This isn’t to say that you might want a dirt cheap distortion pedal, but you might not want to spend big money on one either.
The good news is this:
You don't have to put up with either extreme.
The cheap distortion pedals do exist and they’re more plentiful than many people realize. They also meet a remarkable high standard of quality, with many distortion pedals under $80 having made their way onto professional pedalboards.
I'll cover five that I can vouch for personally, which include the following:
The market (both retail and resale) is flooded with used distortion stompboxes.
This is because people buy a lot of them, then turn around and resell them so they can get something else. Somehow a lot of them end up on sites like Amazon, EBay and Craigslist going for a fraction of retail cost.
We’re going to “curate” the cheapest, which will take into account the typical used cost and what you can expect to pay if you buy it new (retail).
If you just want a cheap distortion pedal and you’re not terribly picky, this is where you’ll find a good fit.
It’s distortion pedals at yard sale prices.
Forget you, Black Friday.
The Boss MD-2 balances heavier, metal-style distortion sounds with warm, classic rock overdriven tones. It can accommodate either style.
However, I would concede that it leans metal, adding a distinctly modern vibe to the gain it produces.
For controls, there's a TONE knob within the BOTTOM knob. This BOTTOM knob allows you to add a lot more bass and "bottom" to the EQ.
Aside from level, you have DIST and GAIN BOOST controls.
How the GAIN and DIST knobs help improve sustain and tone
While the difference is difficult to explain, the DIST knob essentially controls saturation while GAIN tweaks feedback levels and sustain. I’ve found the pedal’s distorted tone to be aggressive enough that I can leave the GAIN knob at 12 o'clock in most scenarios.
If I want a little more sustain or feedback, I'll bump the GAIN knob higher and leave the DIST knob as-is.
The MD-2 gives you a lot of power at a scant $70 retail. Used options can go for much less, sometimes dipping near $30.
The good and the bad...
What I Like: Thick, modern tone with lots of low end. Control scheme is a nice change of pace.
What I Don’t Like: Gain can envelope your amp's tone if you cut it too high.
For an economy line, Joyo has some impressive stompboxes with boutique-level features, and the JF-02 Overdrive is no exception.
It's a distortion pedal with true bypass wiring, which gives you an added layer of noise elimination and maintains the natural tone of your guitar's signal as if it were running straight through a cable.
In other words, it's a three-figure feature in a pedal that retails under $30.
Tone and style
This pedal's tone is absolutely astonishing when you consider the price tag.
All three controls, as well as the low/high switch, are incredibly well-calibrated and responsive, allowing you to create a wide range of tones that I'd describe as bluesy and vintage, leaning more towards a warm tube sound with emphasis on bass in the EQ.
However, bright tones also sound great, giving you some break-through on the higher notes without sounding overly shrill.
It doesn't sound metal or "modern" in the least, which makes the devil painted on the front a bit of a curious addition.
However, if you can ignore the devil painting, you're getting a solid vintage rock distortion that can produce a wide spectrum of gain levels from light bluesy fuzz to a more distinct lead saturation and almost anything in between.
Social responses and community feedback
What I found equally impressive (and alluring) about this pedal is that the community approves of it with a nearly unanimous verdict.
While some cheap pedals will get the benefit of the doubt just because they're low-cost (and therefore low risk), it doesn't seem like the bar has been lowered for JF-02 just because of its price tag.
The love for this pedal is palpable and seems to be based on tangible merits and a fairly high bar.
YouTube fans and commentary on some of the demo videos were all positive from what I was able to see.
Amazon feedback was yet more gushing and almost unanimously positive:
Who it's perfect for...
This Joyo JF-02 will appeal to beginners and those who just want to try a distortion pedal with a more light and vintage bend.
At the same time, I wouldn't shy away from it if you're in the intermediate stages either. The pedal just sounds good, so regardless of what it costs, I believe it has use and value to guitar players in a wide variety of skill levels and situations.
Bedroom jamming, garage bands, basic gigging and even light recording work can benefit from the JF-02.
The good and the bad...
What I Like: Price point is much lower than the tone would suggest. Perfect for blues and light distortion.
What I Don’t Like: Can't complain at the price tag.
DigiTech's Grunge Analog distortion is a cut above in a number of ways.
First, it has a great price point, dipping into the $30-$35 range fairly often. Yet, this number holds close to its $40 retail value, even after being on the market for a long time.
While it is no longer being produced by DigiTech, the pedal is so popular that it still enjoys widespread availability from almost all major music gear retailers.
Uses and target buyers
From the beginner in the early stages of bedroom jamming, to professionals running full pedalboards, the Grunge distortion is accommodating of any skill level.
I like it for beginners in particular, who are looking for a cheap distortion pedal that they'll continue to use well past the early stages of their playing career.
Because, despite being inexpensive, the Grunge brings a lot of quality to your board.
It doesn't feel cheap or like something you'll need to replace when you get serious about guitar.
It's a keeper.
Anyone looking for a distortion pedal on a budget can get great value value and quality with the Grunge so I'd recommend it without hesitation.
Can I set it up in stereo?
The pedal includes two outputs, one labeled AMP and the other labeled MIXER.
Note that these two designations are interchangeable.
You could run two amps, mixers or swap the amp and mixer input. It's of no consequence as they're both identical outputs, meant to support a stereo connection to two sources.
This is how you'd set it up, per the user manual:
A few additional perks:
The Grunge has a two-band EQ with a LOW and HIGH knob that are paired with a GRUNGE and LOUD control, allowing you to dial in gain and volume independently of one another.
The tone is a rough and edgy distortion, reminiscent of the Seattle grunge scene of the early '90s (hence the name).
Think Kim Thayil of Soundgarden, Jerry Cantrell and Kurt Cobain.
If that's your preferred style, the Grunge provides.
The good and the bad...
What I Like: Grungy tone sounds great and the price point is incredibly good.
What I Don’t Like: Can sound a bit "scratchy" if the EQ is too high.
At roughly $79 retail, you get a desirable price point for a pedal that sounds fantastic, while doing only one basic thing.
It boosts your signal and adds presence to your clean tone.
There are also a few bonuses:
Features in a cheap distortion pedal
The Spark Mini Booster has true bypass, analog circuitry and a nifty feature called PrimeTime switching. This allows you to engage the pedal by holding the button down for a few seconds, where it will then disengage once you release the button.
The feature is meant to decrease the need for a second pedal click, that is, if you only want to use the booster for a short window of time.
Regular on-off stomp switching also works.
The sound is somewhat reminiscent of the Xotic EP Booster, though the Spark is more bluesy and warm.
The good and the bad...
What I Like: Matches a lot of the features of the Xotic EP for a much better price tag. The artwork is top notch.
What I Don’t Like: There isn’t much to complain about, unless you don’t dig the artwork.
The Boss DS-1 is cheap (under $50) and one of the most popular distortion pedals on the market, ideal for all styles and skill levels.
The tone it produces is a smooth, vintage-style gain that pairs well with a tube amp or a treble-friendly guitar like a Fender Stratocaster or Jazzmaster. The distortion is comparable to a fuzz pedal or Hendrix-style overdrive.
It has a grungy bend as well, which occupied the likes of Kurt Cobain's pedalboard for a number of years.
The Boss DS-1 distortion, looking quite artistic. | Flickr Commons Image via RamsesOriginal
The onboard distortions you get with Fender tube amps, like the Deville and Deluxe, are also similar comparisons. I'd say the DS-1 is, however, slightly more edgy.
In most cases I've seen it placed at the beginning of pedal lines, right after a wah though before all the other stompboxes.
In the picture below they've placed the DS-1 after the tuner, but before everything else:
The DS-1 works best at the beginning of a pedal chain, as pictured here. | Flickr Commons Image via WetWebWork
Bedroom jamming, professional rigs and session recordings can all be workable situations for the DS-1, especially if you need a lighter distortion that leans more towards the blues side of the fence.
Keep in mind: It's not at all a "metal" or modern tone.
A three-band EQ adds a some expected versatility but doesn't turn the DS-1 into a heavy distortion.
The stompbox typically retails around $45 and often less if you keep an eye on the used and refurbished options.
You can checkout our full Boss DS-1 distortion review for more info on it.
The good and the bad...
What I Like: Reliable, popular and priced to sell. Vintage rock fans will love it.
What I Don’t Like: Can't get anything close to a metal tone out of it.
Are cheap distortion pedals worth it?
The electronics of a distortion pedal are fairly simple, which is part of what contributes to the low cost. Yet it doesn’t change the old adage that you get what you pay for.
What I’ve found to be characteristic of most cheap distortion pedals is that they’re lighter and more bluesy sounding than their more expensive counterparts. If you want a really deep, modern distortion with a lot of low end, the cheaper pedals probably aren’t for you.
On the other hand:
If you’re into classic rock, blues or jazz, a lighter-sounding distortion will probably be a better solution for you.
So, are they worth it? That just depends on where you are as a musician and what sound you’re looking for.
What if I want to spend big money?
Some of the nicer Boss pedals, like the ST-2 Power Stack are excellent pedals for around the $100 mark.
If you’ve got $300 to spend (and who doesn’t?) you could go with something like the Hughes and Kettner Tube Factor which is a tube-based distortion and one of the best distortions on the market.
For a more versatile distortion modeler, try the Line 6 DM4 for around $250.
Other Distortion Pedal Buying Guides
Boss DS-1 Distortion Pedal Review: Our summary and review of the popular Boss DS-1 distortion pedal, highlighting its optimal uses and stylistic contexts.
Boss Metal Core Review: Our summary and review of the Boss Metal Core distortion pedal, highlighting its optimal uses and stylistic contexts.
RimRock Effects PT Drive Distortion Review: A review of the PT Drive, which is a boutique and vintage-flavored distortion pedal from RimRock Effects.
Other Effects Pedal Buying Guides: List articles and buying guides for a number of different effects pedals, processors and other devices.
Anything to add?
Do prefer a cheap distortion pedal that didn’t make the list?
I’d love to hear about it.
Could you use more gear help?
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If you want to access some resources that will help dealing with a specific tonal pursuit, piece of gear or other questions related to your rig, I’d recommend giving Guitar Tricks 14-day free trial a test run - there’s no obligations and you’ve got nothing to lose - except two free weeks of one of the most comprehensive and thorough guitar education websites in existence.
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Flickr Commons Image Courtesy of victoriagrayphoto