Guide to Pedals: Distortion Pedals

A quick overview of distortion pedals.

Ultimate Guitar
Hello everyone! The only guide in the Internet that tries to help you understand each type of pedal at the time is back again!

Following out footsteps of the last two columns (where we discussed about boost and overdrive pedals) we are going to talk today about the motherload, the big one, the distortion pedal!

What kind of sound does it make?

What is a distortion pedal? Someone (clearly, not you) may ask. Well, a distortion pedal is a distorted amp in a box (certainly not a clean one). A distortion pedal will turn your pristine and virginal guitar tone (that could even have some acoustic texture) into a nasty wall of sound adding that characteristic growl and noise that we, guitar players, are very well know for doing in rock and metal bands. If you don't know how a distorted guitar sounds, I would invite you to listen to the intro of "Back in Black" of AC/DC.

There might be many reasons why you (or any guitar player) may need a distortion box. In my experience there are two:
  • You have a transistor-based amp;
  • You have a one-channel amp.
In both scenarios it is usual that the amp does not react the way you want when you need a dirtier tone. Distortion boxes are made to emulate the sound of a cranked valve amp, adding all that sweet clipping and overtones. In case 1, some transistor-based amps are cheap and try to amplify your signal clearly and loud, a distortion pedal will make you feel like you are playing some other type of amp. In case 2, some players love the amp that they have, but might need some grittier sound from time to time. In both cases, a distortion pedal is what is needed!

What does the pedal does to your signal?

You might want to think a distortion pedal as an overdrive pedal on steroids! As overdrive pedals, distortion pedals re-shape the signal that comes from your guitar flattening the peaks and troughs (clipping). The key difference here is that the clipping is much more pronounce and the signal is clipped with a lower threshold (the signal reaches the clipping point at lower volumes, or easier).

I would hope that you remember this figure from last time:

Distortion pedals work a lot like solid-state amplifiers (or transistor-based amplifiers). The signal from your guitar passes through a series of transistors and/or op-amps, which are components, that produce hard clipping. As I said before, many solid-state distortion devices try to emulate the sound of overdriven vacuum valves using additional solid-state circuitry, but it is worth noting that some companies use valves instead of transistors to achieve the same sound in a more natural way.

How you use it?

Lets admit it; the noise pedals (distortion, boost, overdrive and next week's fuzz) are not the most extreme pedals when it comes to the number of usages. They all work kind of the same, put it in front of your amp and add clipping. A distortion pedal is usually design to go into a clean amp, this will give you that rock 'n' roll sound that you are going for. Usually if you put it into a dirty amp it will work as an overdrive pedal, but they are not design for that and they end up pilling too much noise into you signal.

If you are a bit confused about the difference between distortion and overdrive, check this video out.

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Three good choices

Some time ago, a few friends and I got together to compare distortion pedals, and after hours discussing about them we reached to one conclusion: There is a distortion pedal for everyone out there. Today I will discus different options from well-known brands and others a bit more underground.

1. Cheap

When it comes to cheap distortion pedals there are only two ways to go: a Boss Ds-1 or a Digitech Hot Head. The first one is the most popular pedals out there, and is one of the original boss pedals, unfortunately Boss has changed the original formula and the newer versions are cheaper than the original (and the sound is cheaper as well), is a good box but certainly not the best. The Digitech Hot Head is a modified version of the Ds-1 with all the nice features of last week Bad Monkey. Here is a cool comparison video between both of them:

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2. Mid

The market is infested with distortion pedals. In the Mid category, MXR distortion pedals deserve a worthy mention as they all provide great sounds. Among them, the MXR M75 Super Badass is perhaps the best and more versatile, with a wide range of distortion and a full EQ section (do you need more?). A bit more expensive (but not quite into expensive territory) is the ZVex Vextron Distortron, a distortion pedal build but the mad scientist Zachary Vex created to turn a Fendery (clean) amp into a vintage Marshall (from the '70s). Finally, for something nasty, you should check out The Red Witch Ivy Distortion, its tiny, is vicious, it has a rechargeable battery, (do I need to say more).

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3. Expensive

There are a lot of extra expensive distortion pedals, but in my book the best ones are the Suhr Riot (any of the versions) and the Rothwell Switchblade. They were both created with good gain in mind (not silly high gain but just the right amount). They will take a clean amp and make it sound like a wall of Marshalls (well, almost) any day. If you don't believe me, take a listen to the videos:

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Here at the end, I will remind you that I mentioned that some companies put valves in their distortion boxes. No one does it better than Blackstar. The Blackstar HT series of pedals is just great (and a bit expensive). Maybe you should check them out! I leave you with a sample:

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My Weapon of Choice:

If you have a valve amp (I have a Laney Iron Heart combo) maybe you don't need a distortion box. But in my travels I have found that you don't get to take your amp with you everywhere… Mr. Guthrie Govan agrees with me!

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So, in my bag I usually carry a nice distortion pedal and it's been with me for a long time: Is the MXR Dist III. It sounds well, is true bypass and its versatile. Also, it is not very expensive so if I loose it wouldn't break my wallet to buy a new one.

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Well, my friends, this is the end of this article. I hope you liked it and that now you know more about your distortion box! Next time we will visit the weird cousin of the distortion family, the Fuzz pedal!

Have a great week and thanks for reading!

21 comments sorted by best / new / date

    Marshall Shredmaster, Boss HM-2, Arion Metal Master, Pro-Co Rat all great pedals for fans of heavier tones
    Yuck! Nasty pedals. If you get an original or an 85 Whiteface Reissue RAT then ok but otherwise avoid. Check out Wampler distortion pedals (Plextorion, SuperPlex, Triple Wreck etc) - or for high gain the M.I. Audio Megalith Delta. Seriously good pedals.
    Leather Sleeves
    There are two versions of the HM 2, the original Japanese and the Taiwanese. The Japanese is vastly superior and used on most of the old Gothenburg death metal records.
    I should have specified Marshall Shredmaster for the classic metal tones HM-2 for death metal Metal Master for black metal (Euronymous used one) it nails the sound. Rat for thrash and Doom and pretty much everything in between as well so versatile.
    Just as a side note: AC/DC tend not to use pedals and the sound of Back In Black is achieved through the volume of a tube amp being cranked - which is close to overdrive as opposed to distortion. Both relate to gain, but distortion is more extreme.
    You might be right, but is a good reference for someone who have no idea what a "distorted guitar" sounds like
    For an example of distorted guitar I would rather show them something like Metallica or Pantera. AC/DC is definitely overdrive, and actually people often mistake them for having a much higher gain than they actually do.
    Thank the God of Rock for distortion pedals. I've got a Blues Junior amp and the clean tones are immaculate, but as he said it becomes impractical when you want to get that distortion sound because it's only one channel, so it's pedals for me all the way I'd recommend the ProCo Rat2, its my favourite from my collection. Takes a while to dial in the perfect tone but it's well worth it. Very versatile as well
    I've got a visual sound Jekyll and Hyde pedal on my board that works very well. Has an overdrive button as well as a distortion button so it's a 2 in 1 deal. You can use them separately as I do or use your overdrive as a bit of a solo boost(or vice versa). I really like these articles this guy does. It really does help some of the guys who have been playing for a few years that want to start building a pedal board for themselves. I'm excited to see what's next!
    Leather Sleeves
    I was considering the J&H, but I tried it out next to a Boss Adaptive Distortion and was blown away by the Boss. It's a newer pedal without many reviews, but it's worth a try.
    Aye, I have the J&H, too. It's a beauty. And the author is a-okay in my book. The next article is about my soul, fuzz.
    Personally I own the MXR Super Badass Distortion and it's ****ing aweseom!!! It works great as a signal booster for solos, and it's range of tones is almost endless with the 3-Band EQ. 10/10 would tap
    Rex Inclitus
    Wampler Triple Wreck, Suhr Riot, Metal Muff would be my choice, I have great distortion from my amp so I just use a VLab Sparkle Drive.
    I've got JOYO US Dream and it sounds exactly like Riot. But If I had money I'd definitely buy Suhr
    I've played a vintage MIJ Boss DS-1 and a current stock model and I can guarantee you that they sound almost exactly the same.
    `Yeah I've always been more into OD'ing amps (not necessarily for boosting dirty channel, either). The Way Huge Green Rhino is absolutely phenomenal!