Updated Mar. 25, 2022

Editor’s Note: New pedals added to this best distortion pedals list in January 2022: EarthQuaker Life Pedal and JHS Packrat.


In the six-strings realm, one of the first lessons learned by electric guitarists is to differentiate between Overdrive, Distortion and Fuzz – effects that in their pedal versions belong to what is known as the “dirt box” umbrella.

This article only covers pedals strictly labeled as distortions, not overdrives, not fuzzes – although this doesn’t necessarily mean that some of the stompboxes in this list can’t deliver overdrive or fuzz-like tones.

Best Distortion Pedals

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Aggregating the Best Distortion Pedal Lists on the Internet

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 10 recent “Best Distortion Pedals” lists by reputable sources we found online (we list them at the end of the page). 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…

| Click here to expand/shrink this section |

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.

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).

The 10 Best Distortion Pedals of All Time

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!

1. Fender Pugilist

We were quite surprised to find this pedal mentioned in almost all the best-of lists we took into account for this piece (yes, we assumed the BOSS DS-1 was going to win hands down).

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 the full Fender Pugilist article with video reviews.

FENDER PUGILIST AT A GLANCE
YEAR 2018
PRICE $120/£89
PROS • Great sounds
• Very Flexible
• A bargain, considering it's dual channel
CONS • Low gain tones not as good as high gain ones
• No dedicated footswitch for each channel

2. 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.

Read the full Boss DS-1 article with video reviews.

BOSS DS-1 AT A GLANCE
YEAR 1978
PRICE $59/£67/€58
PROS • Classic, Kurt Cobain-proof distortion tones, from crunch to full-on
• It can be easily modded
• Incredibly affordable
CONS • It won't do "bluesy warm" nor "fat."
• Not the best choice if you have a solid state amp.

3. MXR M75 Super Badass ’75

A pedal inspired by the British tone associated with the EL34 tube, the 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.

MXR M75 AT A GLANCE
YEAR 2013
PRICE $99/£105/€91
PROS • Can deliver a wide palette of distortion styles
• Flexible 3-way EQ section
• Plenty of gain on tap
CONS • Rather weak in the low gain range
• Not the best choice if you have a solid state amp.

4. Earthquaker Devices Acapulco Gold

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
YEAR 2015
PRICE $139/£129/€137
PROS • Great Sound
• Very responsive to pickup and dynamics
• Plenty of gain on tap
CONS • The single knob might put off players with tweaking inclinations

5. TC Electronic Dark Matter Distortion

Incredibly useful and inspiring for its price range, this Marshall/Plexi-inspired distortion produces very balanced and responsive tones at all gain settings, delivering particularly well at low and medium gain levels. It’s also remarkable when stacked into other high-gain devices.

TC DARK MATTER AT A GLANCE
YEAR 2015
PRICE $59/£38/€46
PROS • Great value
• Its distortion resembles the character of a tube amp
• Shines on crunchy tones rather than higher gain ones
CONS • A little noisy
• No Mid Knob
• The Voice knob is so subtle it's a mystery to many

6. EarthQuaker Devices Life Pedal | KHDK Dark Blood | Walrus Audio Ironhorse V3 | ProCo Rat 2

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.

Videos About Distortion

JHS’s History of Guitar Distortion

Guitar Bonedo’s History of Distortion Pedals (1974 – 2016)

Polyphonics’ History of Distortion, Song by Song


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We based this list aggregating the following Best Distortion Pedal lists:

JHS Pedals YouTube Video
PMTVUK YouTube Video
Bonedo Music
Music Radar
Guitar.com
Medium.com
Equipboard

and in part also:
Guitar Habits
Consordini.com
Pmtonline.com