How to Find The Best Distortion Pedal For You
When it comes to creating your tone, the type of gain you use plays a big role. Depending on the distortion pedal you use your tone could have a buttery smooth feel with seemingly endless sustain, it could create a nice thick wall for crushing rhythm parts, or it could be a fizzy mess.
This guide will help you figure out what the best distortion pedal is for your needs as a guitarist.
The first thing you need to do is think about what you want from a distortion pedal. Do you want something simple you can just plug in and jam away? Or do you want to be able to tweak every aspect of the distortion to dial in the perfect sound for you?
While a lot of other guides will give you ‘Top 10 Distortion Pedals’ or similar, this guide will separate the pedals into different categories based on what you might want in a pedal.
This makes it easier for you to figure out what type of pedal suits you rather than trying to compare ten very different pedals.
A Quick Note on Distortion vs Overdrive
There’s often confusion between distortion and overdrive pedals because there can be quite some overlap between the two.
The Guitar Effects Course explains both distortion and overdrive in detail and it’s worth learning if you’re serious about your tone.
An important point to remember when choosing a pedal is that the lines are usually blurred between distortion and overdrive. There are even some pedals where guitarists still argue today whether it’s a distortion pedal or an overdrive pedal.
Don’t worry too much about the distinction between the two – just focus on finding a pedal that suits you.
Best Distortion Pedals Shortlist
- Flexibility: MXR M75 Super Badass Distortion
- Simplicity: MXR M104 Distortion +
- Budget: Dark Matter Distortion by TC Electronic
- High end: BIAS Distortion Pedal
Best Distortion Pedal for Flexibility and Control
Most distortion pedals are pretty simple to control as they only give you a few knobs to tweak. This can make it difficult to really dig in and control your tone, but most of the times a pedal with three knobs can be enough.
If you want a bit more control over the EQ of your distortion, the MXR M75 Super Badass Distortion is a very popular option.
With a bass, mid and treble knobs, it gives you that crucial control needed to dial in the right sounding distortion. Sometimes raising the bass or treble can be all that it takes to turn an okay sounding distortion into a great sounding distortion.
Have a listen to the range of tones the Super Badass Distortion can produce in the below video to see if it suits your style:
If you’re looking for a lot more control over your tone than what you see above, skip ahead to the high-end pedal recommendation.
Best Distortion Pedal for Simplicity
If you’re looking for a simple distortion pedal that doesn’t require you to spend time tweaking lots of settings and figuring out how to dial in a decent tone, the MXR M104 Distortion + is a good option to check out.
While it doesn’t give the full-face-melting level of distortion you can get with other pedals, it is very suitable for guitarists wanting a good distortion pedal for rock or blues style tones. It’s more suited to vintage style tones rather than modern high-gain tones.
With only two knobs to control your distortion (output and distortion level), it’s very easy to use. Use the right knob to set the level of gain you want, then use the output knob to set the overall volume level.
As you can hear in the above video, it produces a nice smooth distortion similar to what you hear in popular overdrive pedals.
It’s a nice-sounding and simple distortion pedal that works best when combined with a bit of gain from your amp.
Best Budget Distortion Pedal
In most of my other guides on best pedals, it’s been easy to pick out a budget pedal that offers far more than what the price implies. The problem with distortion pedals is that most of the pedals hover at around the $50 mark.
While you can easily get away with a super-cheap delay pedal without it sounding cheap, it’s a bit harder with a distortion pedal. The pedal you choose plays a big part in the overall quality of your tone so I highly recommend avoiding super cheap distortion pedals.
Instead of going for the cheap option, I recommend the Dark Matter Distortion by TC Electronic. It’s an incredibly popular distortion pedal at a very good price.
While the look of the pedal might seem like it’s only meant for metal guitarists, you might be surprised with what you hear. The dynamic range in the pedal is noticeably different from other distortion pedals which means you can go from very subtle dirt all the way to full-on saturation.
The above video gives a good demonstration of the range of styles the pedal can cover.
While there may be cheaper pedals out there, it’s hard to go past the value this pedal offers.
Best High-End Distortion Pedal
This pedal is epic and only for guitarists who are very serious about tweaking their tone to produce very specific tones.
I was incredibly impressed when I first tried out Positive Grid’s BIAS FX plugins and their BIAS Distortion Pedal is just as impressive.
The below video explains its features and sounds nicely along with how the pedal can listen to any other distortion pedal you have and ‘match’ the tone it produces.
It’s a great option for guitarists who already have a distortion sound they love, but want to further tweak the sound. It’s also handy for playing live as you can access a range of different distortion presets all in one pedal.
For most guitarists, it’s going to be complete overkill. But for guitarists who like to mod pedals and really dig into the details, I can imagine spending countless hours exploring what this pedal can do.
If you do get this pedal, please share your thoughts on it with me. While it’s out of my price range, I love the features this pedal offers.
The BOSS DS-1 is possibly the most popular distortion pedal and has been since it first arrived in 1977 (check out the 40th-anniversary edition of the DS-1 here).
The challenge with the DS-1 is that it’s very different from most of the distortion pedals listed above. The DS-1 won’t produce copious amounts of gain that completely saturate your tone like many of the other pedals.
Instead, the way a lot of guitarists use it is to add a bit extra on top of a different gain pedal or amp or to tighten up an already driven tone.
Because the DS-1 is typically used in a different way compared to other distortion pedals, I only recommend it for guitarists who know what they’re getting.
While most of the above pedals you can simply plug in and go for it, the DS-1 should be thought of differently. It’s a fantastic pedal when used properly. The reason many people are often disappointed when they first try it out is that they see it as just another distortion pedal.
Other popular distortion pedals that didn’t quite make the top picks include:
Getting Started With a Distortion Pedal
The distortion pedal you choose will play a massive part in shaping your tone. It’s worth spending the time learning how to get the most out of your pedal so you can craft the perfect signature tone for yourself.
For example the BOSS MT-2 Metal Zone is an infamous distortion pedal. It’s known for producing horrible sounding tones, but it is possible to produce decent sounding distortion with it.
Guitarists who understand distortion and know how to control it can produce decent tones with the MT-2. Guitarists who don’t understand distortion end up with ear bleedingly bad tone.
The more you understand about effects, the easier it will be to get great results out of whichever distortion pedal you buy.
The Guitar Effects Course digs deep into distortion as well as how to use in combination with other pedals. The course explains how the position of your distortion pedal in your rig changes your tone and how to control your tone.
If you’re serious about your tone, work through the course, and use the information it gives you.
Check out the Guitar Effects Course here to learn more about distortion as well as every other common type of guitar effect.