One of the most popular effects for guitar is distortion. We certainly wouldn’t have Rock and Heavy Metal without it.
Something to note is that distortion is not the same as overdrive. We’ll explain a bit more about the differences in a bit.
- BOSS DS-1
- Danelectro D-1 Fab
- Donner Morpher Distortion Pedal
- TC Electronic Dark Matter
- MXR M75 Super Badass Distortion
Note: There’s a lot more information below but clicking the above links will take you to current prices, further information and customer reviews on Amazon.
What is a distortion pedal and how does it work?
In the good old early days of electric guitars the only way to get some distortion was to drive the amplifier hard at full volume taking it to its natural limits. And, in those days that sound wasn’t actually very desirable and clean tones were generally preferred. Amp power output changed along with people’s desire to get different sounds. For some, distortion was a desirable outcome but it only came at high volume levels. So, along came the distortion pedal to reproduce this sound and drive the limits even higher.
In the most basic sense, the distortion circuit will hard-clip your nice curved sound wave resulting in more of a square wave tone that makes it sound like your amp is breaking up. This circuitry means that you can get a wonderful distorted sound regardless of your amp’s volume setting.
So, what does a distortion pedal sound like? This video compares a clean guitar with distortion and shows you how it can bring your sound to life.
What’s the difference between distortion and overdrive?
Overdrive is what happens when a tube amp is cranked up. It produces soft-clipping as the gain is boosted to push the amp into “overdrive” where a mildly distorted sound is produced. Some would describe this as a “crunchy” sound.
Distortion on the other hand pushes that signal even further far beyond just emulating a hard driven tube amp. It provides much more gain and enters the realm of hard-clipping.
In simple terms, distortion is the heavier and much more dramatic of the two. It’s not to say that you can turn down the effect on your distortion pedal, it’s just that you can take it to a much heavier, broken up sound.
Here’s a video so you can hear the difference.
Distortion Pedal Buying Guide
Are you looking for something that you can just plug in and enjoy or do you like to tweak and refine your sound? You’ll find that most distortion pedals will completely alter your tone giving you a harmonic richness and greater sustain. Many of you will enjoy that sound as it is, others will like to craft the sound to a much finer degree.
As a general rule of thumb those with fewer controls tend to sound pretty good plugged in straight out of the box. You might even find the more complex pedals a little frustrating as you try to dial in your sound amongst the multiple settings it is capable of.
Level / Output: Allows you to control the level so you can match your amp volume between the clean and distorted sounds.
Distortion / Drive: As you’d expect this is quite simply how much your guitar signal will be distorted.
Tone: Some pedals will have a single rotary tone control, while others offer much more tonal variation. Conversely you won’t find any tone control on some pedals.
These mini reviews will help you decide which distortion pedal to buy. For simplicity we have included only pedals that are truly classed as distortion and not simply overdrive or fuzz.
1. BOSS DS-1
- Tough construction
- Easy to get a good sound
- Great value for money
- Preset changes are limited
The DS-1 has proved its worth over the years and is popular with professionals and amateurs alike. It’s a great distortion pedal that has been with us since 1978 giving 40 years of valuable service.
As you’d expect from Boss they use the same casing for their compact pedals. It’s a proven design and will stand the ravages of road use.
Plug it in and it produces a lovely distortion that isn’t over the top and handles chords without making them sound muddy. It does sound pretty good out of the box, just don’t drive it too hard because it can get a little noisy.
The DS-1 is also popular with electronic modders and you’ll find plenty of talk around the internet of useful circuit ideas to improve the sound.
All-in-all this is a very nice pedal for the money. It’s a best-seller, they don’t cost the earth and it’s a Boss!
2. Danelectro D-1 Fab
- Great pedal for the budget conscious
- Plastic construction
- Can highlight noisy pickups
One of the first things you’ll notice with this Danelectro, along with the others in the FAB series, is they are made from plastic. Although it is pretty tough it might scare away some that want to use it regularly at gigs and are particularly heavy footed.
Some would describe it as just cheap version of the Boss DS-1. What is amazing about the D-1 is the amount of people that plug one in not expecting too much and then have a big smile on their face after playing a few notes. It really is not too bad for the money.
If you do have a bit of pickup noise this can be really noticeable with the D-1. So, single coil pickup guitars might end up sounding a bit noisy.
Sure, there are those that will be determined not to like it before they have even heard it but it really is worth giving one a chance. Beginners will probably be more than happy and seasoned players ought to give one a chance especially if you only need it for occasional use. At the low prices these are going for they make great back-ups too!
3. Donner Morpher Distortion Pedal
- Particularly good for 80s Rock and Metal
- A budget pedal that offers a lot
- No battery option
The Donner Morpher is another budget pedal but this time using an aluminum alloy case. It feels very well (especially for the money) and has a very small footprint. Obviously, as a micro pedal there isn’t any room for a battery so make sure you have a power supply handy.
On the front you have two small controls for level and tone and a large gain knob so you can dial in your sound easily.
In addition the Morpher offers 3 clipping modes controlled by a switch. This allows you to set it to Natural, Tight and Classic. To be honest the Natural and Classic settings are quite similar focusing more on the mid range and providing less gain. The Tight position tightens up the bottom end making it sound a bit more percussive.
All-in-all this is a well-built pedal for the money with a sound that would shame some of the more expensive pedals. If you want that classic 80s Rock or Metal sound then look no further.
4. TC Electronic Dark Matter
- Lovely, smooth distortion
- Very well made
- Not going to take you to super distortion levels if that’s your thing
If you are familiar with TC Electronic you know you are going to get something that is well-built. Their Dark Matter distortion pedal is no exception.
Unlike some pedals in this round-up the Dark Matter offers both bass and treble knobs to give you a bit more control of your tone. There is also a switch to change the voice of the pedal from modern sounding to vintage. The reality is that the latter doesn’t really change the sound too much and is quite subtle.
In use this is quite a versatile pedal while still sitting quite firmly in the 80s era. It produces very nice, creamy and smooth amp distortion but doesn’t enter the realm of screaming modern metal. This is heavily driven Marshall emulator, if you like, giving that early AC / DC sound.
Originally when it came out, the Dark Matter was a relatively pricey pedal. Over time the price has come down nicely allowing it to compete with the Chinese imports. This now means you can get a very good quality pedal for relatively little money.
If you like a smooth sounding distortion then the Dark Matter could well be the pedal for you.
5. MXR M75 Super Badass Distortion
- Very versatile pedal
- 3-band EQ is very handy
- Well constructed
- Nothing really bad to say about this all-rounder
One thing that really stands out when you first plug in the Super Badass is that this is a pedal that offers plenty of different levels of distortion right up to a thick and aggressive sound that, while heavy, doesn’t lose the clarity – all this with plenty of tonal control too with the 3-band EQ. For some they will enjoy having the extra control of the mids.
With the distortion turned down and a little more treble dialed in, the Super Badass functions quite well as a nice treble boost – something that can push your nicely cranked amp into overdrive.
Really, the name can be slightly misleading. Sure, it offers some really badass distortion, just don’t overlook it if you also need some more mellow sounds. It can handle those with ease too.
Don’t be afraid to take this baby on the road either. It’s well-made and can handle a good stomping.
For the super budget conscious the Danelectro Fab series are great pedals. And, let’s face it, you can get a whole selection for the price of some single pedals. However, for slightly more you can get the Donner and it’s the better of the budget pedals. It really is amazing what they can produce at these low price points nowadays.
If you are after versatility then the Super Badass is a great pedal to have although it’s going to push the budget a little harder.
There really are no bad ones here and perform their distortion tasks very well. Just be aware that they won’t all take you to the screaming distortion required of modern heavy metal if that’s your thing.
Where do I put a distortion pedal in the chain?
As a general rule you would place any distortion after compression but before any modulation effects such as chorus, flanger or phaser. It would also generally be placed in front of delay and/or reverb.