When you start playing electric guitar, it doesn’t take long before you realize that you need some effect pedals to achieve a good sound and get a personal touch.
One of the most important effects out there is the distortion pedal, without a doubt. In this article, I’ll help you find the right pedal for you.
The 5 Best Distortion Pedals - Reviews
#1 Fender's Pugilist, a Flexible and Strong Distortion Pedal
The Fender Pugilist Distortion is a high gain dual overdrive-distortion effects pedal for electric guitars. With led-backlit knobs and series/parallel operation, Pugilist is an excellent dual-drive Pedal made for Live Performance.
Fender created this high gain pedal featuring two gain stages. The Fender Pugilist lets you obtain the flexibility of two drive pedals only with one. This capability puts this device between the best high gain tones distortion pedals out there.
You can run the two gain stages in series to pile up them for a dynamic and dimensional tone. Or you can run them in parallel, with a blend control to tune the sonic balance. The bass boost toggle switch will fatten up your tone.
Pugilist is with no doubt among the best low-end high gain models in the market, and it has all the gain you need. Maybe it requires some time to learn how to negotiate the two gain channels via the blend and to achieve to dial it in your desired setting.
Pugilist has two modes, and both produce high gain tones. Mode A can function as an overdrive/crunch high gain pedal. Mode B saturates the tone for a more modern Hard Rock and Metal distortion. The bass boost is excellent for fattening up single-coil tones.
You’ll love this
- Live performers: Almost every aspect of the Fender Pugilist was designed for live performers.
- Made for dark stages: You’ll be able to see your settings at a glance, even on a dark stage, thanks to the Pugilist LED-backlit controls.
- Strong and practical: The Pugilist comes packed into a hard-anodized aluminum enclosure, so this high gain distortion pedal will stand up to regular use and abuse. The battery change is fast and easy thanks to the modern and practical battery compartment design.
You might not like this
- Can’t obtain enough control: As the Fender Pugilist is oriented to work in two different modes, maybe you feel that you can’t obtain enough control over every mode separately.
Pugilist is a flexible and strong pedal mostly designed for live performers. It has LED-backlit controls that allow watching controls settings at a glance, even on a dark stage. This pedal will stand up to regular use and abuse thanks to its hard-anodized aluminum enclosure. But maybe you wouldn’t obtain the control you want because the Pugilist is oriented to work in two modes.
#2 BOSS DS 1, Smooth Sustain and Hard-Edged Attack
BOSS established its DS 1 between the most known and effective dirt box in the world of guitar effects. Introduced in 1978 as BOSS’s first distortion pedal, the DS 1 has gained an important place as a very effective pedal for several generations of guitarists from the late 70s till our days.
The DS 1 smooth sustain and hard-edged attack have defined what a pedal of this kind has to do and how. This capacity makes this device another of the best distortion pedals right now in the market.
This model is the most sold of BOSS compact pedals and maintains its signature sounds and its original design that is so familiar in the guitar players’ world. Undoubtedly, this device has helped in creating great music in the four corners of the world.
This distortion box has a long history among the best distortion pedals used by guitarists everywhere. It has tones that adjust to all types of music. Even at maximum gain levels, this thing keeps a clear hard-edged attack.
It’s used to play heavy rhythms, riffs, and the most cutting solos. It’s a versatile device that can be adjusted to different guitars, pickups, and amps. Just turning down the volume cleans the tone without producing noise.
You’ll love this:
- A Sound that prevails and is searched for: Players around the world continue to seek the classic BOSS DS 1 sound, and its style has prevailed through multiple generations.
- The best of two worlds: This pedal’s pioneering technology implements a two-stage circuit that combines both transistor and valve amp gain stages. This produces a characteristic low-frequency fullness, which is loved by guitarists that play heavy music genres.
- Hard-edged gain: these distortion pedals produce a tight, hard-edged gain with rich harmonics while retaining the specific characteristics of different guitars, styles, and techniques of different genres.
You might not like this:
- Not aggressive enough: These can be not aggressive enough for some rock or heavy styles. It doesn’t perform well enough on high gain settings when trying to get heavy riffs. It suffers from a lack of bass and low-end punch in the EQ.
The DS 1 has a hard-edged attack and a smooth sustain. Its sound prevails and is still searched for by guitar players all around the world because these combine both transistor and valve amp gain stages. This produces a particular low-frequency fullness, which is very desirable to play heavy music genres. But maybe these cannot be aggressive enough for some rock or heavy styles.
#3 Earthquaker Devices Acapulco Gold V2, Mix of Fuzz and Distortion
The Acapulco Gold is a simple distortion Device. You turn this dirt box on and off with the footswitch, you control the output volume with its only giant knob, and if you want less gain, you just need to turn down your guitar’s volume controls.
Rollback your guitar’s tone control if you want a darker rhythm tone. That’s all you need to know to operate it. It has its big, eye-catching knob used to set the output level, and it would be better for you to be careful because it is known for being extremely loud.
This Earthquake’s device has a fraction of the size of other distortion pedals in the market and at a very low price. It was modeled searching for a vintage amplifier sound. So, it provides that tube amp characteristic effect with a clear, open, and crunch sound. This feature transforms this device into one of the best distortion pedals.
You’ll love this:
- A Model T emulator: With the volume of your guitar at its maximum, the Acapulco thunders like an open Model T on the edge of a big explosion.
- Soft overdrive: At minimum guitar volume settings, this pedal can become a soft overdrive or can add a Nashville tone to your style.
- Three-channel tone monster: This little puppy with a single knob can become a three-channel tone monster If your guitar has a three-way selector switch with separate controls gain and tone for each pickup.
You might not like this:
- Considering the Acapulco has only one volume control, this can be a big limitation when you need to equalize your sound or work with the bass and treble.
This one has this mix of fuzz and distortion very suitable for some new genres. The Acapulco Gold will sound like an open Model T amp when you turn the volume of your guitar to its maximum.
This device has shown to be very versatile, and you can obtain a soft overdrive tone at minimum guitar volume. But it can be a bit restricted with configuration, considering that it has only one volume control.
#4 Proco Rat 2 Foot Pedal, a Proven Legendary Distortion Pedal
Wherever you play rock, jazz, or blues, the Rat 2 can help you delineate a unique guitar sound. You can trust in the quality and durability of this pedal because almost all market distortion devices are measured against this model. This thing can be used to reach a metal distortion too.
Proco began to commercialize the original Rat pedal as a custom-order product in 1978, to then mass-produce it in 1979. In 2008, production moved to China and is now manufactured by Neutrik for Proco Sound.
The Rat 2 is unquestionably one of the best distortion pedals in the market and has helped define the sound of the most influential bands of the last three decades and had been recorded in thousands of albums. This was in part thanks to its versatility because the Rat can be a primary distortion pedal that delivers rich rock rhythm tones and excellent lead sound too.
It can be the best choice for your dirty channel if you don’t have a great amp distortion. But if you love your amp’s distortion, then you can use the Rat as a boost just for solos and get the extra kick you need. This device comes with a legendary filter control that can extract the cleanest and crunchiest sound from your guitar.
You’ll love this:
- A market icon: the classic Rat tone has been the standard that all other distortion devices are measured against for the last three decades.
- Legendary Filter control: you just need to turn the filter knob to the right to roll off brittle high-end frequencies thanks to the Rat legendary Filter control.
- Natural sound: to feel the natural brightness of your instrument, you just need to turn the filter down.
You might not like this:
- Little innovation: the classic old Rat and the new Rat both contained the same 3 controls with the same names. They are remarkably similar in most features, which shows a lack of innovation from the original to the new model.
Rat 2 is a market icon and a proven best distortion pedal. The Rat tone has been the standard in the last three decades, the model that all other distortion devices are measured against.
It has a legendary filter control that will let you get the right to roll off brittle high-end frequencies. But the Rat has had little innovation over the years from the original to the new model.
#5 MXR M75 Super Badass Distortion, Maybe MXR's Most Ultimate Distortion Pedal Ever Made
The M75 Super Badass may seem like another common distortion pedal with its classy silver metal finish. But MXR’s new M75 Super Badass Distortion will impress most guitar players because it has an excellent build quality, and it is one of the best distortion pedals in this company’s long history.
One of the most notable features the M75 Super Badass brings is its active band EQ section. These three simple knobs provide separate bass mid treble controls gain that will enable you to obtain the desired frequency ranges ideal for almost any style of music. But the distortion and output controls will let you obtain different tonal textures that go from a clean boost to a supersaturated distortion sound.
It happens with distortion pedals that most provide only one or two good sounds. But it isn’t the case with the M75 Super Badass because it delivers a great spectrum of different textures in terms of distorted sounds. This device will give you incredible tones perfect for every kind of music style you need. The M75 Super Badass will let you explore distortion realms you hadn’t seen before.
You’ll love this:
- Very versatile distortion control: This model produces a bold clean boost if you turn the distortion control all the way down and the output control from the middle level or higher. But as the distortion control is turned up to the higher gain levels, the tone gets fresher.
- The EQ has a brilliant voice: This device’s three-band EQ provides a very vast range of tones with a great richness of sound. Increasing bass control makes the tone higher but never flabby. However, the treble control covers a great palette from dark to sharp sounds.
- The richness of the output control: to obtain a significant amount of boost, you can do it thanks to the output control. While you play with this control, don’t forget to try changing the distortion control as well. You will see it offers a wide range of textures.
- A very versatile EQ: thanks to its EQ, the MXR Super Badass is possibly one of the best distortion pedals that MXR has ever offered.
You might not like this:
- Not for everybody: the MXR’s voice has a modern color that might scare off some old-school fans. But it is a desirable choice for all those guitar players looking for a new gain pedal that covers all the bases.
The MXR M75 Super Badass is a versatile distortion control. Its EQ provides a very vast range of tones with a great richness of sound that offers a wide range of textures.
But maybe the Super Badass is not for everybody because it has a modern color that might not be suitable for some old-school lovers.
Most Asked Questions About Distortion Pedals
In this article, we are facing some of the best distortion pedals in today’s market. I have been researching the best-known brands and models, looking for the best ones. Next, I will share with you the Most Asked Questions About Distortion Pedals.
How do I choose a distortion pedal?
The first thing I can say to you is the distortion pedal you will choose depends mostly on your taste in music and style than on the technical characteristics of the device you will use.
It is important to keep in mind which guitar and amp you have at the moment to search for the right flavor for you. You have to know if it will be the only pedal you will use or if you are planning to have a pedalboard, too.
It is necessary to know if you need it to distort your sound because your amp doesn’t have a dist channel, or you prefer more than one alternative to boost your sound. Also, it will be interesting to think if you will play as a rhythm guitar, or you will be in charge of the guitar solos too.
Are distortion pedals necessary?
Distortion is achievable via the boost channel of most guitar amps, but the trouble with this is the lack of control. Distortion pedals allow you for a clean distorted section and permit you to select when in a song you are using this effect.
Besides that, pedals can give control over the characteristics of the distortion sound itself. So, we can conclude that a distortion pedal is almost essential for electric guitarists to allow you to access the full range of tones you will need to play the music you love.
What does a distortion pedal do?
When you use an amp, there’s a maximum amount of sound you can amplify cleanly before the signal starts to distort. Since the late 60s, the music industry is doing its best to recreate this sound effect in a form that can be controlled. The search to replicate this sound has produced a high number of distortion and overdrive pedals.
You should choose a distortion pedal when searching for a high gain boost in volume and sustain. A distortion pedal is the right choice when you need a saturated sound for playing some aggressive styles like Hard Rock, Heavy, or Thrash Metal.
Is Tube Screamer Overdrive or Distortion?
The Tube Screamer is an immensely popular guitar overdrive pedal. It has been used by innumerable guitar players to create a signature sound. It has a characteristic mid-boosted tone, which is the favorite for many Rock, Blues, and Heavy Metal guitarists.
This pedal is a simulator of the sound of a vintage tube amplifier. The defining characteristic of this device is doubtlessly the ‘mid-hump’ that it produces, a characteristic that accentuates mid-frequencies. This boosts your signal like most other overdrive pedals. However, this device has the unique capability to boost only the mid-range frequencies of your signal.
What Distortion Pedal Did Kurt Cobain Use?
Kurt used different pedals over the years like the BOSS DS line, Proco Rat, EHX Small Clone, and a Tech 21 Sansamp to obtain his personal raw and grungy sound you can hear in many Nirvana songs. But he started with one of the most popular distortion pedals of all time, the BOSS DS 1.
Most of the distortion you hear in the albums Bleach and Nevermind comes from a simple BOSS DS 1 pedal. Over time, Kurt switched from the DS 1 to the DS 2, and you’ll hear the DS 2 in the albums In Utero and MTV Unplugged in New York.
My First Experience Buying a Distortion Pedal
The first distortion pedal I bought as a teenager was probably not among the best distortion pedals of its time. Back then, I was taking my first steps with an electric guitar, and I didn’t have too much experience in the field.
But this first one was significant for me because, with it, I made my first chords with distortion. Only for that reason, it will be in my memory for the rest of my life.
That pedal was a DOD FX55B from the late 80s. As soon as I bought it, I thought it was fantastic. But over time, when comparing it with the sound produced by other models, I couldn’t help but notice it wasn’t the best option and that maybe I should have bought another one.
I was just a beginner guitarist without experience. As an important fact, there was no Internet yet, this magical place where today we can research and reach valuable information on a product before buying it.
That is not the case today, so I drafted this article to help you find the best distortion pedal.
Now we have reached the climax of the article, where I’ll reveal to you the Top Picks I’ve selected to delight your senses (mostly ears). Let’s see next to the Top Picks of this article.
3rd Place: Acapulco Gold V2
2nd Place: Proco Rat 2
Proco Rat 2
The Proco Rat has been the standard in the last three decades, thanks to its legendary filter control that will let you obtain the most brittle frequencies. It has great versatility, can be a primary distortion pedal to rhythm tones or as a boost to get the extra kick for the solos. Thus, I will name the Rat my Runner-up.
Winner: MXR M75 Super Badass
MXR M75 Super Badass
The Super Badass is the most ultimate distortion pedal in this company’s long history. This versatile device has an EQ that will provide you a very vast range of tones with a great richness of sound.
Besides that, the M75 has an excellent build quality. Its distortion will let you obtain a vast range of tonal textures from clean boost to supersaturated distortion and always with a great gain.
This device is perfect for almost every kind of style. Thanks to all these attributes, I will name the Super Badass as The Winner of this review.
Many other excellent distortion pedals in the market, unfortunately, were left out of this list. Brands such as Tc Electronic, Electro Harmonix, Walrus Audio, KHDK, and Mesa Boogie are making great devices.
The Tc Electronic Dark Matter has its unique Dark Matter Distortion. The KHDK Dark Blood is a good distortion pedal. Then we have the Electro Harmonix Bass Big Muff Pi, the Walrus Audio Iron Horse, and the Mesa Boogie Throttle Box, which are samples of a wide and diverse market.
I select the pedals in this review, looking for those that deliver a great amplitude of possibilities. During all this process, I always have in mind to help you find the most suitable option for each preference.
In future articles, I will tell you all about other kinds of effects pedals such as equalizers, noise gate, compression, a fuzz pedal, and many others. I hope you have enjoyed the article and expect this will help you select the best distortion pedal for you.