Distortion is a surprisingly varied and versatile effect. Particularly as it relates to the variations involved with going from a classic overdrive to a modern, heavy metal saturation. Those two extremes - and everything in between - give you a massive amount of gain levels to choose from.
You get distortion by increasing gain (volume at the preamp level) and decreasing output (volume at the power amp level). Distortion pedals are, in a way, a tiny little preamp and power amp working in your pedal chain.
The variety we get from these different gain levels can generally be broken into one of the following categories:
- Signal boost
Finding the best distortion pedal for metal, or any distortion that's metal friendly, is difficult because of the way they're named and categorized. Signal boost, overdrive and fuzz are rarely ever suitable for a modern, metal tone. Distortion pedals, depending on the product, are sometimes up to the task. In this roundup we've already done the sorting.
We'll review our four favorite metal distortion pedals, which include the following:
Our Two Favorite Metal Distortion Pedals from the List
The two metal distortion pedal purchases we are most confident about would be the Amptweaker Fat Metal and the Wampler Dracarys High Gain distortion. We'll cover both of them in this roundup.
Best Distortion Pedals for Metal: Recommendations Based on Value
In this section we've used the process outlined at the end of this article (value assessment) to select four distortion pedals that we believe are the most accommodating of metal enthusiasts. Please note that while we've taken price into consideration, we're not allowed to display pricing of any kind on this page since we're Amazon associates and it's against their terms of service agreement.
We recommend checking out the info on all four pedals then referencing the links for pricing and availability. From there, you'll be able to make an informed decision about which distortion pedal would work best for you.
Let's get started.
TC Electronic Dark Matter Distortion
This offering from TC Electronic boasts a lot of appeal from its price tag alone, commonly falling into the mid two-figures retail. The Dark Matter is tuned to bridge the gap between heavy modern and classic overdrive distortion, with a particular knack for maintaining the nuances of your guitar playing. In other words, it doesn't cover up your playing. While this makes it a less "intense" distortion pedal, especially in the metal contexts, it's perfectly at home in the modern, high-gain era.
Its tone is extremely smooth, sounding more organic and uncompressed than say, the MXR Fullbore. The Dark Matter avoids sounding like a pile of gain and hiss, despite the fact it's heavy and thick.
Features of the Dark Matter Distortion
While the EQ is basic, the available controls (bass, treble and a voice switch), give you a surprisingly wide tonal spectrum. The Dark Matter is most at-home with the lower end EQs, giving you plenty of thick bass response in your signal, which is perfect for those beefier metal tones. The "voice" switch gives you a yet thicker, more bass-heavy response, which is a big part of the difference between the vintage and modern Dark Matter sounds.
For heavier riffs, keep the voice switch on.
While the Tone Print USB connection (a trademark feature of TC Electronic pedals) isn't supported in the Dark Matter, it doesn't reduce the value of the pedal. To finish, TC Electronic keeps a clean house with a true bypass circuit, ensuring that none of your clean tone will be compromised while the pedal is disengaged.
PERFORMANCE & TONE
TC Electronic has a lot of tone samples on SoundCloud. Here's one we thought did a particularly good job of capturing the essence of the pedal.
You can hear the smoothness, despite the pedal's crunchier tendencies.
While it's fair to say that some of the Dark Matter's capabilities lean towards a more vintage tone, the low-end boost and higher gain settings make it one of the best distortion pedals for metal, without being exclusively useful for that style. It's a surprisingly dynamic effect.
Closeup of the TC Electronic Dark Matter distortion pedal. (View Larger Image)
Despite being positioned more in between classic overdrive and heavy, modern metal saturation, there's enough weight behind it to hang with heavier modern rock tracks. Think Alter Bridge, Tool and the raunchier Audioslave tunes like "Show Me How to Live." These will all sound true-to-form behind the Dark Matter.
Moreover, some of the Dark Matter's professional metal fans include Volbeat's Rob Caggiano, Ramstein's Richard Kruspe and I Killed the Prom Queen's Jona Weinhofen.
We've certainly heard distortion pedals with higher gain. However, if you're a metal player that wants a distortion with slightly more balance and sensitivity to the nuances of your playing, the Dark Matter distortion is almost impossible to overlook.
Price and Value
With a price tag rivaling the Boss DS-1, the Dark Matter distortion is one of TC Electronic's highest value offerings. It's remarkable to get such a versatile distortion pedal, with true bypass, without having to get anywhere near the $100 mark. For metal fans who have days where they like to pull back the gain, we recommend buying confidently.
Amptweaker Fat Metal Distortion
The Fat Metal distortion by Amptweaker competes with the Wampler Dracarys (more on that one later) for our highest affections in this pedal category. While its tone is similar to the Dark Matter - with a lot of emphasis on the lower end of the EQ - the Fat Metal allows you to completely abandon the soft/heavy balance and go into much higher gain settings, which is something we do miss from the Dark Matter.
The Fat Metal's sound is extremely heavy and distinctly metal in how it approaches distortion. While you can dial into lighter gain settings, the Fat Metal is most at home pushing high level of saturation.
We also really like the noise gate that comes built into this and other Amptweaker distortion pedals. It's one of the best noise gates we've seen in a stompbox, allowing you to run high gain settings with effectively zero noise or hiss.
Having the "Tight" switch, a hallmark of AT distortion pedals, allows you to tighten up or loosen the response of the distortion, which can really help to shape up those chunkier, palm-muted power chords. Overall, we like the Fat Metal for any high-gain scenario, but particularly for rhythm guitarists who do a lot of heavy progressions and punchy power chords.
- Noise Gate
- Mid boost/cut
- Gain boost/cut
Price and Value
AT pedals are certainly more expensive, but in terms of tone and control, they're also a distinct step above a lot of the competition. If you can't get your distortion from an expensive tube amp, the AT Metal pedals are the next best thing.
Amptweaker Tight Metal Distortion
The TightMetal St (stands for "standard") from Amptweaker is similar in both design and sound to the AT Fat Metal. In terms of tone, it differs from the Fat Metal by putting less emphasis on the low end of the spectrum and leaning on the higher, lead guitar EQ settings.
As the name would suggest, it also tends to feel a bit tighter and less heavy than the fat metal, though is still just as versatile.
There are three total versions of Amptweaker's TightMetal distortion box:
The TightMetal ST offers all the critical and core features, making it a much better value than the Pro or Junior versions.
The Tight Metal EQ is the same as the Fat Metal with a linear tone shaping knob, volume, gain and the "Tight" control. Some might miss the three-band EQ, but having the mid switch (between the volume and tone knobs) helps to alleviate the lack of mid knob.
Even without the extra control, there's no shortage of shaping options with the Tight Metal Standard.
- Tight (lo-pass filter)
The knobs and EQ arrangement on the TightMetal ST is a little unconventional. (View Larger Image)
The three switches account for the following:
- Mid boost
- Noise gate
- Gain boost
The interface of this pedal can be a bit difficult to decipher. While that doesn't detract from the tone of the pedal, you should plan to take some time exploring the features and tinkering with the different controls. That's the price you pay for a more versatile distortion pedal. If you like the "tinkering" aspect, any of the AT distortion pedals (particularly the standard and pro series) are going to be an ideal fit for you.
As with the Fat Metal, the noise gate in the Tight Metal adjusts automatically based on how much gain you're using. The more saturated your tone, the more aggressive the noise gate will be. The inverse is also true, as it scales back when gain is reduced and noise reduction isn't as needed.
PERFORMANCE & TONE
The TightMetal is more "aggressive" than many of the other pedals we've used. Compared to the Fat Metal, the distortion produced by the Tight Metal is a little more unpredictable and less thick. Feedback would show up quicker (at least without the noise gate) and harmonics seemed to ring out for as long as you wanted, making this iteration more ideal for lead players, while we'd recommend the Fat Metal to rhythm metal players.
The TM's sound was easily refined and tightened up, even if limited to using only the Gain and Tight knobs to do so. In fact, those were the only two controls needed in most cases.
- Noise Gate
- Mid boost/cut
- Gain boost/cut
Price and Value
All Amptweaker's Standard series distortion pedals are in the same boat, in terms of their value. They're more expensive than your average distortion pedal, but they're also some of the best distortion pedals for metal tones you'll find on the market. If you don't mind the steeper investment, they're some of your best options, especially if you're not getting any kind of decent distortion from an amplifier.
Wampler Dracarys High Gain Distortion
The Dracarys is a punishing distortion pedal with a wide range of tone. It's not cheap or "economy" by any stretch, but we also can't see any way that it should be. Simply put, the Dracarys is one of the heaviest and most finely-tuned metal distortion pedals we've ever heard or used. Wampler built the Dracarys around the tone of Ola Englund, a Swedish guitarist and music producer known for his heavy metal riffs and a band he formed called "Feared." If you're not familiar with Englund's style, rest assured it is heavy and entirely modern metal.
The Dracarys pedal produces plenty of smooth gain that can be loosened or tightened via an Open/Tight switch, a function comparable to the "Tight" knob on the Amptweaker distortions.
On either setting, the distorted tones sound fantastic, though the "tight" mode is a little better for rhythm and palm-muted power chords.
Wampler repping the Dracarys on the first slide. (View Larger Image)
The Dracarys distortion is true bypass and also uses a "soft switch" that is far more subtle when being clicked, helping to avoid the harsh clicking sound you get when engaging many other true bypass pedals. The stompbox is made in the United States with the instrument jacks on top of the pedal, which may or may not be a positive feature, depending on how you have your pedalboard setup.
The Dacrarys distortion pedal has i/o jacks on the top panel. (View Larger Image)
PERFORMANCE & TONE
Englund's demo of Dracarys does a great job of illustrating its capabilities at a variety of settings. It's not a sponsored video or a review. Englund is just checking out the pedal and demoing some of its capabilities. To get a feel for the tone, it's a good place to start.
Mids and treble can be a difficult piece of the puzzle when you're dealing with high gain distortion levels.
You don't want to turn them too far down, but having them too high can sound shrill and out of step with the thickness you expect from a heavy metal tone. With the Dracarys, you can push mids and treble really high before it cuts into the heavier side of the EQ. It seems to strike a perfect balance.
The higher gain levels of the pedal, while saturating, didn't bury the melodies in single notes or chords.
The Dracarys raised its share of eyebrows at NAMM '17.
Wampler gives you the three-band EQ with bass, mids and treble, instead of the single knob and switch configuration we saw with Amptweaker. This gives you a little more room to work on the high ends of your EQ, though isn't more than a subtle difference to consider.
- Tight/loose switch
Price and Value
The Dracarys's price is comparable to the Amptweaker Standard pedals, with a slightly more boutique flavor and less control. However, it does add back the mid knob and gives you a less complex interface to decipher. It's the better choice if you want an out-of-the-box metal distortion that you won't have to tinker with. The Dracarys, sounds fantastic in almost any high gain scenario, making the price tag completely reasonable.
How did we choose the best distortion pedal for metal?
How did we choose which distortion pedals made the cut? Photo by Flickr Commons via Flickr Image via Chris Piascik
Websites (that we would not recommend to you), write lists like this one all the time. And yes they are extremely subjective. Not only that, but they're largely unhelpful in terms of providing actual knowledge about the guitar pedals in question.
With that in mind, we need to point out something about this piece of content and others like it that we have written - This is based on the knowledge and opinion of real musicians. We are not marketers or internet gurus trying to make a buck off Amazon. We do use affiliate programs to support this site and those who run it, but we are not simply throwing pedals up without knowing why we're suggesting them.
This is based on the knowledge and opinions of real musicians who have used this gear.
And while the opinion of any human being on a topic like this is going to be somewhat contextual and subjective, we can give you concrete reasons why we recommend these distortion pedals over others, particularly in the context of trying to achieve a metal tone. Those factors are primarily the following:
- Actual use and experience with the pedal
- Secondhand knowledge from other musicians we know who have used or owned the pedal
- A proper value assessment
Guitar World contributor, educator, writer and guitarist since 1996.
Worship leader, PCA deacon and guitarist.
Session musician, guitar, keyboard & bass
- A Proper Value Assessment?
- Why This is Not a Review
What is a proper value assessment?
We determine value by first knowing the features of effects and guitar pedals that matter the most. For example, when it comes to delay pedals, we know that (in many cases) having a tap tempo included in your delay is better than not having one. How do we know this? Because we've actually used delay pedals, some of which did and did not have a tap tempo.
This means that we can make a proper value assessment based on actual features; without just saying, "this delay pedal will sound great" or one of our personal favorites-
"Among the most prolific pedals made popular by its solid performance."
Use this Google result if you want to see the site we're referring to.
We would contend that kind of recommendation is unhelpful at best.
Additionally, as we can identify and confirm more of those features that add quality, we can also then search for pedals that give you those features at the lowest possible retail cost.
Therefore, we define the best volume pedals by those that provide the most value based on the following:
Just look for the features that matter and see which brands and pedals deliver those features at the lowest price.
If you boil it down, our template is simple:
- As quality goes up, value increases
- As price goes down, value increases
- As quality goes down, value decreases
- As price goes up, value decreases
What this list is and What it is Not
We should point out that this list is not a ranking or a full review of each pedal. Per our publishing policy, we do not publish physical product reviews in favor of making contextual recommendations.
The term "review" is a bit deceptive since most people who review guitar gear don't have anything bad to say about it. That's not a review as much as it is an endorsement. In most cases, we simply avoiding talking about products that we can't or wouldn't recommend to Guitar Chalk readers.
Thus it's misleading to use the term "review."
As a consequence, we want to be clear that this list is not a "review", nor are the numbers used an indication of ranking the products in any particular order. These are simply recommendations based on our experience that may or may not apply to your own situation.
Where to Place your Distortion Pedal
Distortion pedal placement in an effects chain is one of the most common questions surrounding their use, regardless of stylistic context. In most signal chains, the input originates at your guitar and is outputted through a preamp, power amp and then a speaker. The guitar pedals sit in the middle of that line, between the guitar and preamp, processing the signal from the guitar before sending it into the amplifier's preamp, power amp and out through the speaker.
Strymon has an article explaining the most agreed upon and optimal order of guitar pedals, while providing some helpful graphics for scenarios with and without an effects loop. These graphics include the placement of a red "overdrive" pedal, which can be assumed as a generic placeholder for all gain-related effects (distortion, overdrive, boost, etc.).
Distortion Pedal Placement Without an Effects Loop
Here's the diagram from Strymon depicting that setup with an effects loop. Notice, the overdrive pedal is not included in the effects loop:
Distortion Pedal Placement With an Effects Loop
Concluding and Additional Questions
Have questions about the distortion pedals in this list or about metal tone in general? Feel free to drop them in the comments section below. Usually Bobby will answer there, which is preferred over email so that others who read the article in the future will have access to that information as well.
We also welcome pedal suggestions for these types of roundups, especially since we try to avoid recommending pedals that we don't have some kind of experience or "inside" info on.
If you can be our informant, we're willing to listen.
Just keep in mind our value assessment and method for including products. It shouldn't just be something you like personally, but should have some objective support as to why it belongs on a best volume pedals list, like this one.
- Strymon Effects Pedal Order Article
- Pedalboard Power Supply Rating and Recommendation Guide
- The Pedalboard Planner Written Guide
- The Interactive Pedalboard Planner Web App
- The Minimalist Pedalboard Build
- Best Pedalboard and Power Supply Roundup
- Best Pedaltrain, Boss and Gator Pedalboards
- Mission Engineering Volume Pedal Q&A
- Eight Guitars We Recommend for Shredding Fans
- Cheap Amps that Go Great with Metal Tones
- The Most Optimal Metal Amp Settings
Flickr Commons Image courtesy of NiteVision