Distortion pedals are one thing that guitar players can enjoy without spending a lot of money.
Part of the reason is that they’re widely produced and made cheaper by the simple laws of supply and demand. There are a lot of them, so they’re getting more affordable.
Additionally, there’s a lot of quality spread across a wide price range.
That’s good news.
Distortion Pedals in this List
- ZVEX Fat Fuzz Factory
- Xotic EP Booster
- TC Electronic Spark Mini Booster
- DigiTech DSB Screamin’ Blues Analog Overdrive
- Rivera Amplification Metal Shaman
- Wampler Ace Thirty Overdrive
- Ibanez JD9 Jet Driver
- Boss MD-2 Mega Distortion
- Jim Dunlop SF01 MXR Slash Octave Fuzz
- Visual Sound V2JH Jekyll & Hyde Distortion
If I could pick two...
BOTTOM LINE: I've owned this pedal for over a decade and have used it for everything from heavy metal, to light and airy blues tones. It's got a four-band EQ and retails around $60 in most markets. The MD-2 is my favorite "all around" distortion pedal.
BOTTOM LINE: As far as boost pedals go, the Spark from TC Electronic sounds fantastic, even when doubling as a clean tone presence enhancer. It also has true bypass wiring, which keeps the integrity of your signal intact. At a scant $49 it's an incredibly good value.
But we still have to find the ones that work for us; the ones that fit our rig and playing style.
And that’s what this post (and others like it) are all about. It’s about making the process a little less confusing, less foggy and giving you options that are all viable, in order to reduce the risk of making a bad purchase.
In doing so, we’ll cover a wide range of pedals and prices, giving you a better chance of finding a good fit and get familiar with what, I believe, are some of the best distortion pedals available.
Pedal cabling or couplers?
For cabling between pedals, I recommend using the Planet Waves right-angle patch cables, which are low capacitance, shielded (practically noiseless) and come cheap in packs of three.
Shielded, low-capaciatance Planet Waves patch cables help cut down on noise and pedal hiss.
Gold pedal couplers will have the same effect and significantly reduce noise between pedals.
Can I make the “wrong” choice?
While there are different types of distortion, different styles, etc., I wouldn’t say that there are a lot of boxes out there that you would completely dislike in terms of sound quality.
Because most of them sound pretty good.
There are, of course, exceptions, like the ultra-cheap distortions that are poorly made and don’t measure up to professional standards.
But even the Boss DS-1, which retails under $50 and can be had for as low as $35, sounds fantastic.
Finding the Best Distortion Pedal for You
It’s still true that you get what you pay for, but the odds of ending up with a truly awful sounding distortion pedal are slim.
So I wouldn’t worry about making a bad choice in that way.
Where you can lose, is when it comes to getting value in your purchase.
Because if you pay a lot and get something that’s more than you need, or just doesn’t suit your playing style or expectations, you’ve lost money and you’ve lost value in your purchase, no matter what you’ve spent. So while there are plenty of pedals to go around, getting good value requires some work.
It means we’ve got to adjust the sliders and narrow down our purchase so that it both serves our needs as guitar players and our budgets.
Let’s get started.
Based on the original Fuzz Factory, the Fat Fuzz Factory has a few extra features, namely an incredible amount of low end.
It works via a small switch, called the “Sub Switch” near the right side of the pedal (between the drive and stab knobs) that has three different positions. Each position increases the low-end more, and is heavy enough to work great for baritone guitars or even bass guitars.
Just FYI, the first setting of the Sub Switch is meant to mimic the original Fuzz Factory.
One thing I like about the Fat Fuzz Factory is that it does both conventional and bizarre really well. You can get a nice traditional fuzz distortion, or you can tweak some of the other settings and kick in the Sub Switch for some intensely strange sounds that have almost a synth-like quality.
What I Like: Zvex paint jobs are great and versatility is impressive for a fuzz pedal. The tone is warm, thick and holds good sustain.
What I Don’t Like: It’s on the north end of what you’d like to pay for a distortion pedal.
The volume knob you see on the top of this small pedal isn’t actually the only control you can access. There’s also an internal switch that allows you to toggle between bass boost and bright settings.
Other features include a compact size and true bypass.
Tone is warm and plays well off of your amp, adding a nice smooth distorted tone that’s not too aggressive, but enough to give you that extra bite. The sound kind of reminded me of a blues driver-type distortion, with lots of sustain reminiscent of a Fender tube amp.
What I Like: Compact size and simplicity are highlight features. Tone is excellent for a booster pedal.
What I Don’t Like: It doesn’t do a lot for $116. Hard to change internal switch on the fly.
What amounts to a pedal similar to the Xotic EP Booster in functionality, gets a place on this list for several key reasons.
First, it’s cheaper.
At $80 retail, it’s a more desirable price point for a pedal that, despite sounding fantastic, only does one very basic thing.
Additionally, the Spark Mini Booster has true bypass, analog circuits and a cool feature called PrimeTime switching. It basically means that you can engage the pedal by holding the button down for a few seconds, where it will disengage as soon as you let off. This functionality is designed to decrease the need for a second pedal click if you only want to use it for a short period of time.
Not to worry though; quick on-off stomp switching still works.
The sound is comparable to the EP Booster, yet the Spark is a bit more bluesy and distorted. Of the two, I’d prefer the spark.
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.
As far as blues-style distortions go, it’s hard to beat this one at the retail tag of $50.
The thing looks cheap (and it is made of plastic) but sounds absolutely phenomenal, almost regardless of how you have the controls set.
High notes wale with a nice chime and low notes have that bluesy growl, ideal for Fender guitars.
Features are basic with a level, low, high and gain knob. Note that you do get a second output for a mixer (or second amp).
Keep in mind this is not a good fit for someone looking for a big gain distortion or a metal tone. But for the blues fan, or somebody looking for a smooth, subtle distortion, this box produces some of the nicest tones I’ve ever heard, especially for a scant $50.
What I Like: Beautiful blues tone for a surprisingly low cost. Controls are very responsive.
What I Don’t Like: The high knob can get a little too shrill if you don’t dial it back.
Aside from being one of the harder-hitting distortion pedals out there in terms of pure gain, the Metal Shaman from Rivera also has its own built-in noise gate with sensitivity and release controls.
That’s a big plus for metal fans since the response from a built-in gate is going to be better than using something external. This allows you to get that quick shut-off distorted sound (kind of like what you heard on “Going Under” by Evanescence.
Otherwise, it’s just a fantastic sounding metal distortion, with a lot of low-end boom.
That low-end, which is easily noticeable right out of the box, can be extended by the “brutality” switch, which throws some added bass into your tone.
You’ll also notice a “disintegrate” button. This is yet another boost function that pushes your gain up a little bit higher, ideal for solos or adding just a little more volume. It also seems to add a touch of treble to your tone, making things bite just a little more.
So it’s a distortion, a booster and a noise gate all in one.
What I Like: Low-end tones are thick and sound just about as metal as you could want. Built-in noise gate is a great feature.
What I Don’t Like: The two boosts are a bit gimmicky, and the $300 price tag is pretty steep.
The Ace Thirty or “Thirty Something” has a versatile control set, capable of simple amp boosts as well as a more full and thick distortion.
It’s still what I would consider a classic overdrive, closer to blues than metal. But you’re getting a pedal with plenty of control and a fairly balanced approach to gain and feedback.
Sustain is a little harder to come by on certain settings, seeming to hinge a bit on higher gain levels.
Features include true bypass, a boost mode that can be used when the pedal is off and a five-year warranty.
What I Like: Boost works when the pedal is off. Tone is warm and bluesy at most levels.
What I Don’t Like: I had a tough time dialing in good sustain. Could be a personal problem.
Part of why I like the JD9 Jet Driver better than the Tubescreamers is because it has a more transparent overdrive, which means it preserves the tonal character of your pickups and clean sound when in use.
The Tubescreamer tends to cover it up and kind of take over your tone.
I’ve always preferred a distortion pedal that lets your amp do some of the talking (especially at lower gain levels) so the Jet Driver is a favorite of mine.
Additionally, if you move the drive knob up past, say, five or six, you’ll get a much heavier and saturating distortion, which almost has a metal feel to it, without quite as much aggression and feedback. Think warm, tube-like crunch instead of searing highs.
Its been around for awhile, but the Ibanez Jet Driver still makes a case to be one of the best distortion pedal in its price range.
What I Like: Does a great job of maintaining the character of your amp’s tone.
What I Don’t Like: Is the color a little odd or is it just me?
The Boss MD-2 is a nice balance between the heavier, metal-style distortion pedals of the world and the more subtle, classic rock overdrives. Though I will say that it leans metal, with a distinct modern flavor to the tone it produces.
Controls are a bit different, with a “tone” knob embedded in a “bottom” knob. That bottom knob gives you a lot of bass and crunch.
You than have two more controls, aside from level, called “DIST” and “GAIN BOOST.”
The difference is a bit hard to explain, but essentially the DIST knob controls saturation, while GAIN controls feedback and sustain. I’ve found that the pedal’s distorted tone is aggressive enough that the GAIN knob doesn’t have to be very high.
In true Boss fashion, the MD-2 gives you a lot for a little, at only $70 retail. Used options can go much cheaper, sometimes dipping under $30.
What I Like: Thick, modern tone with lots of bass. Control scheme is a nice change of pace.
What I Don’t Like: Gain can envelope your amps tone if you cut it too high.
Despite being one of the more unique pedals on this list the SF01 is also quite useful as your main distortion, with plenty of control and versatility.
You can turn the sub octave knob all the way down and avoid engaging the UP button if you want to avoid having any octave along with the fuzz. Though the combination of the two effects sound quite good.
Controls are simple with a volume, tone and fuzz knob, while the octave controls allow you to use a low and high octave, or engage both simultaneously.
Other notable features include all-analog circuitry and true bypass.
What I Like: The fuzz distortion sounds good at both ends of the tone knob. Octave is a great combination.
What I Don’t Like: It’s a bit of niche sound. I don’t really want Slash’s logo on my pedalboard.
This pedal is broken down into two parts; the overdrive side and the distortion side, with separate controls for both.
Added controls on the overdrive side include a bass boost that does a good job of thickening up your tone, even on the higher notes and smaller strings. You’ve also got drive, tone and volume that you can use to shape the overdrive sound.
It is a bit bluesy and far more subtle than what you’d expect from a distortion pedal called “Jekll and Hyde,” but it’s nice to have if you’re looking for a pedal with some versatility.
This one definitely has it.
The distortion side adds a Sharp/Blunt switch, where Sharp gives you a little more high end and Blunt cuts those high tones down for a thicker sound.
You have four additional controls for this side of the pedal that include drive, treble, mid and volume.
Keep in mind, this is not a metal-head’s solution.
It has a nice, modern tone to it. But we’re in the arena of tube amp distortions and classic overdrives more so than modern rock and metal. That said, it can still handle a wide range of sounds and could still find some use with more alternative players.
What I Like: It’s two pedals in one with plenty of tone-shaping options.
What I Don’t Like: Can be a bit shrill if you don’t keep the mids and trebles down. Would like to see a more aggressive gain setting.
Time-Tested Honorable Mentions
There are some conventional and chronically reliable guitar pedals that are mostly known about, and this list wouldn’t be complete if I didn’t at least mention them.
These pedals are often cheaper (sometimes because of used pricing) and commonly found on professional and amateur pedalboards alike.
One thing I will point out is that Boss pedals are rarely a bad choice, so you’ll see a few in this list.
If you didn’t find something above, taking your pick from this bunch is a safe bet.
Again, I’d advise to try and buy used first, especially if you pick one from this bunch.
- Boss DS-1 Distortion ($50)
- Boss ML-2 Metal Core ($87)
- ProCo Rat 2 ($70)
- Boss MT-2 Metal Zone ($84)
- DigiTech DGR Grunge Distortion ($50)
- Ibanez Tubescreamer ($100)
All this is of course not meant to say that you can’t have a perfectly good experience with a number of other distortion pedals out there.
This list is, admittedly, subjective, though I do take into account conventional wisdom while trying to be objective. But my encouragement would be for you to do what I’ve done and just try a bunch of different distortion pedals.
Go down to a Guitar Center or a local music store and just plug in a few that you’d like to try.
Because your best distortion pedal might not be on this list.
It might be something you haven’t even heard of.
So as always, take this column with a grain of salt and use it to get oriented towards what might and might not work for you.
Building a pedalboard takes time, so my encouragement to you would be to take that time and get something that suits you and works with the sound you’re trying to create.
Don’t get me wrong, I like the internet
I’m also in full support of the technological turn that our world has taken.
But at the same time I know that it has caused us to become functionally lazy and uncreative, especially when it comes to our shopping habits. So what I would advise for those looking to make an optimal purchase, would be to actually read and do some research.
Don’t just glance over a few reviews and then throw your hard-earned money at your tone problem. Pick up an actual magazine (I like Guitar Player) and read some of their columns.
They have great writers that review gear and do an excellent job giving you a picture of what you would be getting if you decided to buy.
Additionally, go on YouTube and listen to some of the demos and reviews on there.
Just absorb information.
It’ll put you in a better position to make a purchase if you spend the time researching. Hopefully this article can be a springboard for that research.
Give me a shout over at our Facebook page and we’ll talk about it.
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