Distortion is the sound of hard rock and metal, the essential ingredient for roaring riffs, wailing solos and the entire metal genre - and accordingly, there are a ton of options for getting the best distortion sound from your rig.
As opposed to overdrives, distortion pedals are more commonly used with clean amps, with all the gain coming from the stomper itself. Perhaps the most iconic example of a guitarist stepping on a distortion stompbox is when Kurt Cobain slams his foot down on his Boss DS-1 in the intro to Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit, but you’ll hear distortion - whether from a pedal or an amp - on most heavy music.
Distortion’s hard clipping yields a more extreme sound with bigger gain ranges. That means the sound is more compressed, too, which results in increased sustain and feedback, something guitarists such as Jimi Hendrix and Joe Satriani manipulate to great effect at loud volumes.
An increasing number of distortion units now feature three-band EQs, offering increased control over your tone and essentially acting as an additional channel for your amp. These pedals are great for getting killer gained-up tones at low volumes, too, something you might struggle to do even with low-wattage valve amps.
Among our distortion picks, you'll find multi-channel offerings, blendable drives and amp-inspired circuits at a variety of price points. Let's get dirty…
1. MXR M75 Super Badass Distortion
An affordable dirt box with a three-band EQ
Launch price: $142/£99 | Controls: Output, distortion, bass, mid, treble | Sockets: Input, output, power | Bypass: True bypass | Power requirements: 9V power supply, 9V battery
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.
Read the full review: MXR M75 Super Badass Distortion
2. Boss DS-1 Distortion
One of the best - and first - distortion pedals ever
Launch price: $68/£45 | Controls: Tone, level, distortion | Sockets: Input, output, power | Bypass: Buffered | Power requirements: 9V power supply, 9V battery
Back in 1978, effects giant Boss was first making its name, and the DS-1 was one of only a handful of pedals bearing the company's brightly coloured compact enclosures. But it wasn't long after its launch in 1978 that it began luring in legendary guitarists, including Joe Satriani, Steve Vai, and later, Kurt Cobain. The pedal's saturated tone, hard clipping and touch responsiveness attracted big-name players - while the rest of us loved the low price tag, which remains to this day.
In praise of: Boss DS-1 Distortion
3. Mesa/Boogie Throttle Box EQ
Colossal high-gain tones from a US amp legend
Launch price: $299/£249 | Controls: Hi level, lo level, tone, gain, mid cut, boost, EQ hi switch, EQ lo switch, hi/lo footswitch | Sockets: Input, output, power | Bypass: True bypass | Power requirements: 9V power supply, 9V battery
This wide-ranging dirt box from the legendary amp maker 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; 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 the full review: Mesa/Boogie Throttle Box EQ
4. Pro Co Rat 2
The number one pick for scuzzy fuzzstortion
Launch price: $99/£66 | Controls: Distortion, filter, volume | Sockets: Input, output, power | Bypass: True bypass | Power requirements: 9V power supply, 9V battery
The Pro Co Rat remains one of the most popular distortion pedals ever to grace guitarists’ ’boards. Its 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 Dave Grohl, Thom Yorke 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.
5. KHDK Dark Blood
One of the best distortion pedals for metal - with a built-in noise gate
Launch price: $229/£199 | Controls: Gain, volume, doom, gate, hi/lo switch | Sockets: Input, output, power | Bypass: True bypass | Power requirements: 9V power supply, 9V battery
Kirk Hammett's signature distortion pedal is a brutal-sounding thing, with a raging stack-esque delivery. Background noise is kept to a minimum with an onboard noise gate, but the big selling point is the Doom knob, which dials in a monstrous landslide of bottom-end for that crushing tone that Kirk’s bandmate James Hetfield is renowned for. The Hi/Lo switch adds to the tweakability with the Lo setting upping the grunt factor for rhythm and Hi boosting the top-end and sustain for lead breaks. We also love the treble control, which has bags of variation. To have all this power in one reasonably affordable pedal is a dream come true for metalheads.
Read the full review: KHDK Dark Blood
6. Wampler Sovereign Distortion
A staggeringly versatile compact drive pedal
Launch price: $199/£199 | Controls: Volume, mid contour, tone, gain, modern/vintage switch, boost/gain switch | Sockets: Input, output, power | Bypass: True bypass | Power requirements: 9-18V power supply, 9V battery
The Wampler Sovereign is a total distortion pedal that's not designed to emulate a particular amp, but to dish the dirt in a variety of flavours. The Advanced Gain Structure section changes the character of the distortion via a gain knob, a boost switch is present for even more gain, and a Bright/Even switch lets you set your tonal preference. On top of that you have the tone and Mid Behaviour knobs, respectively dialling in the highs and focusing on the area of the midrange that you want to emphasise, so you can, for example, dial in a real in-your-face upper midrange presence that cuts right through. It's these tonal options that set the Sovereign apart.
Read the full review: Wampler Sovereign Distortion
7. Friedman BE-OD
Launch price: $199/£199 | Controls: Bass, treble, presence, volume, gain, tight | Sockets: Input, output, power | Bypass: True bypass | Power requirements: 9-18V power supply
The BE-OD pairs down Friedman’s Marshall-inspired BE-100 amp to pedal form. Control-wise, it’s similar to a fully fledged preamp, and there’s an internal gain trim pot, too. This is a cracking all-round distortion. Its defined bite and increased output is very noticeable and the tight control does exactly that - removing flab - and the BE impressively retains its character across the gain spectrum.
Read the full review: Friedman BE-OD
8. Fender Pugilist Distortion
Dual distortion engines makes this one huge-sounding drive
Launch price: $99/£87 | Controls: Tone A, gain A, tone B, gain B, blend, level, series/blend switch, bass boost switch, control LED switch | Sockets: Input, output, power | Bypass: True bypass | Power requirements: 9V power supply, 9V battery
The Pugilist offers dual gain engines (A and B) linked to a blend knob so you can have 100 percent A or B or a mix of both. This is a brilliant feature as there’s a wide variation of tone available from blending the two channels especially as each has its own adjustable gain and tone. Channel A offers a slightly milder distortion than B so you can use a touch of A with brightened tone to add clarity and pick attack to the saturated sound of B or have a mixture of both reminiscent of playing through two amps. You can also choose to run the two engines in series where full-on high-gain sound with rich harmonics is pretty much guaranteed.
Read the full review: Fender Pugilist Distortion
9. Walrus Audio Iron Horse V2
One of the best distortion pedals for old-school drive tones
Launch price: $199/£192 | Controls: Level, tone, distortion, 3-way clipping switch | Sockets: Input, output, power | Bypass: True bypass | Power requirements: 9V power supply
This filthy beast secretes thick, LM308-driven, '70s-style distortion that works great for old Sabbath riffs. There's more good news thanks to a toggle switch that flicks between a trio of clipping diodes to offer different distortion tones. Experiment with the toggle, distortion and tone controls and you'll find glam riff-fuel such as T-Rex and Bowie, and a cracking stab at the Stooges' I Wanna Be Your Dog proto-punk sound. It's addictive, versatile and just plain fun.
Read the full review: Walrus Audio Iron Horse
10. Stone Deaf PDF-2
Look here for Queens Of The Stone Age tones
Launch price: $179/£139 | Controls: Gain, height, freq, bandwidth, clean/dirty footswitch | Sockets: Input, output, expression, power | Bypass: True bypass | Power requirements: 9V power supply, 9V battery
A reboot of the PDF-1 distortion - the first Stone classic launched in 2010 - the aptly stamped PDF-2 trumps the performance of its Josh Homme-beloved older brother with some added gain. Like other Stone Deaf pedals, the PDF-2 can accommodate an expression pedal, which takes over the duties of the onboard frequency control, enhancing the thick characterful distortion sounds. You get everything from throaty '70s rock to the kind of aggressive tones you'd expect from guys such as the aforementioned Mr Homme and Jack White.
Read the full review: Stone Deaf PDF-2
11. Bogner Ecstasy Red
Bogner's legendary high-gain tones in a stompbox
Launch price: $349/£249 | Controls: Volume, treble, middle, bass, gain, variac switch, mode switch, pre-EQ switch, structure switch, boost footswitch | Sockets: Input, output, remote, power | Bypass: True bypass | Power requirements: 9V power supply, 9V battery
The Ecstasy Red pedal delivers the higher-gain modern lead sounds that really put Bogner 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.