Best Distortion Pedal Overall (our top pick)
The Empress Heavy
Empress makes some of the best pedals we've ever tested, and for distortion, the Empress Heavy is a tier above the rest. It's really not even close. The Heavy produces some incredibly smooth and heavy tones and is one of the few pedals that competes with high-quality tube amp distortion. I haven't used everything, but I've used a lot, and this is clearly the best option.
There are a lot of distortion pedals out there and even more overdrives. So before we get to my best distortion pedal picks, it's important to make some distinctions about what I mean when I say "distortion pedal" and what I don't mean. Because distortion is actually a sub-type of an effects category called gain. All gain pedals deal with volume and decibel boosting, and distortion pedals are just one example. I'll be focusing on pedals that are explicitly and accurately billed as distortion effects. Let's start with a comparison table of the four pedals I'll cover, with honorable mentions listed below.
Read more: Best guitar pedals overall
Compare our top distortion pedal picks
You can use the compare buttons to quickly check basic specs and live pricing for all the pedals listed.
TC Electronic Dark Matter
MXR Duke of Tone
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Best Distortion Pedals Overall (reviewing each pick)
Here's where I'll give my reasoning for each individual distortion pedal recommendation. There's a lot here, so we've broken things up in a way that's hopefully helpful and easy to digest.
Empress Effects Heavy
Best distortion pedal overall
Here's another example of weird naming conventions. The Heavy is listed as an "overdrive". But I would argue it's primarily a distortion pedal. That said, it can produce warm overdrive tones and the heavier modern tones, so I'll let the overdrive title slide. It's really just one of the most flexible distortion pedals on the market, with a stacked compliment of EQ options and a noise gate for both channels.
BEST FOR: All styles of distortion, live performances, recording, amps with weak gain channels.
- Analog circuit sounds fantastic
- Weight knob is somehow better than a bass knob (not sure why)
- Dual channels should be on more distortion pedals
- Noise gate for each channel
- Six bands of control for each channel if you count the global low and hi dials
- I still think the naming is wrong, but whatever
- Certainly not low on the pricing tier
Boss HM-2w Waza Craft (Heavy Metal redux)
Best for the chainsaw distortion tone and Swedish metal
Boss is really onto something with their Waza Craft series, and the HM-2w is one of my favorites so far. It's a redux of the old HM-2, complete with an analog circuit and an insanely aggressive, yet contained distorted tone. Keep in mind, this is not a blues or classic rock distortion at all. It literally can't settle down enough to give you that.
The tone is very much a Swedish metal saturation, with that chainsaw quality that you'd want in a modern gain tone. It also lays down a lot of sustain if you let chords ring, though can reign it in without being too noisy. It's ideally paired with active pickups which would likely eliminate any noise issues. I've reviewed this one on its own, which you can check out to get all the info.
Read the full review: Boss HM-2w Waza Craft Heavy Metal distortion
Boss HM-2w Price History
Price History for Boss HM-2W Heavy Metal Distortion Pedal Bundle with Instrument Cable, Picks, and Austin Bazaar...
|Current Price||$119.99||December 5, 2023|
|Highest Price||$179.99||January 6, 2023|
|Lowest Price||$119.99||November 16, 2023|
Last price changes
|$119.99||November 16, 2023|
|$149.99||August 23, 2023|
|$159.99||July 12, 2023|
|$179.99||June 28, 2023|
|$159.99||June 23, 2023|
Quick Review Card
BEST FOR: Heavy metal, new age rock, active pickups, recording, performing, fans of the original HM-2w.
- Lots of sustain
- EQ profile is simple, but great for modern tones
- Not too noisy, at least when testing with my rig
- Tight and percussive, despite the high gain and sustain
- Can be a little too saturated
- Would love to have an onboard noise gate
TC Electronic Dark Matter
Best budget distortion pedal
I've consistently been impressed with TC Electronic's ability to produce solid pedals at extremely low price points. Boss used to be sort of the poster child for low-cost, high-quality pedals, but these days I'd give the nod to TC Electronic, because of pedals like the Dark Matter. The Dark Matter is one of the few low-cost distortion pedals I've tested that can handle both modern and classic rock styles. It's smooth and percussive on the low-end, with high gain settings like we see with the Empress Heavy, but really bluesy and satisfying when you cut gain lower. Certainly the controls are far more basic than something like the Heavy, but that's part of how they cut cost.
Read the full review: TC Electronic Dark Matter
Part of my issue with Ola's demo is that he used a Stratocaster. It's a Custom Strat, with a humbucker, but nevertheless, a Stratocaster. I typically don't recommend Strats for chugging.
Having said that, I'm not one to question Mr. Englund. I'm (clearly) a big fan of his.
Plus, I think there's value in having two differing opinions.
But, maybe you're not even looking for a heavy distortion. If you're needing heavy, or anything on the mid to lower gain side, I'd put forward the Dark Matter as one of your best options.
It's a very happy medium of low price and high quality, which is something we always look for when recommending guitar gear.
- As price goes down, value goes up.
- As quality goes up, value goes up.
Price History for TC Electronic Dark Matter Distortion Pedal
|Current Price||$69.00||December 4, 2023|
|Highest Price||$69.00||August 9, 2022|
|Lowest Price||$49.00||September 27, 2022|
Last price changes
|$69.00||December 14, 2022|
|$49.00||September 27, 2022|
|$69.00||September 13, 2022|
|$54.51||September 6, 2022|
|$69.00||August 9, 2022|
BEST FOR: Saving money, low budgets, versatile list of playing styles, high gain, and single channel amplifiers.
- Good balance of modern and vintage gain levels
- Three-band EQ if you include the voice switch
- Price point
- Lots of sustain
- Can get noisy on higher gain levels
- Control is more limited than other options
Runner up for best metal distortion
The Dracarys is a high-gain distortion pedal that's similar to the HM-2w in that it puts off that Swedish metal chain saw distortion sound. It's actually modeled after Englund's tone, so we'll once again use his demo video which you can see embedded below. I love the tight/open voicing switch, that allows you to go back and forth between a percussive/reigned-in tone and a wide-open distortion for heavy chord progressions like you might hear on a song's chorus. It's the second distortion pedal on our list that is mostly dedicated to a metal tone, with the HM-2w being the first, so there are some style limitations here. I don't recommend it for blues or low-gain situations.
Price History for New Wampler Dracarys Distortion Overdrive Guitar Effects Pedal
|Current Price||$169.97||December 4, 2023|
|Highest Price||$199.97||March 20, 2023|
|Lowest Price||$169.97||May 29, 2023|
Last price changes
|$169.97||November 27, 2023|
|$199.97||June 5, 2023|
|$169.97||May 29, 2023|
|$199.97||March 20, 2023|
BEST FOR: Metal, hard rock, EQ flexibility, Swedish/chainsaw metal tone, recording, performing.
- Lots of EQ for such a small pedal
- Sustain is nice and smooth
- Low noise when we tested it (depends on the rest of your rig)
- Tight/open switch is awesome
- Percussive palm mutes sound great
- Not stylistically versatile, similar to the HM-2w
- Pricey compared to the Dark Matter. Then again...what isn't?
There are more distortion pedals than any other effect on the market, which is especially true if you count overdrives. Overdrive pedals are a dime o' dozen. So hopefully this provides a filter and some context to help you look. Make sure to pay attention to the features I've mentioned and check out my recommendations. I've used all these pedals, tested them, and took pictures - all that good stuff.
So I can answer questions if you have them.
Hit the comments and we'll chat.
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