Best Distortion Pedals - 2021 Reviews & Guide
Okay Metal-Heads, blues rockers and funky f***ers…. too far?…. nahhh….. this is a much anticipated review of the best distortion pedals you can find. Period. Some of these pedals will melt your face while others… well not so much. Keep on reading to find out which pedal will be the one you need to deliver a hard hitting punch to the rest of your bandmates & fans.
Like a lot of our reviews, it is important to remember the best type for you is going to be the pedal that matches your sound and the kind of music you play. If you have read our article on the best overdrive pedal that will sound familiar. Whether you play metal, blues, rock, funk or honestly any other type of genre of music, different distortion pedals will have different characteristics. This article will review the individual characteristics of some of the best on the market so you can choose the one that is right for you.
It can be classified as a “gain” pedal. “Gain” pedals are pedals that increase the signal strength coming from the guitar and causes the signal to “clip” and distort the sound. There are three main types of “gain” pedals, overdrive, distortion and fuzz pedals and we will take a look at all three pedals in a future article and compare them to each other.
However, for this article we are going to be focusing on the Distortion Pedal. It has a heavier sound then an overdrive pedal but not quite as intense as a fuzz pedal can be. It is probably one of the most popular types of gain pedals because it is in the middle between the overdrive and fuzz pedals in terms of its tone and level of intensity.
Distortion can be used in many different ways for many different genres of music. However, some genres use it more predominantly than others, such as, metal, post rock, heavy rock, and it can be heard in classic rock as well.
Our Top Choices for Distortion Pedals in 2021
This is another classic pedal from the engineers at Boss. It is one of the most popular distortion pedals on the market for a reason. Its sound is full and punchy and comes in at a fair price point. This would be a great first pedal to pick up in order to get a feel for distortion and how to use it since Boss pedals are known for being tough and long lasting. You can pick it up, experiment with it and then be able to understand your sound a bit better.
It should be noted it is also a great pedal for experienced players. It is tried, tested and true and can be relied on to have a consistent tone over time. It has been used by Steve Vai and Dave Grohl, so if those guys think it cuts the cake then I do to.
For the controls on the pedal’s interface, you will find a tone knob, distortion knob, and volume knob for customization. Plus it is equipped with a stomp pad type of control switch (I sometimes prefer the stomp pad compared to a click button as it provides a better feel when your foot hits the button, but that comes down to personal taste).
The tone on this pedal is fairly average; there is nothing too special about it as it is a pretty standard distortion. When the distortion knob is turned up it can almost take on a fuzz pedal sound to get some variation going and versatility out of your distortion pedal.
This would be a great all around unit for a beginner through to advance user. It produces a great sound that works well with most tube amps & solid state amplifiers. Some could say this is a middle of the road distortion pedal in terms of tone and overall playability. We would agree.
Take a listen to Pete Thorn from Sweetwater review the pedal:
Pro Co first came out with The RAT in 1978 but the pedal didn’t gain notoriety and popularity until the late 80’s when they came out with The RAT2. Throughout the late 80’s and into present day times, it has been used by some of the top players in rock history including Jeff Beck, Joe Walsh, Thom Yorke, Joe Perry and many more.
On top of the pedal you have a distortion knob and a level knob just like the DS-1, however instead of a tone knob it has a filter knob. The filter knob allows the guitar’s tone to shine through (when turned to the left) or the pedal’s unique tone to shine through (when turned to the right). It has a click button to engage the true bypass system to turn the pedal on and off.
Its sound is slightly more harmonic and heavy then the Boss DS-1 due to a different opamp used in the circuit board, however, most of the circuitry is similar to the DS-1. Unlike the DS-1, the RAT2 comes out of the gate heavy when the level is even turned down to low.
Like the name suggests this pedal is geared a bit more on the heavier side for metal and heavy rock. It has more versatility then its cousin the DS-1 due to 2 dual control knobs that act as an in pedal equalizer. The equalizer controls can be quite useful as the centre right knob controls both the high frequency tones and the low frequency tones and the centre left knob controls the amount of mid frequencies in the mix as well as the tone of the mid frequency.
The pedal has a fairly harmonic sound to it and can scream when the distortion is turned up all the way. The only downside to this pedal is that the guitar’s tone can become quite muddy if the equalizer is set poorly. Spending some careful time dialing in this pedal will be very important.
All and all this is a solid pedal for its price range if you are looking to find something that has more versatility than the DS-1 and still could keep up to the RAT2 in terms of heaviness.
The TC Electronic Dark Matter is a clear sounding effect that is all about tone. It has a high level of sustain which helps highlight and reward every nuance of your guitar playing.
The Dark Matter pedal can be viewed as a middle ground between overdrive and distortion. The guitar’s tone can shine through the clipping of the input signal but still offers a high quality punch that a distortion pedal offers. It definitely can resemble a vintage Marshall tube amp pushed to the edge of its capabilities, giving you a hard, crunchy distortion with clarity.
This pedal has knob controls for high-end tone, low-end tone, gain and level as well as a switch for two different styles of voicing. The tone is a great mix in between your guitar’s natural tone and a very versatile distortion that you can alter to your liking.
This is a great pedal for someone who wants a bit more punch than an overdrive can offer, however, if your style is more geared toward metal and heavier playing then you may want to look at one of the other pedals.
This is a heavy, heavy pedal first and foremost, and could be a solid contender for the best distortion pedal on this page for the heavier sounding pedals. Although it is a pricier option you are getting what you pay for.
The pedal has an influx of controls so tone customization can be extremely precise. It is essentially an “amp in a box” in the sense that it has a full range of customization options to get the tone perfect, so in theory, you could plug it in to a set of bare speakers and create an amazing tone, however, we wouldn’t suggest it as a you can never replace a great amp.
On the face of the pedal you will see a three-band EQ for highs, mids and lows allowing you to tweak the sound of the pedal to your liking. It also includes a switch to change between a warm sounding and a heavier distortion with a bit more spark and punch.
What sets this pedal apart is the fact that it has a built in boost switch and control for the boost itself. This is an already extremely heavy pedal and the engineers at Wampler thought, “Hey, why the hell not add a boost pedal in here??”But it turned out to be a great decision because when the boost is engaged, you multiply your distortion and can get that classic sounding squeal you need for solos and lead licks.
Picking the Right Distortion Pedal
When picking a distortion pedal, it would be wise to understand the options that can be available with different types of pedals. Understanding the tones that you want to obtain and when and where you want to use it within a song will be crucial to think about, so planning what you need is a solid strategy.
Different pedals have different customization options, tones and overall sounds. Below we will discuss the tone of each pedal, what it can be used for (in some cases who may have used it) and the options it provides for customizing your tone to what you want.
It is actually quite surprising how different some of these pedals sound from one another. It comes down to quality of parts, types of transistors and internal electronics. Some will provide an extremely fat sound where others may be a bit thinner. Some may have a ton of grit to them while others will be smoother. The tone switches will have varying ranges of bass and treble so you can get different sounds depending on the type of tone you have set. But enough of the differences, lets get to the pedals.