factor is the general shape of the distortion: are you after something more vintage-voiced, like the Bogner and Friedman options in our best distortion pedals guide, or a bit more modern, like the Mesa/Boogie Throttle Box and Kirk Hammett’s signature Dark Blood? Among our choices, you’ll find multi-channel offerings, blendable drives and amp-inspired circuits at a variety of price points.
The best distortion pedals to buy now
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.
Read our full MXR M75 Super Badass Distortion review
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.
Mesa/Boogie are behind some of the most famous high gain tones in music history, so it should come as no surprise that some of their pedals pack some serious heat. The Throttle Box packs a five-band EQ, plus a host more flexibility: the hi/lo footswitch toggles between more and less gain, with volume knobs for each mode.
Elsewhere, the boost switch – for extra low-end and dirt – is easily accessible, and you can also deactivate the EQ on the hi or lo modes.
With a saturated, yet responsive chunk, the hi mode puts Foo Fighters, Metallica and Dream Theater at your feet, thanks to the extra EQ, which sparkles and scoops without any harshness. But while you won't find transparent break-up tones on the lo mode, its harmonically rich overdrive cleans up beautifully with the guitar's volume knob.
Read our full Mesa/Boogie Throttle Box EQ review
Though Kurt Cobain was more reliant on his Boss DS pedals, the Nirvana frontman was seeking something more extreme for Nevermind’s heaviest track, Territorial Pissings. He ended up using a blend of his Pro Co Rat distortion going straight into the Neve desk and his mic’d amp to unleash some of the highest levels of gain of their career.
The Rat’s trademark hard clipping comes from a pair of silicon diodes, which yield an aggressive yet smooth distortion, all with a hint of fuzz. That distinctive tone led to players as diverse as Thom Yorke, Robert Fripp and James Hetfield all making good use of the rodent over the years.
This second version was released in 1988, and although the ’85 Whiteface RAT Reissue utilises the original’s LM308 op amp and therefore captures the holy grail of Rat tones, the Rat 2 gets close on a budget. You may also want to check out our guide to the best fuzz pedals.
Looking to ride the lightning like Kirk Hammett? Then you’ll be pleased to hear the Metallica lead guitarist’s signature distortion pedal is quite the beast indeed. It keeps noise down to a minimum thanks to the onboard gate, and also features a Doom knob to ramp up your low-end to earthquake-inducing levels.
The Hi/Lo switch allows users to go between rhythm and lead tones with ease, with additional high-end and sustain for those solos. The gain can be shaped through a treble control which covers an impressive range of sounds. Best of all, it’s moderately priced and the black and red finish is guaranteed to look slick on any pedalboard. Definitely the best distortion pedal for Metallica fans.
Read our full KHDK Dark Blood review
Founded by Brian Wampler in 2007, Wampler Pedals have made a big name for themselves over the last decade or so, with notable users including Neal Schon, Dweezil Zappa, Brad Paisley and Rick Neilsen.
The Sovereign distortion pedal covers an array of dirts and distortions, with options for advanced gain and brighter modes. Then there’s the Mid Behaviour knob, which can take you from a metallic scoop to much more classic and thicker-sounding heavy tones. The best distortion pedal if you want something that feels more unique and boutique.
Read our full Wampler Sovereign Distortion review
If there’s any Marshall-inspired amp that’s sat among the top of boutique options in recent years, it’s the Friedman BE-100. So, as you’d expect, its pedal version packs some gargantuan tones in one tiny box.
There’s an incredibly defined bite and increased output, and the tight control comes in very handy for a more defined attack. Then, of course, there’s that world-famous, irresistible vintage gain. Voiced after the greatest Plexis in Marshall history, the BE-OD, much like head itself, oozes class and thunder on all fronts.
Read our full Friedman BE-OD review
As well as its dual gain engines (A and B), the Pugilist also boasts a blend knob for a mix of both – which makes it one of the most versatile distortion pedals out there. Especially considering each engine has its own adjustable gain and tone controls, so it can function almost like three different channels at once.
As you’d expect, the A channel is a milder, more rhythmic kind of distortion, while B brings more saturation and sustain for leads. And, of course, running both together offers no end to amount of gain you can dial in. Housed in an elegant brushed gold casing, here’s one for the thrill-seekers, and for beginner guitarists looking for an affordable pedal. Don't forget to check out our best electric guitars for beginners too.
Read our full Fender Pugilist Distortion review
Based in Oklahoma and founded in 2011, Walrus Audio are another brand whose pedals have really made an impact in a relatively short space of time. This updated version of their Iron Horse distortion will undoubtedly be popular among those looking for thicker and sludgier tones, with no shortage of low-end and warmth.
It offers three distortion modes operated by a toggle switch that changes between different clipping diodes, providing more versatility in shaping the tone of the distortion. Depicting an armoured horse riding into battle against a Galaxy Gold finish, here’s a pedal that’s undoubtedly victorious in both looks and tones.
Read our full Walrus Audio Iron Horse review
James Brown, the man behind Amptweaker pedals, is perhaps best known for being a design engineer for Peavey and Kustom amps, having worked closely with Eddie Van Halen on the original 5150s.
It’s no surprise to see and hear all those years of experience in his pedals – this Tightmetal Jr boasting an improved noise gate, a tight switch for djenty tones and additional EQ options that allow it to take on some of the tonality of its FatMetal pedal.
Though admittedly it’s not much to look compared to some of the other options in our list, this Amptweaker pedal is capable of some truly classic tones, but also outperforms most others on the sheer quality of its contemporary heaviness. Pedals don’t come much tighter.
As one of the more established boutique brand out there, Bogner amps have long been favoured by the biggest producers and players in the world. This Ecstasy Red pedal delivers a lot of the higher-gain modern lead sounds that put them on the map. There are rotary controls for gain, bass, mid, treble and volume, with two presets for gain and volume that operate in the boost mode.
Above the rotaries are four mini-toggle switches: Variac, which adds a dynamic compression effect; a mode switch with three gain options dubbed Tight, Full and Mellow; a three-way Pre-EQ switch that offers two types of bright emphasis plus a centre neutral option; and a three-way switch called Structure, which changes the pedal's gain and overall tonality to match the Ecstasy 100, 101 and 20th Anniversary versions.
Read our full Bogner Ecstasy Red review