Best Distortion Pedals

Updated August 2019
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BestReviews spends thousands of hours researching, analyzing, and testing products to recommend the best picks for most consumers. We may earn a commission if you purchase a product through our links.
BestReviews spends thousands of hours researching, analyzing, and testing products to recommend the best picks for most consumers. We buy all products with our own funds, and we never accept free products from manufacturers.
We may earn a commission if you purchase a product through our links.
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How we decided

We purchase every product we review with our own funds — we never accept anything from product manufacturers.

14 Models Considered
5 Hours Researched
1 Experts Interviewed
86 Consumers Consulted
Zero products received from manufacturers.

We purchase every product we review with our own funds — we never accept anything from product manufacturers.

Why trust BestReviews?
BestReviews spends thousands of hours researching, analyzing, and testing products to recommend the best picks for most consumers. We buy all products with our own funds, and we never accept free products from manufacturers.
We may earn a commission if you purchase a product through our links.
BestReviews spends thousands of hours researching, analyzing, and testing products to recommend the best picks for most consumers. We may earn a commission if you purchase a product through our links.
BestReviews spends thousands of hours researching, analyzing, and testing products to recommend the best picks for most consumers. We buy all products with our own funds, and we never accept free products from manufacturers.
We may earn a commission if you purchase a product through our links.

Buying guide for best distortion pedals

Last Updated August 2019

If you're an electric guitar player, chances are you're looking for that large, crunchy power you've heard blazing from the amps of your idols. Although there are many elements that contribute to achieving that perfect sound, one of the key ingredients is a distortion pedal. But if you're new to the world of guitar effects, you might not be sure what you need to get the sound you want.

The purpose of this article is to introduce you to your options and help you understand crucial differences, so you can find the sound you're searching for. You'll learn about the three essential controls every distortion pedal has as well as how distortion differs from overdrive. You'll also get some tips on how to get the most out of your new distortion pedal.

If you're ready for an education, keep reading. If you'd prefer to just dive in and choose one of the pedals we've hand-picked as the best, consider purchasing one of the options we've spotlighted.

Early distortion methods included intentionally damaging the amplifier to create a different, dirtier, and more aggressive guitar sound.

The three essential distortion controls

At its most basic level, a distortion pedal has three controls. Each knob twists clockwise to increase the parameter and counterclockwise to decrease the parameter. The name of these three controls varies from manufacturer to manufacturer, but they all affect the same three aspects. Most often, these knobs are labeled level, tone, and distortion.

Level

The level is simply the volume. It's the same as the knob on your car stereo: you turn it clockwise for louder and counterclockwise for quieter.

Tone

To be easier to understand, this knob should be called the EQ, but it never is. It is like the bass and treble that, again, you can find on your car stereo. On lower-priced distortion pedals, you will only have one knob that controls both the bass and the treble. As you turn it counterclockwise, the emphasis on lower frequencies increases. When you turn the knob clockwise, higher frequencies are emphasized.

Distortion

The third knob is used to control the level of distortion. This knob can also be called gain or drive. Turning this knob counterclockwise gives you a cleaner signal, making it easier to distinctly hear individual notes. As you rotate the control clockwise, you increase the amount of distortion, adding more aggression and dissonance. Depending on the pedal, when this knob is turned fully to the right, you may no longer hear much of the original note. Instead, it will sound more like a roar or a growl.

EXPERT TIP

The trick to getting the perfect sound for your music is to adjust all three knobs — level, tone, and distortion — until you find that magic balance. It may take some getting used to, but eventually, spinning the knobs to exactly where you like them will become second nature.


Staff  | BestReviews

Other considerations

Although there are only three essential controls on a distortion pedal, that doesn't stop manufacturers from creating a seemingly unlimited variety of features. Some of these other options are listed below. Again, these may be called by different names depending on the manufacturer, but essentially, they all perform similar functions.

Additional tone controls

The simplest version of tone control is one knob. The more knobs you add, the more control you gain. With two knobs, you can set the bass and the treble, turning both up or down if needed. When you add a third knob, it is to give you more control over the mid-range frequencies. A fourth knob will allow you to specifically choose which mid-range frequency you want to boost (or cut).

Stylistic toggle switches

The idea behind the toggle switch is to quickly change the color/type/style of your distortion. For instance, in one position, your distortion might be dark and heavy, but with a quick flip up, it could turn thin and aggressive.

Dual channels

As distortion pedals get more expensive, you will find ones with dual channels. You can easily recognize these pedals because they will have two foot switches. With a dual-channel distortion pedal, you can have two completely different sounds — something for the lead and something for the rhythm — that you can quickly switch between with just the tap of your foot.

Multi-effects

A multi-effects pedal offers three or more pedals in one. For instance, you could have distortion, chorus, and delay on one pedal. Depending on your needs, you could use the effects in any combination, giving you an incredible range of sonic diversity.

Additional controls

If you can think of it, a manufacturer has probably already incorporated it into a pedal. These options can range from a boost in volume to additional tonal colors. Additional controls are not universal, and you can typically only find them on higher-priced distortion pedals. They are not necessities, but they can help in specific situations, which vary from player to player.

DID YOU KNOW?

When the audio signal is too loud for a speaker to properly handle, the peaks get snipped off. In turn, the sound gets distorted. This is called clipping.

Distortion pedal prices

Distortion pedals start around $20. These are no-frills pedals that offer minimal control — usually just a distortion, a level, and a tone knob.

From $25 to $55, you can find value. Pedals in this range feature greater flexibility when it comes to tone control, often using two or three knobs. They may also have a toggle switch that gives you options on your distortion type.

As you approach the $100 to $160 price range, you start seeing pedals with even more control, dialable frequency select, additional effects, and distortion sounds targeted for particular genres.

As you move beyond $160, you may be getting a second channel and more knobs. But be careful because at this range, shape, design, and artwork can drive up the price without giving you any additional functionality.

CAUTION

If you need to play your guitar while using headphones, be acutely aware of volume levels. Distortion is a sound guitarists like to hear loud, and it is not hard to permanently damage your hearing from cranking up the levels even just a little too much.

Getting the most out of your distortion pedal

Even if used in moderation, a distortion pedal can be an essential piece of equipment for a guitar player from any genre. The key to making it work for you is understanding how it functions and adding the sound as needed. In art, all rules were made to be broken, but here are some guidelines to help get you get started with your new distortion pedal.

  • Understand your pedal. Read the manual. Know how to power and use your pedal so you don't inadvertently damage it.

  • Start in the middle. Begin with all knobs at noon. That way, you get a little bit of everything. Adjust each control clockwise or counterclockwise as desired.

  • Push the limits. Don't be afraid to turn any or all of the dials all the way up. Just don't damage your amp in the process.

  • Find the hidden tricks. Learn what every knob and switch does, not only on its own but in conjunction with all of the other knobs and switches on your distortion pedal.

  • Add compression. Consider purchasing a compression pedal to help you control the signal going into your distortion pedal.

  • Add modulation. You can fine-tune the color of your distortion with a variety of other pedals. Chorus, delay, reverb, and other effects can all be added to create a sound that is unique to you.

  • Consider a noise gate. A noise gate cuts off the low hum and buzz that you hear when you are not playing. It should go at or near the end of your pedal chain — be careful that it doesn't come after and clip such effects as delay and reverb.

  • Don't neglect volumes. It's not always about tone and drive. A slight volume tweak on any one of the pedals in your chain may drastically affect the overall color and quality of your tone.

  • Listen. The final judge for any guitar sound is your ear. When it sounds right, you got it right.

Other products we considered

What makes a guitarist stand out is talent, style, and sound. Because of this, there are hundreds of pedals you could purchase in your quest to be unique. If you'd like a few more highly rated options, consider the following pedals.

Featuring three distortion modes along with level, gain, and tone controls, Donner's Morpher distortion pedal is a standout lower-end option. If you'd like some essentials along with your new pedal, Boss' DS-1 Distortion Bundle comes with picks, a patch cable, an instrument cable, a power supply, and a polishing cloth. For an affordable dive into multiple effects, Donner's Alpha Cruncher 3 features distortion, delay, and chorus all in one unit. Additionally, the pedal ships with an adapter, so your power needs will be covered.

The best way to learn what your distortion pedal can do doesn't come from reading manuals. It comes from experimenting and listening.

FAQ

Q. What is the difference between overdrive and distortion?

A. Overdrive pushes your volume to the limits and a little beyond. If you crank the gain on your amplifier all the way up and turn the volume knob back, you'll get a signal that is basically coming in hot. This effect adds color and gives a frayed edge to the guitar's tone, but it still sounds like the original notes and the chords.

Distortion adds dissonance to the overtones. Depending on how much you distort the tone, the individual notes may become nearly unrecognizable. If you play a full chord with distortion, you might not be happy with the sound because there will be too many competing notes, which is why most players stick with power chords (just part of the chord) when using distortion.

Q. How loud do I have to turn my amp up to get distortion?

A. The beauty of distortion is that it doesn't depend on volume. If you use a distortion pedal, you can get all that dirt and fuzz without disturbing the neighbors. Most players still love to crank up a distorted sound to feel the power, but it is possible to play at a lower volume and still get that crunch. In fact, it's necessary if you want to hear the lead vocalist.

Q. I have several effects pedals. Does it matter what order I place them in?

A. Yes, the order makes a big difference. Each pedal affects all that came before it. Placing a distortion pedal at the end of your pedal chain will give you a different sound than placing it first. After experimenting, you will probably find your favorite spot to be just in front of any effects that modulate the sound, such as chorus, delay, and reverb. However, finding the sound that best expresses your music is not a matter of right or wrong. Experiment and be inventive.

The team that worked on this review
  • Allen
    Allen
    Writer
  • Devangana
    Devangana
    Web Producer
  • Eliza
    Eliza
    Production Manager
  • Melinda
    Melinda
    Web Producer
  • Melissa
    Melissa
    Senior Editor

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