Welcome to our buyer’s guide to the Best Distortion pedals!
Together with fuzz and overdrive, distortion stompboxes fall under what electric guitarists commonly refer to as the “dirt box” umbrella. If you aren’t sure about the differences between those three types of effects, we’d recommend reading our article entitled Overdrive Vs Distortion Vs Fuzz: What’s The Difference?
Please note that this page only covers pedals strictly labeled as distortions, not overdrives nor fuzzes, although this doesn’t necessarily mean that some of the devices in this list can’t deliver overdrive or fuzz-like tones.
How Did We Compile This Shortlist?
The title of this article may appear loaded to you, and some may wonder: “who is Delicious Audio to have the last word about the best distortion pedals?” – a question to which we humbly answer: “you are right, and that’s why we aren’t making any decisions here!”
The selection and order of the pedals featured in this article weren’t compiled by us, but by aggregating several recent “Best Distortion Pedals” lists by reputable sources we found online (we list them at the end of the page) and also by considering some data about each unit’s sales. It doesn’t get less subjective than that!
What Is Distortion?
Click below to expand a brief article with a little bit of background on what distortion is…
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The term “Distortion” is often used in audio to refer to any scenario where the original signal is transformed by feeding a circuit, component or recording medium an excessive amount of volume, which results in the generation of artifacts like extra upper harmonics and compression.
In the pedal world, distortion is differentiated from overdrive because it’s generated by “hard-clipping” rather than “soft-clipping.” The former generates a more compressed and noticeable distortion sound, while the latter is more dynamic and subtle.
How Does Distortion Sound?
To sum up the sound of Distortion in a few words we could say that it’s an effect obtained through gain saturation that is not as transparent and dynamic as an overdrive nor as grating and compressed as a fuzz pedal. It colors your sound, and the more gain you apply the more compressed and… distorted it gets.
Some pedals excel at delivering a specific range of distortion – hence the common labeling of “lo-gain” vs. “hi-gain” (“medium-gain” is also a thing, by the way).
Today’s Best Distortion Pedals
Without further ado, let’s dive into these top-notch, widely acclaimed distortion devices!
As usual with our interactive galleries, click on the name of the pedal or the image to open a video.
And if, because of this article, you feel inspired to buy something, please use the affiliate links we provide! It’s one of the few ways we have to support this blog and doesn’t cost you anything extra!
A pedal inspired by the British tone associated with the EL34 tube (read: Marshall and Orange amps), the MXR M75 delivers versatile distortion with plenty of sculpting options thanks to its three-way EQ section. The dedicated Mid knob allows for scooped tones (good for metal) or the more mid-rangey distortion in vogue in the ’70s.
This is a circuit with a lot of range, that can deliver “edge of breakup” and dynamic overdrive tones great for blues at lower gain settings, and get into serious hard-clipping when you turn up the Distortion knob. This makes it one of the best distortion pedals in the “rock” range of genres.
At $99 the price is just right, considering the rugged metal housing and the brand name.
MXR M75 AT A GLANCE
• Can deliver a wide palette of distortion styles
• Flexible 3-way EQ section
• Plenty of gain on tap
• Rather weak in the low gain range
• Not the best choice if you have a solid state amp.
We were quite surprised to find this pedal mentioned in almost all the best-of lists we took into account for this piece.
This all-original circuit features dual gain engines—with independent tone controls for each—letting you select multiple variations of distortion and parallel/series configuration. Series/Blend switch lets you stack channels for thick, cascading distortion, while the Bass Boost switch fattens up your tone. Players and critics love it not only for its sound but for its versatility, although it shines at high gain distortion.
It doesn’t have separate footswitches for each channel (something you can have in its bigger and pricier sibling the Fender Duel Pugilist), but at $119, that’s something nobody, in good conscience, can complain about.
Read our Fender Pugilist review.
FENDER PUGILIST AT A GLANCE
• We like how it sounds
• It marries flexibility and original design
• A bargain, considering it's a dual channel distortion
• Low gain tones not as good as high gain ones
• No dedicated footswitch for each channel
3. BOSS DS-1
This BOSS distortion pedal is an affordable, evergreen classic that covers your basics and does it with style. Released in 1978, the DS-1 is one of the (if not the) best-selling pedals ever. The Level and Dist knobs open up a variety of saturated and distorted sounds, while the Tone knob can make your guitar cut through during a solo or tame the highs for chord sections. Curt Cobain and Prince were big fans of it.
In recent years it seems to have become something of a “love it or hate it” item among guitarists, with some declaring it’s the best pedal distortion ever made, and others simply not getting it. This is probably due to the fact that it’s not precisely a pedal made for warm/dynamic tones, nor it’s the best distortion pedal for blues.
But it’s an effect that can make magic happen when fed into a quality tube amp on the edge of breakup adding extra overtones and clipping to the tone.
Read our Boss DS-1 review.
BOSS DS-1 AT A GLANCE
• Classic, Kurt Cobain-proof distortion tones, from crunch to full-on
• It can be easily modded
• Incredibly affordable
• It won't do "bluesy warm" nor "fat."
• Not the best choice if you have a solid state amp.
4. ProCo Rat
Launched in 1978, the RAT is a classic, evergreen distortion circuit that’s remarkably affordable and quite flexible tone-wise. It seems to be permanently on top of Reverb’s list of best-selling distortion pedals. Its aggressive distortion is achieved by overdriving an op-amp chip, rather than diodes and transistors like most other similar devices do.
There have been a few different versions of the classic RAT featuring different op-amps, but overall, the line has remained true to the original, consistently shining at thick distortion and borderline fuzz tones. At lower gain settings the RAT produces a usable overdrive sound, but this is a pedal born for lead tones, fully distorted rhythm parts, and even over-the-top fuzzy madness when all gain knobs are turned up.
A peculiar thing about this pedal is its Filter knob, which works in a reversed fashion compared to similar EQ controls found in other pedals (i.e. things get darker clockwise and brighter counter-clockwise). As hinted in the name, this really a low-pass filter rather than a “tone” control, adding a lot of versatility to this pedal by allowing the player to roll off the often harsh top end of the distorted tone without affecting the bass frequencies.
Although there are now several different RAT variations, the current updated version of the original is the RAT 2, featuring the new OP07 Op-Amp. Its tone is a tad more aggressive and bright than the (sought-after) vintage units sporting the LM308 chip, but it’s a subtle difference that only obsessive RAT lovers will notice (certainly not your band’s fans).
We have an entire article about the best RAT pedals, reissues and clones, check it out!
PROCO RAT AT A GLANCE
|YEAR||Originally released in 1978|
|PROS||• A classic heavy distortion at an accessible price • Produces borderline fuzz tones at high gain settings • Useful Filter control|
|CONS||• Usable but not outstanding at lower gain settings.|
An authentic emulation of a Sunn Model T Amp, this one-knob pedal delivers one distortion flavor but does it amazingly well, and with plenty of gain on tap. The circuit is actually very responsive to your guitar’s volume and pickup selection, so you can use those controls to widen your tonal palette from light crunch all the way to that stoner sound the original amp is famous for.
EQD ACAPULCO GOLD AT A GLANCE
• Great Sound
• Very responsive to pickup and dynamics
• Plenty of gain on tap
|CONS||• The single knob might put off players with tweaking inclinations|
6. REVV G3
A pedal designed with metal players in mind by an established boutique amp maker, the REVV G3 is a tight and clear distortion with a very responsive 3-way EQ section and Blue and Red “Aggression” modes that deliver a slightly different character in the mids (red being the most aggressive, “off” the least).
Built by hand in Canada, the G3 is truly boutique, and you can feel that in the price tag. However, considering that it’s voiced after the popular purple channel of the company’s critically acclaimed 120-watt Revv Generator amp (which sells for over $3,000), it may even be a steal at $229 or so.
The amount of gain delivered by this device cannot be underestimated, but gain by itself doesn’t get you in a top ten list! The G3 delivers great sounding distortion, and (much) more than one flavor of it, thanks to a tone-shaping section that’s at once intuitive and useful. Hands down one of the best distortion pedals for metal.
REVV G3 AT A GLANCE
|PROS||• A quality, hand-built, true boutique pedal • Responsive and intuitive set of controls • Can deliver a variety of high gain tones|
|CONS||• Pricey • Doesn't do clean|
We have a four-way tie on 6th place – see videos and descriptions in the following gallery:
• Honorable Mentions
These are pedals that got two mentions in the lists we consulted, discover them in the interactive gallery below.
• Relevant Videos About Distortion
We based this list aggregating the following Best Distortion Pedal lists:
JHS Pedals YouTube Video
PMTVUK YouTube Video
and in part also:
Reverb.com Pedal Sales Charts