A Guide To the Best Distortion Pedals on the Market

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Want to sound like your favorite rock guitarist? Or perhaps you’re looking to increase your pedalboard by experimenting with new sounds? This guide will take care of what distortion does to your guitar, why you should use it and a brief look at five of the best guitar pedals out there right now.

What is a distortion pedal?

Distortion pedals are key when it comes to making a statement with your guitar. A simple tap of the foot can transform a calm, melodic piece into something aggressive and powerful. Distortion adds a dirty, heavy sound to your playing and really packs a punch when used over chords. Like other pedals, it can be combined with other sounds like delay or reverb to really get experimental with your music.

Distortion actually came about by accident. As amplifiers began getting bigger and more powerful throughout the 1940s, guitarists began to discover that when cranked, their amps were beginning to ‘distort’ the sound their guitars were making. This early sound began to influence the way guitars were played and spawned a revolution in music history.

This ‘accidental’ sound was developed to a point where it became controlled and throughout the years, more and more ways to produce it were invented. Distortion is created by intentionally clipping the signal that your guitar puts out. These days the terms overdrive, fuzz and distortion describe similar sounds, with variable amounts of aggression and gain.

Why do you need a distortion pedal?

Distortion can be used in many different ways – either continuously throughout an entire song or carefully placed for dramatic effect. A common use of distortion is to transition between calm verses and heavy choruses. As a song approaches the end of a verse, the musician can kick the pedal at just the right moment (timing is key) to cascade nicely into a chorus section.

The same goes for soloing. Soloing with distortion is not only great fun but it sounds incredible – especially when bending notes and shredding your way up and down the neck of your electric guitar. Distortion has a home across multiple styles of music such as rock, metal, and grunge, so it can be found in so many places.

Like other effects, distortion can be used in all parts of playing. Whether you’re a casual bedroom guitarist, a recording artist or touring in a band, you’ll definitely find a use for a pedal if a distorted sound is what you’re looking for.

What should you think about when buying a distortion pedal?

It’s tricky finding the right distortion pedal with so many models on the market. But something you should do before you buy is to consider the following:

How aggressive do you want to sound?

Are you looking for something earth-shuddering to mimic the sound of thunderclaps, or are you after a more reserved, crunchy, overdriven tone suited to blues or country music? This is one of the most important things to think about when purchasing a pedal, so listening to a wide range of music where distortion is used is a great place to start.

How complex do you want your distortion pedal?

The second thing to think about is how simple (or complicated) you want your pedal to be. Some pedals have a basic, minimalistic layout that lets the pedal do the hard work. Others feature an array of different knobs to manipulate the sound it creates. Many things such as gain, cutting and boosting can be controlled on certain pedals, or a much more simple ‘bass’, ‘mid’ and ‘treble’ setup can be found on other models. The choice is yours!

How big do you want you want the distortion pedal to be?

The size of your pedal is something to consider if you already have a pedalboard in your kit. Your pedalboard space is precious, so how much of it do you really want to take up with a new distortion pedal? If this is your main go-to pedal then you’ll have space to buy something containing many different adjustments. But if this is your second (or even third) gain pedal to add some extra flavor to your sound, something small and simple may suit you better.

Top FAQs about distortion pedals

“What’s the difference between fuzz, overdrive, and distortion?”

This is quite a common question when it comes to dabbling into the world of pedals for the first time. It’s not quite a straightforward answer, so we’ll do our best to briefly summarize it for you.

Overdrive is often used to replicate the sound of valves within a tube amplifier. It produces reserved, warm sounds and is typically used in less heavy styles of rock and blues. It means the dynamics in your music shine through that little bit more effectively when overdriven, so if you’re playing hard or soft, your overdrive will reflect this.

Distortion is a consistent sound when added to your guitar. Regardless of how hard you are laying into the strings, the same amount of distortion will be applied. This is used for creating heavy, aggressive mixes and is much-loved for hard rock and metal fans.

Fuzz is an interesting manipulation of distortion. It gives a very compressed sound by altering the sound waves as they pass through the signal. Fuzz gives that ‘underwater’ effect to your playing and gives a unique tone to your electric guitar.

“Is a pedal with loads of settings and knobs better than one with only a few?”

Not necessarily. This all comes down to your own preferred sound and musical ear. If you’re a gear-head who loves to have full control over every note you produce, then select a pedal with plenty of customisation options. There are loads of pedals on the market that give you the option to manipulate your sound almost endlessly.

However, if you like the idea of choosing a strong pedal which you know you can rely on to do the hard work for you, then a more simple model may be the better choice. Don’t get too bogged down with the settings if you’re not too confident when it comes to EQ and mixing, though.

Our top 5 distortion pedals

We’ve scoured the internet to find the top five distortion pedals on the market right now. We’ve pulled together the main features of each distortion pedal, the pros, and cons, a bit of a roundup and the key information (from the weight to the price) for each one, so you can decide which distortion pedal might be best for you. 

Ibanez TS9 Tube Screamer

General specifications:

Product weight

1.3lbs

Product dimensions

4.9” x 3” x 2”

Model no.

TS9

Rating

4.5

Price

$99.99

Key features:

  • A great re-master of the original Ibanez TS9 Tube Screamer
  • A beautiful, mid-range overdrive to suit many styles of music
  • Iconic sound
  • Manufactured in the same factory the original pedals were made in
  • Maximum output: 0dBm
  • Maximum gain: + 30dB
  • Power supply: 9V battery or external 9V AC adapter
  • Input impedance: 500K ohms
  • Output impedance: 10K ohms
  • Equivalent Input Noise: -100dBm (IHF-A)

The Ibanez TS9 is nothing less than a classic pedal. It creates an iconic overdriven guitar sound which suits a wide range of different music genres and is often a weapon of choice for the professional musicians out there.

This pedal made its debut during the 70s and it’s been expertly tweaked for modern standards over the years. Those who used its predecessors back in the day will be touched with a strong sense of nostalgia by how familiar it looks and sounds – even down to the same ‘seasick-green’ paint job.

The design is small and compact with only three knobs on the face, but boy does it pack a punch. You can bet it’ll withstand life on the road too, with its tough, solid outer and easy-to-pack-away shape. The Tube Screamer has earned its place in music history; plug one in for yourself and see what all the fuss is about.

Pros and cons:

Pros

Cons

Truly iconic sound – a very famous pedal

Fairly limited in genre choice. Suits blues/rock music but anything heavier would require a pedal featuring more gain

Small, simple and extremely effective

Reasonably priced at $99

Retro, nostalgic look and feel

Easy to use

BOSS DS-1

General specifications:

Product weight

1.1lbs

Product dimensions

4” x 6” x 3”

Model no.

DS-1

Rating

4.3

Price

$48.79

Key features:

  • Classic pedal used by hundreds of famous musicians
  • Boss’ first distortion pedal, making a statement since 1978
  • Clarity remains even at maximum distortion setting
  • Takes care not to affect the sound created by different guitars and pickups
  • BOSS include a five-year warranty with this pedal
  • Tones to suit a wide variety of genres
  • Tone, level and distortion knobs on the face
  • Super-tough construction
  • 1 9V battery required (not included)

Here we have it; an iconic distortion pedal that pretty much every guitarist in the know has heard of. The DS-1 is Boss’ biggest-selling compact pedal and the first distortion pedal they ever manufactured. Reasonably priced and a hard hitter – talk about nailing it the first time!

It’s difficult to go wrong with this pedal. The sound is beautifully familiar and the layout is as simple as it gets. No nonsense – this is distortion at its core. Perfect for both beginners and experienced musicians, it’s a super versatile pedal that combines tight distortion with low noise to get the perfect sound. You’ll find it used by Kurt Cobain on Nirvana’s album, Nevermind, so its reputation follows it wherever it goes. Stamp on one for yourself to find out why it’s so well-loved.

Pros and cons:

Pros

Cons

A perfect first pedal for beginners

Settings and customization are limited

Suited to lots of different styles of music

Simple to use

Good value for money

ProCo RAT2

General specifications:

Product weight

1.9lbs

Product dimensions

4.8” x 4.5” x 3.3”

Model no.

RT2

Rating

4.3

Price

$79.99

Key features:

  • Extremely durable steel enclosure
  • On/Off LED indication
  • Angled design for accuracy
  • Design illuminates in low light
  • An easy access battery compartment
  • Five years limited warranty
  • Innovative RAT Filter Control

This pedal is great for the all-rounder. If you’re a session player or involved with many different bands and projects, then the RAT2 is a must. This versatile pedal caters for everything, from huge distortion to a less potent, crunchier overdrive.

RAT Filter allows you to customize your sound while playing. You can adapt where your guitar sits in the mix by cutting off undesired frequencies, allowing yourself to be heard exactly as you intend to. This is a big selling point for this particular pedal and is a feature loved by musicians all over the world.

Pros and cons:

Pros

Cons

Very reliable, tough design

Not always the ‘subtlest’ pedal

Great for the all-round player

A pedal well designed for live situations

Long warranty

Often used as a benchmark for other pedals

JHS Angry Charlie V3

General specifications:

Product weight

9.1oz

Product dimensions

6” x 3” x 3”

Model no.

JHS ACV3

Rating

4.5

Price

$199

Key features:

  • Fantastic replication of a Marshall JCM800
  • Transform your sound between eras with a single turn of the drive knob
  • Adjust your guitar’s volume level without affecting signal clarity
  • Controls: Volume, Drive, Bass, Middle, Treble
  • Made in the USA
  • True Bypass
  • Powered by 9V DC unit

This pedal may be higher in price than other models, but there’s a good reason. JHS has created a pedal with seemingly endless customization. The ‘Drive’ knob allows you to control exactly how much signal enters the mix and adjusts the level of distortion respectively. The Angry Charlie V3 offers a real nice, familiar blend of distortion and overdrive, which does a fantastic job of replicating a Marshall stack.

Speaking of replication (often referred to as ‘amp in a box’), JHS have intended for this pedal to mimic that classic Marshall sound – and it’s safe to say they pulled it off! If you love the classic, vintage sound of a JCM800 then this pedal has earned its place in your arsenal.

Pros and cons:

Pros

Cons

Very customizable

Twice the cost of previous pedals

Signal clarity is rarely affected, regardless of the setting

Familiar, warm sound of a Marshall amplifier

Easy to get a great sound

Fulltone OCD V2

General specifications:

Product weight

8oz

Product dimensions

5.1” x 3.3” x 2.4”

Model no.

Full Tone

Rating

4.6

Price

$127.20

Key features:

  • Batteries: 1 x 9V
  • Produces beautiful overdrive
  • A wide variety of sound to be achieved
  • Interchangeable hi and low pass filters
  • True bypass modes
  • 250,000 sold since 2004

The Fulltone OCD V2 is a famous pedal which promises to add plenty of spice to your guitar without stepping too much on its natural sound. Fulltone wants the guitarist to still be able to achieve their own distinctive tone whilst using this pedal, so it’s designed to blend seamlessly with your sound.  250,000 of these have been sold since they were first manufactured in 2004, which is a stat you can’t argue with!

This pedal nails the attack coming from your electric guitar brilliantly and works great with huge power chords or dynamic lead solos. You’ll get a full-bodied gritty tone from using this pedal during live sets – just tap and rock. The term ‘OCD’ is very present in this pedal as it’s obsessed with complementing your playing. 

Pros and cons:

Pros

Cons

Figures to back it up – 250,000 units sold

Perhaps not as suited to aggressive music as the BOSS DS-1

A trusted brand who have tweaked this pedal into its prime today

Warm, full sound

HP and LP settings add a lot of tweaking opportunity

Final thoughts on the best distortion pedals 

All five distortion pedals offer something totally unique; it’s just a case of finding the sound you’re after so you can choose the pedal that takes it to the next level. Our number one pick has to be the Boss DS-1. It’s incredibly competitively priced, especially as you’ll be able to get perfect clarity sound – even at maximum distortion.

The Fulltone OCD V2 is also a strong contender for the crown. Even though it’s a little more expensive, you can’t beat its natural sound, and the fact you can still achieve your own distinctive sound using it is spot on. However, you really can’t go wrong with any on our list.

We hope this guide helps you to decide on your perfect distortion pedal, whether you’ve never used one before or are looking for your next bit of kit. It’s not easy finding the right one, but by doing a little bit of research and shopping around you’ll be able to get a feel for which one will help turn your sound up a notch. If you have anything else you’d like us to review then please get in touch, as our experts are always on hand to give more tips and advice on kit.

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About the Author Jodie Chiffey

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