A distortion pedal is an indispensable effect for every guitar player — even those who don’t necessarily play heavy music. At light settings, they can give your tone a bit of crunch and compression. At more extreme settings, you can get searing lead tones and full-on destruction for heavier genres. Many amps have a dedicated channel for this very purpose, so not everyone needs a distortion pedal. However, if you’re building a board around a clean “pedal platform” amp, you’ll want a dirt pedal to achieve those sounds.
What Does a Distortion Pedal Do?
Distortion is a form of hard-clipping that takes an otherwise clean signal and tears it to shreds. It’s the more chaotic version of overdrive which is why we have different types of pedals for different flavors of saturation (overdrive, fuzz, and distortion being the big three). The sound is integral to the electric guitar and a huge part of what makes the instrument what it is.
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Why Every Guitar Player Needs Good Distortion
It provides the baseline rhythm and lead tone for numerous styles of music. And you want a good one, because unfortunately, not all pedals are created equal. Most of us want a distortion that’s thick and harmonically rich but also controllable and defined — so you can hear every note in a chord ring out, and it’s not just a wall of mush. If the distortion is too fizzy, hissy, or harsh, it just doesn’t sound great. Of course, everyone’s mileage will vary, and you might actually need a big mushy sound for your music. Regardless, consider investing in a quality pedal for the best tones from the jump.
What to Consider When Looking for the Right Distortion Pedal
One of the first things to consider is how many gain stages the pedal has. The simpler ones will just have one — you click it on or click it off. Other more advanced pedals might actually house more than one flavor of gain. Another thing to keep in mind is what tone-shaping parameters the pedal offers. Some people might not need or want EQ, while others prefer to have a bit more variety on deck. And most importantly, familiarize yourself with the style of distortion the pedal provides. Some have a vintage overdrive sort of sound for straight up rock guitar, and others are more modern for genres like hard rock and metal.
The 8 Best Distortion Pedals for Studio & Live Playing
1. BOSS DS-1W
The BOSS DS-1 is an iconic pedal. It’s been used by everyone from Kurt Cobain to Prince. The latest edition adds a two-stage gain circuit with Standard and Custom modes. Standard offers up classic DS-1 tones, and Custom has a more modern edge with boosted midrange to cut through a mix.
Walrus Audio’s Iron Horse is a fairly straightforward pedal with some clever engineering for additional versatility. Controls include Level, Tone, and Distortion. From there, we have a clipping knob that lets you blend different clipping diodes. The result is the ability to get tones you wouldn’t otherwise be able to with a single-circuit diode.
Here’s a pedal with a ton of character and potential in an affordable package. At its core are two gain stages with independent tone shaping. You can run each stage in either series or parallel, and a bass boost switch gives you enhanced low-end if the signal feels thin.
4. Pro Co RAT
Like the BOSS DS-1, the RAT by Pro Co is a legendary pedal. What makes it so special is how versatile it can be. You can dial in crunch and overdrive, or even get fuzz and blistering distortion out of it. The RAT has three simple knobs with which you can achieve a wide array of tones.
5. REVV G3
REVV makes some seriously awesome amps, and their pedal game is just as solid. This particular distortion pedal is perfect for modern high-gain metal tones thanks to a three-band EQ and three selectable aggression settings. It’s based on the purple channel of REVV’s amps.
The MXR M75 is another versatile but intuitive dirt pedal. Controls include a three-band EQ, master volume, and of course, a distortion parameter to perfect the amount of gain. Overdrive, crunch, and high-gain metal sounds are all achievable with the Super Badass distortion.
If you want a classic British-style overdrive/distortion, you can’t go wrong with the Friedman BE-OD. It’s taken straight from their BE100 amplifier, with controls for Bass, Treble, Presence, Volume, Gain, and Tight. Tones include gentle breakup and screeching high-gain for modern metal.
The Hamstead Odyssey is a premium boutique dirt pedal with incredible range. It features three clipping circuits controlled by three small switches for a variety of combinations. Tones go from clean boost to metal and even oversaturated fuzz. Hamstead kindly offers diagrams to get started with preset sounds.
Closing Thoughts: Try Before You Buy (& Find What Works for Your Playing!)
At the end of the day, it’s completely subjective. Everyone’s perception of a sound is theirs and theirs alone; what you may love, someone else won’t! The best advice is to try any pedals yourself, or check out demos online. You should be able to pinpoint right away the sound that works for you as long as you know the style you’re going for. Have fun with it, check out demos and reviews, and get riffing!