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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.