Parent article: Best Guitar Pedals
Best Modern Distortion Pedal
Empress Effects Heavy
Not only is it my top pick for metal, but the Empress Heavy is the best distortion pedal I've ever tested, beating the competition in almost every category. It's a great choice for the modern player that wants a heavy, saturating tone that's flexible and not too biting.
You can't overstate the appeal generated by vintage distortion sounds and the pedals that create them.
There's a reason the Ibanez Tube Screamer and Jim Dunlop Fuzz Face are some of the best-selling stompboxes in existence, even as modern distortion pedals gain in popularity. In fact, Hendrix-style fuzz distortions have made a remarkable comeback into the mainstream in recent years. Just ask Black Stone Cherry's Chris Robertson (more on them below), Taylor Momsen (The Pretty Reckless) or Dorthy Martin.
In many cases, vintage distortion pedals are considered more "authentic" and, as a result, are more heavily sought after.
But, as a consequence, I've found it somewhat difficult to nail down a good-quality modern distortion. And by "modern" I mean the following:
- Heavily saturated with high gain levels
- Not fuzz or bluesy overdrive
- Thick-sounding with plenty of bass in the EQ
- Stylistically modern
Best Modern Distortion Pedals: Top 5 Picks
Amptweaker TightMetal JR
TC Electronic Dark Matter
Joyo Ultimate Drive
What I don't mean is the Boss DS-1 or Ibanez Tube Screamer.
We're looking for Brad Delson, Adam Jones and Tony Rombola type sounds - not Eric Johnson or Stevie Ray Vaughan, both of which are great, but not heavy or modern.
I mentioned Brad Delson, who is Linkin Park's guitar player. Anything off Meteora is a great example of what we're looking for in a distortion pedal.
It's not bluesy or vintage at all, but dang it sounds great. I love this stuff.
Let's try one more. Skillet this time.
It should be clear from a few seconds of this track that Korey Cooper and Seth Morrison (Skillet's guitar players) are using a different distortion setting than, say, Tom Petty or Joe Walsh would typically use.
So, I'd like to spend some time looking into exactly how these sounds are created and what pedals we can target to replicate them.
One important note:
These distortion tones are often times not created from a pedal.
The pros don't typically use a distortion pedal like many of us do. In most cases these sounds are created by using one, or a combination of, the following pieces of guitar gear:
- Amplifier dirty or "gain" channel
- Rackmounted effects processors
- Software, DAWs or a studio effects source
Now, can we use these resources as well?
Sure, if we can afford them.
But, I'd rather look and see what pedals are out there that can get close to the sounds we're hearing on Skillet's albums, without having to spend big money on the pro-level gear.
For our purposes, we don't need to.
Our focus is going to be getting the same sound out of a stompbox.
Let's jump in.
1. Empress Heavy Distortion
My suspicion is that once you get used to having two different (and individually customizable) channels in a distortion pedal, you'd have a hard time going back to just one.
Hence, the Empress Effects Heavy's appeal is undeniable.
Each channel is completely individual, meaning every control is mirrored on both sides. In that respect, the "heavy" and "heavier" labels by each button are a bit misleading. When I first looked at it, I thought that "heavier" must mean some kind of gain boost, like we've seen on other distortion pedals.
But upon closer inspection you'll see that each control knob is repeated for both sides of the pedal, meaning either side can be customized to be entirely unique. Not only that, but the signal path is completely analog.
As we've already mentioned, having two channels essentially breaks the distortion pedal up into two different parts. It's like buying the same pedal twice, and then leaving each one on a different setting.
Controls available individually to both channels include the following:
- Noise gate (switch)
- Mid freq. (switch)
In the middle of the pedal you've got some additional "master" EQ in the form of a high and low knob.
The MID Freq EQ switch gives you the following options:
And your noise gate switch:
I already mentioned the analog signal path and you'll also be treated to true bypass with the soft touch switches. The case is some kind of die-cast aluminum, which still feels more like a solid piece of metal.
PERFORMANCE & TONE
You've got to go all the way back to the Dark Matter distortion before you get a distortion pedal we've looked at that can handle a classic metal tone the same as it can a modern tone.
Even if vintage distortion is not something you're interested in, the Heavy is strong enough on both spectrums that you could still be completely happy with it.
The main draw should be the use of the dual-channel feature, which can be particularly helpful for live performances and gigging.
You can hear in the video that there's a slight delay between when playing stops and the noise gate kicks in.
This was in the "natural" noise gate mode, though when I switched the noise gate to "aggressive," it cuts the signal almost immediately. Overall, the noise gate is one of the best I've heard in an on-board pedal scenario.
IDEAL FOR: Modern metal, rhythm, and live performing
2. Amptweaker TightMetal JR (modern metal distortion)
While there are several different versions of the TightMetal, I've bought and tested the JR because it seems to be the best balance of quality and price. Per Amptweaker's James Brown, it's also the best selling of the series.
Though it should be understood that my endorsement of the TightMetal JR would also go for the TightMetal Standard and Pro versions, assuming you don't mind the additional expense.
To start, here's a quick recording I did with the TightMetal JR:
The TightMetal JR gives you plenty of gain that doesn't sound too harsh or biting. It's a full-bodied, modern tone that gives you plenty of boom on low-end palm mutes and lots of sustain with open chords. I didn't feel like the high gain was too chaotic, or like I had a hard time reigning it in.
With just the Tight switch, it was easy to sculpt the distortion's response to stay more focused on and narrow.
Below, I've embedded my own tone demo of the Amptweaker TightMetal JR, which starts off on a high-gain setting with the Tight switch set to "Fat."
The TightMetal JR has a single-band Tone control, but also adds two switches - the Tight and EQ switch - that gives you an additional four different ways to "tweak" your distortion.
Otherwise, it's a simple gain and volume knob, like you would get on a preamp.
The last feature is an onboard noise gate that can be turned up or down on the front panel of the pedal, but also does some automatic adjusting based on how much gain you're using.
Ideal Fit and Context
The Amptweaker TightMetal JR scores the second-highest of any distortion pedal we've run through our rating system, second only to the Empress Heavy. It's a great option for those that run a tube amp with a great clean tone that they don't want to abandon, but that might not have a particularly good onboard distortion.
We'd be willing to put the TightMetal's tone up against most amp-based dirty channels, which isn't something we'd say about many distortion pedals.
If you need a modern, percussive distortion pedal that sounds great on high-gain settings, the TightMetal JR is one of our first recommendations.
IDEAL FOR: Modern metal, rock, and all high gain situations
3. TC Electronic Dark Matter Distortion Pedal
The Dark Matter distortion is billed by TC Electronic as a distortion pedal that bridges classic overdrive tones and modern distortion, while preserving the nuances of your guitar playing.
While I'd say it accomplishes this, I've personally found the Dark Matter to be "at home" as a modern distortion effect. Part of that is because it's smooth and sounds more uncompressed than say, the MXR Fullbore. It doesn't just sound like a pile of gain and hiss, despite the fact it is extremely heavy and thick.
Read the full review: TC Electronic Dark Matter
The EQ is basic, with a treble and bass control, though the range of tones is quite broad. That "voice" switch you see in the middle can give you a thicker, more bass-heavy response, though the difference between the two positions wasn't terribly significant.
The Tone Print USB connection (a trademark feature of TC Electronic pedals) isn't supported, which (in my opinion) doesn't detract from the value of the pedal.
To finish up the stat sheet, TC Electronic keeps the circuit pure with a true bypass connection, which ensures that none of your clean tone will be compromised with the pedal on or off.
PERFORMANCE & TONE
My setup is a PRS CE-24 electric guitar with a pedalboard that goes straight into a USB audio interface (either PreSonus AudioBox or iRig Pro DUO), which is then routed into a Mac Mini running GarageBand 10 and outputted to a pair of studio monitors.
This allows me to test gear using a variety of different amp and cab models. The Dark Matter seemed to be most effective and complimentary with some of the more modern amp models in GarageBand.
You can hear the smoothness, despite the pedal's crunchier tendencies.
I also tried some of the Mesa Boogie amp heads in Amplitube 4 from IK Multimedia.
The Orange amp models sounded really good as well.
While it's not unfair to say that much of the response I got from the Dark Matter was vintage-leaning, I found that the low-end boost and higher gain settings were perfect for some of the more modern and metal-flavored covers.
Ideal Fit and Context
Because of the low price (Boss DS-1-esque) I'd have a hard time not recommending it to folks who want a distinctly modern distortion pedal that's also affordable and capable of a vintage flavor.
And while it does sit more in between the styles of a bluesy overdrive and heavy, modern Mesa saturation, it's got plenty of weight behind it to hang with some of the more substantial modern rock tracks.
I've heard heavier options with more control, but the Dark Matter still does a great job of striking a respectable balance between the two distortion extremes.
IDEAL FOR: Budgets, modern and classic rock
4. Joyo JF-02 Ultimate Drive Pedal
It's hard to overstate the value presented by the JF-02 to someone who is looking for a heavy, smooth and modern distortion pedal at a budget price tag.
To be fair, it's certainly not going to give you the same variety and control that we see with some of the more expensive distortion pedals (see #5 on this list), but it does get the tone right.
It gives you high gain and a thick low-end EQ that doesn't sound the least bit cheap.
In that respects, the Joyo JF-02 delivers for an astonishingly low price tag.
The pedal's casing is some kind of aluminum, which feels fairly strong.
At the same time, it does seem a bit hollow and "clicky" when you hit the bypass button, which is common for pedals in this price range.
Some reviewers and owners are saying it is true bypass. However, I'm skeptical about this because of the price tag and the fact that the front of the pedal just says "bypass."
In most cases, if a pedal is true bypass, it'll say so on the front where everyone can see it. There's no reason to conceal a premium feature if it has truly been implemented. If it were indeed true bypass and you could crack it open (which I didn't because the one I was using didn't belong to me), you'd see something that resembles the following diagram.
Not a deal-breaker either way, but worth mentioning and worth leaving something in the comments section if you know for sure whether or not the true bypass rumors about this pedal are provable one way or the other.
Controls include the following:
- High/Low Switch
- Gain Knob
- Level Knob
- Tone Knob
I was particularly fond of how the tone knob responded, since it didn't just bite your head off on higher levels. If anything, pushing the tone knob up and adding some extra treble into the EQ sounded better.
The gain knob was dynamic enough to take you from a slight boost, all the way to the heavy distortion you can hear in the demo video below.
PERFORMANCE & TONE
One of the best demos of this pedal's sound is showcased by a dude named Hunter who runs the Agufish Music YouTube channel.
To get a feel for what this pedal sounds like, it's a good place to start.
If you read through some of what Hunter writes about the JF-02, you'll see that he uses terms like "body" and "fullness" to describe the tone, which are both crucial to achieving a thick, modern-sounding distortion.
Hunter's descriptions are absolutely correct.
How a pedal strikes that balance between bass and midrange in the EQ will say a lot about where it fits stylistically. Yet, as Hunter points out, the JF-02 does it better than a lot of pedals that are more than three times its price.
Take the Boss MT-2 Metal Zone, for example.
Getting your hands on a new Boss Metal Zone will cost you $90.
And while I almost always love the products we get from Boss US (now a division of Roland), I've got to say that the $30 Joyo JF-02 absolutely blows the doors off what you get with the MT-2.
All this to say:
Price isn't always the entire story.
In this case, we get a pedal that produces a tone that accommodates heavy styles and playing. Moreover, it sounds quite good and, dare I say, professional.
Here are a few other things I noted about this pedal's sound:
IDEAL FOR: Budgets, beginners, and multiple styles
5. Wampler Dracarys Distortion Pedal
While the Wampler Dracarys doesn't have quite as much control as some of the other distortion pedals we've tested, it sounds exceptionally good at high gain levels. Particularly with bass and gain cranked, you get a warm, percussive distortion that's great for power chords and rhythmic progressions.
I tested it out with a PRS CE 24 and a Mesa Rectoverb combo amp.
Here's a photo I snapped of the Dracarys on my studio's computer desk.
While I didn't like the pedal quite as much on the higher, more treble-rich frequencies, it did everything I could ask from a rhythm perspective. As long as bass and mids stayed somewhat high, I was getting a great sound from the Dracarys.
The Dracarys lags behind the Amptweaker TightMetal series and the Empress Heavy in terms of pure control. You get the basics with volume, gain, and a three-band EQ. Otherwise it's just the open/tight switch which seemed to produce a weird volume drop when going from Open to Tight.
Between the two modes, I also thought that they both sounded appreciably similar aside from the volume dip.
Most of the time, I just left it in "Open" mode.
Performance and Tone
Yet those are small complaints in light of the pedal's tremendous tone quality.
For rhythm players and metal fans that want a thicker, more smooth distortion that has a modern edge to it, the Dracarys is a great option.
IDEAL FOR: Basic rig setup, modern rock, and metal
Best Modern Distortion Pedal Honorable Mentions
As I've tested and researched pedals over the years, I've found that for modern distortion tones, boutique pedals and/or smaller companies tend to get it right more often. That's why many of the pedals in this list are sourced from what I'd consider "boutique" pedal manufacturers.
Yet there are some others that I didn't mention, some that are more mainstream, that deserve a mention.
The Rivera might have cracked my top five if it weren't for the slightly biting response that I often got from it and frequently heard cited on other people's reviews and demo videos.
Moreover, I don't have enough personal experience with that pedal to be sure that it's worth the hefty cost.
I've owned the Boss MD-2 Mega distortion for close to a decade and have found it to be a serviceable option when it comes to generating gain that can handle modern metal riffs. However, I don't like it enough to have it "unseat" any of the five that I gave individual write-ups.
The problem that I often have with so many of the other boxes I've heard (or used) is that they're either too soft sounding, coming off as more blues than metal, or they're too raspy and biting on the high end of their EQ.
All five of these pedals get a mention because they strike a nice balance between being both smooth and heavy.
Why do some heavy distortions sound too raspy or thin?
Why do some heavy distortion pedals pull this off while others fall flat? From a technical perspective, there are several factors that play into the tone quality you get from any distortion pedal.
- Electrical components
- Gain levels
- Output (amplifier or power amp)
- Type of pickups (humbuckers, single coil, etc.)
You're dealing with variables both within the pedal and from external factors like the type of pickups, amp or even the strings. These external factors are outside the scope of this article. But what about properties of the pedal itself?
Take "Gain levels" for example. With a pedal like the Boss BD-2 Blues Driver, there simply isn't enough gain (which is just volume at a preamp level) to push the distortion to a thicker saturation.
"In most cases, the reason you're not getting a metal tone from your pedal is because of a cap or governor that has been set on the gain control. It's just not enough noise."
In other words, it's not made or intended for metal.
Same goes for pedals like the EHX Big Muff or Boss DS-1.
They're great pedals, but they're not for metal heads.
So in most cases, the reason you're not getting a metal tone from your pedal is because of a cap or governor that has been set on the gain control. It's just not enough noise.
To explain this "cap" you've got to get into the schematics and technical brass tacks of the pedal's circuit. The easiest way to understand what's happening inside your distortion pedal, and how gain is created, is to look at the work being done by transistors.
Underneath the hood, transistors inside the pedal are basically maximizing input and "capping" or limiting output which creates a distorted signal. Gain is created through this process since volume is being increased before it is sent into the final output phase.
When you have a pair of transistors like this (in the above image), your guitar signal will be clipping by the time it gets to the pedal output because the first transistor (M1 in the diagram) is pushing a higher volume into the second (M2).
Every transistor pair in a distortion pedal functions similar to this, thus the resulting tone depends largely on the type and quality of the transistors used.
For example, the fuzz circuit shown above is from a circuit that uses old Germanium transistors modeled after the same ones Jimi Hendrix used in the '60s which produces a classic distortion you would get from something like a Jim Dunlop Fuzz Face.
Newer transistors still create distortion the same way, yet are smoother and will push more or less volume into the circuit, thereby increasing or decreasing the gain.
Transistors will also increase gain and saturation levels by sending an already distorted signal back through the original transistor n number of times.
My drawing isn't particularly technical, but hopefully you get the idea.
Now we have three technical intra-pedal factors that play into what our distortion stompbox sounds like:
- The level (volume) increase at the first transistor
- The compression or limiting at the second transistor (which "caps" the signal)
- The value of n, indicating how many times the signal passes through the cycle of transistors
If you could sort of "crack the hood" of what your distortion pedal is doing, this is where you'll find most of the signal processing issues making an impact.
And while I'm not totally certain about the science and/or mathematics that go into this equation, I believe that as the signal repeats the cycle (is passed back through the transistors) the result is grittier and more chaotic.
In other words, the most ideal recipe for a modern distortion pedal is to reduce n, and make sure that volume is significantly increased at the first transistor (enough to get the high amount of saturation) then clipped for a smooth output after the second transistor.
Again, this is not my area of expertise. I'm putting two and two together, and throwing in a bit of speculation as well.
If you have more info on how this works, feel free to correct or add to this information via the comments section below.
The Different Types of Distortion Pedals
What do the different titles given to distortion pedals mean? There are primarily three different additional titles used to describe distortion.
- High gain
Most of the time we just use the word "distortion." But as you might have gathered from the previous sections, the most apt description of this sound would be "high gain."
Because that's what's happening in any situation where you have a distorted signal.
Increase the volume - cap the signal.
That's always the process.
The difference between each type or name is almost entirely described by style, as we've already seen.
Overdrive pedals are meant to sound like tube amps and, while distorted, are usually not heavily saturating. This means that the level increase at the first transistor is more modest, thus the resulting distortion isn't as heavy.
You can hear that while some of the clips get a little heavier (kind of that AC/DC rock sound), this type of distortion isn't overtly aggressive.
Let's try a fuzz pedal this time.
It's easy to hear the difference.
The fuzz pedal is much grittier and more hectic.
This sound comes from that cycling process we talked about, where an already distorted signal gets looped around for additional trips through the transistors. The more trips, the more gritty and messy the fuzz tone becomes.
Black Stone Cherry uses this sound often, particularly on their Kentucky album.
Now let's listen to a modern metal distortion.
It's almost as though the metal distortion sounds are a mix between the overdrive and fuzz samples we just heard.
The aggression of the fuzz pedal is there, but at the same times there's a smoothness that reminds me of the overdrive tones. Once you add a thicker EQ, you've got all the ingredients for a modern high-gain product.
Knowing the difference is important for when you go pedal buying.
Not all distortion pedals are created equal or with the same intent, so know the difference before you spend your hard-earned money.
Questions and Comments
I know that there are a lot of pedals omitted from this list.
I try to limit my selection to what I have at least some level of experience with and am comfortable recommending.
If you have other modern distortion pedals you'd like to share, drop them in the comments section below.
For gear-related and technical questions, do the same. I'll answer in the comments so that other readers and community members can benefit as well.