The natural sound of your guitar may be terrific, but you can expand the range of sounds and effects you can make simply by using a distortion pedal. The fuzzy and gritty tones of the best distortion pedal models have greatly influenced the very sound of rock music itself.
Trying to change the effects of your guitar has long been of interest to the legends of guitar and rock. Les Paul tried to add effects with multi-tracks and echoes. However, now you can just use a distortion pedal to change your sound as you record or as you play. All the greats, including Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, and Keith Richards, have used this. With your own distortion pedal, you can emulate the legends and create your own distinctive sound.
Factors to Consider
Picking the “right” or “best” distortion pedal isn’t always easy. That’s because there are many different models to choose from, and the price can vary a lot. You should try to get a pedal that matches your budget as well as your ability.
So how do you pick the right one for you? Here are some factors that you should consider:
- If you’re a true rock guitar aficionado and you have a large budget, then you can buy expensive distortion pedals and perhaps even start your own collection. But for newbies, you really should limit your first purchases to models that cost less than $100. You can even find lots of classic models that cost no more than $50. Just keep in mind that these affordable models come with basic controls and often old (or classic) technology.
- There are actually basic designs to choose from. There’s the fuzz pedal that offers a very heavy sound, the high-gain pedal that creates a harsher tone by boosting the signal gain to overwhelm the amplifier, and the valve-distortion pedal that’s loved by soloists and blues guitarists because of the round sound it makes. The truth is that you have even more advanced options for the effects you can make. Such options include the wah-wah, chorus, delay or reverb, talk box, phrase looping, compressor, or even the multi-effect pedal that gives you more than one sound effect.
- Analog versus digital. The classic distortion pedals that were popular before and during the early 1980s are all analog. These are still popular today, because they’re more faithful in replicating the flavor of the sound made by the legendary rock musicians of yesteryear. Because there’s no conversion to digital, the signal is purer, as nothing is lost. Still, today you have lots of digital options, and they can be very precise as well as quite versatile.
- Basically, each distortion pedal comes with its own sound, just like some guitar models sound different from one another. So a distortion pedal can help you sound like early Nirvana, mimic the glam of hair metal, or replicate the raw power of 1970s heavy metal.
- Some have your basic three-knob controls, so you can set the distortion, tone, and level. Others have two knobs instead of a single Tone knob, so you can set the bass and treble separately. Other models even have a switch for different modes that offer very different sounds that you can then adjust with the other control knobs.
- Most of the time, your options are either a 9V battery or an adapter. Some units offer a choice, while others force you to either use the battery or the adapter.
- The best ones are often compact, as we don’t all have a large space for our pedal boards. These make them easy to bring along for live performances if you want.
- Most of the time, you have rather sturdy casings for your distortion pedals. However, it really does help if you can refrain from being excessive in your stomping.
With these factors in mind, let’s take a closer look at some worthy units to get whether you’re a newbie or a guitar vet.
BOSS DS-1 Distortion Pedal
It’s right that we should mention this Boss DS-1 first, because it’s a true classic. It was first launched way back in 1978, and it helped shape the rock and punk music of the era. It was also a favorite of the legendary Kurt Cobain, so it influenced the grunge music of the 1990s.
- This offers really tight gains, instead of the muddy tones you may get from the other distortion pedals of the 1970s. The harmonics are also very rich, which is quite a contrast to the harsh tones that other distortion pedals may offer.
- The sound still allows the particular playing characteristics of your guitar to shine through. Your own style of playing won’t sound the same as the others.
- This comes in a sturdy metal enclosure.
- The flavor is distinctly that of the hard rock of the late 1970s and early 1980s. Think AC/DC and other similar bands.
- The interface is very simple, with just three knobs to fiddle with. You can adjust the distortion, level, and tone to your liking.
- This is a proven design that’s been used by so many famous artists through the years. Go online and you’ll easily find a treasure trove of videos and articles on how to get the most out of your DS-1.
- It’s easy enough to get a strong rhythm sound simply by balancing the level and distortion knobs.
- The tone dial allows you to get a bright or dark sound that fits the music you’re playing.
- It can reproduce angry riffs, or you can make your own distinct sound with your unique picking nuances. Even at extreme distortion levels, it’s faithful to your picking dynamics.
- If you’re an advanced user or a modder, you can modify this easily. In fact, lots of boutique sellers offer their own custom-modded DS-1 for a unique
- The sound can be a little fuzzy if you go overboard with the distortion.
- Your dynamic range may also become more limited with extreme distortion.
This is a classic distortion pedal that’s reminiscent of the early punk rock and late 1970s metal scene. Its enduring popularity is no surprise, with such a distinct sound to offer. It’s easy to use and extremely affordable, and for all these reasons a lot of newbie guitarists use it, too. After all, if Kurt Cobain liked using it, then it must be good.
Electro-Harmonix Nano Big Muff
The EHX Big Muff is one of the most well-known distortion pedals in music history. It’s been around for the last 40 years, so different generations of guitarists have come to appreciate its fuzz sound.
The problem with the original Big Muff is that it’s literally big. Fortunately, now it comes in the compact Nano size while still retaining its big sound.
- This also comes with three knob controls, so it’s the same layout if you’re switching from the larger original to this new version. The volume knob controls the level of distortion, the tone knob lets you brighten or darken the sound, and the sustain knob allows you release a strong singing tone.
- This measures just 4.3 inches by 2.2 inches by 2 inches. In comparison, the original Big Muff was about five times larger. This Nano also weighs a mere 0.55 pounds.
- It’s easy enough to play right out of the box. It uses a battery, and there’s usually a 9v battery that’s part of the purchase. You then plug this into your amp and plug your guitar into it. Now you can get your effects!
- Yes, it is smaller, but its menacing growl rivals what you get from the original. If you’re looking to attain the same flavor of late 1970s music (or the grunge of the early 1990s), this is what you should get.
- It’s scooped in the midrange.
- Now that its size is 1/5 that of the original, you can use this even if you have a smaller pedal board. For those who want the Big Muff sound in a small bedroom, it’s now possible.
- Beginners should enjoy this distortion pedal, as it’s very easy to use.
- The personality of the sound really rocks, and you can get intimidating effects that sound great on metal tunes and in grunge music.
- It’s also sensitive to your guitar volume control, so adjusting this volume control can result in different fuzz nuances.
- There’s some form of feedback when you first turn on this unit, so you get an irritating loud pop right at the start.
- The gain does go a bit overboard, so you’re well-advised to tone down the sustain level. With too much sustain, the sound can be rather noisy.
This has been used by luminaries such as Hendrix, Santana, and Gilmour, so you should try it, too. It offers a very aggressive sound, but that’s what you want if you’re going for a metal or grunge tone in your music.
Behringer Super Fuzz SF300
When it comes to audio equipment, a good rule is to simply overlook the cheap stuff because you get cheap performance (if you can even call what you get “performance”). This Behringer Super Fuzz is the exception to the rule. It’s ludicrously cheap, yet the sound is surprisingly good.
- The flavor you get here is similar to the style of music prevalent during the 1960s and 1970s age of rock. With this, you can sound like Townsend or Hendrix.
- You can power this with an adapter or with a 9V battery. The on/off switch is big and easy to use, and there’s even a nice LED light to indicate when it’s on.
- This offers a lot of different sound effects, since you start with three models to choose from. You have a Gains Boost as well as classic fuzz and a grunge fuzz mode.
- Then you have four knobs to further customize the sound. The Level knob sets the level of distortion, while the Gain knob determines the heaviness of the fuzz. You also get two knobs for treble and bass.
- The three-mode option offers lots of possibilities, so you can really find the sound you want to use. It’s the kind of option availability you don’t always get with classic designs and other models.
- With the blue LED light, it’s easy to use on a stage.
- This pedal is so cheap that it is almost impossible to justify not having one.
- You even have a choice between an adapter and battery.
- Part of the reason for the low price is that the casing is plastic. So for over-stompers, this may not be the most durable model.
- It does offer a certain old-fashioned appeal, but it may not be the modern sound you’re looking for.
Just get this SF300. You won’t even notice the expense, but you will notice the sound it makes. This gives you lots of options that other more expensive models don’t offer.
Donner Morpher Distortion
What if you’re a fan of 1980s hair metal like Poison, Bon Jovi, or Motley Crue? If that’s the case, then you need the fuzz flavor you can get with the Donner Morpher Distortion pedal. It’s exactly how you’d describe the sound.
- This is affordable, even though the casing is made of aluminum alloy.
- What makes this affordable is that it’s very compact.
- This offers three modes (Natural, Classic, and Tight), and you have knobs for Gain, Level, and Tone.
- This offers true bypass, which means you can send an unchanged guitar sound through to your amp.
- This requires an adapter, as there’s no battery option at all.
- This sounds fantastic with a clean tube amp.
- You have three different modes, which means three flavors for you to pick from.
- There’s even a light indicator so you know which mode you’re using.
- It’s very compact.
- It’s well-suited for glam rock, but not for 1970s metal or 1990s grunge.
- You have to buy your own adapter, and there’s no battery option.
It’s affordable, very small, easy to use, and offers a wide range of sounds to choose from. With this Donner Morpher Distortion, you can practice all your Quiet Riot songs so people can really “feel the noise!”
Ibanez TS9B 9 Series Tubescreamer
Just because you play bass doesn’t mean you have to fade into the background all the time as your lead guitarist commands center stage. Ibanez makes sure you get some of the spotlight as it offers a version of the famed TS9 pedal specially made for bassists.
- This is really very compact, as it only measures 4.9 by 3 by 2 inches. It also weighs just 1.3 pounds.
- It’s an analog model, and the connections are all soldered well.
- This offers five knobs for Drive, Level, Mix, Bass, and Treble. Note that here you get separate knobs for bass and treble, unlike the original TS9 with the lone Tone knob.
- This is a pedal that’s very sensitive to how you play the bass strings. You can get different effects simply by changing how you play.
- With this pedal, you can get effects with your bass guitar, too.
- This has a very compact design, and it even has a thick rubber pad underneath.
- You have five knobs to experiment with, and you even get two EQ settings.
- The touch sensitivity really increases the range of your bass guitar. By using a pick, slapping the strings, or just picking at them with your finger, you can change the tone right away.
- There’s quite a bit of available gain, but not too much, so it doesn’t sound sterile.
- You may want to get a different pedal if you truly wish for that enraged metal distortion sound. This is more of an overdrive pedal than a distortion pedal, which means you don’t really get the gain you need for true distortion.
- This is powered by a battery, and you don’t have the option to use an adapter. So you have to bring lots of replacement batteries even when you’re using this at home in your bedroom, as worn batteries can mess up your sound.
If you play bass, then what are you waiting for? This really boosts your low end, and the controls offer lots of settings that you can customize easily. With lots of knobs and settings to adjust, you can spend a lot of time experimenting to get that kind of sound you really want. In fact, even with the same settings you can get really different effects simply by changing how you pick at the strings.
The TS9B is affordable, durable, and very easy to use. With this, perhaps you can grab the spotlight for once as you take center stage with your bass guitar.
There really isn’t a definitive choice to make here, as it all depends on you. The exception is the TS9B, as you should get it if you’re using bass. If not, you need to limit your options to any of the other four on this list.
We made sure to include affordable yet classic models for our list of the best distortion pedals. What this means is that you’re not really limited to getting just one of them. Why not get all four instead? You can even buy one every month because they are all so affordable. Some of them cost about the same as several cups of coffee from Starbucks.